“Out There” is an augmented reality animated short with a musical score by Bay Area-based Pollen Music Group.Photo: Wilkins-Avenue
The virtual reality revolution is being led by little girls.
The latest cutting-edge project by Pollen Music Group, “Out There,” is an augmented-reality animated short film about a shut-in girl who escapes her room through the power of her unleashed imagination. Making its U.S. premiere Thursday-Sunday, March 5-8, at San Jose’s Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival, Thibault Mathieu’s mini-musical features San Francisco songwriter Rachel Garlin’s score and vocals by Emmy- and Grammy Award-nominated Vanessa Williams and Berkeley teenager Mia Harte. But it’s the spatialized sound design by the San Francisco music and sound design collective that makes the piece the latest example of what’s on the next virtual — and sonic — frontier.
The work in progress premiered in October at Comic Con Paris, where Pollen built a set for “Out There” that served as a vessel for the experience. They’ve expanded the score for Cinequest with “In There,” an introductory Garlin song, “because in Paris we found that people wanted more context,” says composer Alexis Harte, Pollen’s creative director. “For some people it’s the first time they’ve put on any AR/VR gear, and they spend the first minute just getting comfortable.”
Part of Cinequest’s extensive VR programming, this version of “Out There” also unfolds within a set in the Kaleid Gallery that includes physical objects built into the score. The feedback that Pollen garners from all-access pass holders, who can sign up for a slot online instead of waiting in line, will likely lead to further tweaks when “Out There” returns to Silicon Valley in May for the spatial computing conference AWE in Santa Clara.
Rather than conjuring an entirely virtual realm with goggles and a headset, “Out There” unfolds in augmented reality, “so that half of what you’re seeing is actually there,” explains producer, engineer and musician JJ Wiesler, one of Pollen’s three founding partners.
“Some elements are real, and there’s sound emanating from some things in the room. But it’s mostly a virtual audio experience, so as you move around, the sound behaves as if it’s emanating from a real object. We found a vintage gramophone, and when you’re staring at it, the song will be spatialized and mixed to sound like it’s coming out of it.”
“Out There” is an augmented-reality animated short with a musical score by Bay Area-based Pollen Music Group.Photo: Wilkins-Avenue
What makes Pollen-ated projects so potent is that VR and AR are tools used to tell a story, rather than being the main attraction. The company gained international attention in 2017 when the animated short “Pearl” became the first VR film ever nominated for an Academy Award. Set to a poignant, acoustic-guitar driven score by Harte, the Patrick Osborne-directed piece tells the story of young Sara as she travels across the decades on an immersive visual and sonic road trip, accompanied by her father and various friends she gathers along the way.
Beyond the Oscar nomination, the Emmy Award, the Annie and the Peabody, there’s no better measure of “Pearl’s” singular accomplishment than its ability to win over the hearts of cynics. Pollen’s third founding partner, composer and sound designer Scot Stafford, was in Los Angeles to consult with writers for “The Simpsons” on VR shortly after Google Spotlight Stories and Evil Eye Pictures released “Pearl” in 2016.
“They had no interest in VR,” Stafford recalls. “They just wanted to make fun of it in the opening couch gag for the 600th episode, which was good, because VR needed to be made fun of. But in the writers’ room, Jim Brooks looked over and said, ‘I saw “Pearl,” and I wept.’ ”
What started as a minute-long couch gag riff on VR spoofing “Planet of the Apes” turned into a veritable three-minute concerto of satire.
It’s no coincidence that Brooks, the producer of “The Simpsons,” is the father of daughters, as are the three Pollen founders. But that’s not to say the Pollen partners work only on girl-centric pieces while straining against technology’s tether. The company is in the midst of scoring, sound designing and mixing a 30-episode Netflix children’s series, “Trash Truck,” which starts airing in November. It’s a traditional 2-D animated production about a 6-year-old boy’s adventures with his best buddy, the titular sanitation vehicle, executive produced by Academy Award-winning Disney animation maestro Glen Keane (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast”).
But Pollen’s reputation is built on fearlessly plunging into pioneering projects using technology in the process of being invented. VR and AR encourages viewers to seize control of the director’s traditional purview, the picture frame. That means sound takes on even more importance as both a narrative guide and a tool for orienting audiences in space.
Held together by Garlin’s songwriting craft, “Out There” pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with sound, “so we do something and wait for it to be debugged,” Wiesler says.
“The same process happened with ‘Pearl’ too, though now people are calling that ‘traditional VR.’ We’re trying to get the technology to fulfill a creative idea while working in tandem, half with software developers and half as songwriters.”
The end results are enthralling for kids of any age.
“Out There”: Noon-6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, March 5-8. Kaleid Gallery, 320 S. First St., San Jose. Requires Cinequest all-access pass. 408-995-5033. www.cinequest.org/hyper-reality