The composers behind Google Spotlight's VR Pearl

Posted By Akiko Ashley on November 02, 2016 12:13 pm | Permalink
This past summer I was introduced to the Google Spotlight Stories of animated shorts that were developed for the VR environment. What impressed me was the caliber of talents doing these short VR films including Justin Lin, Patrick Osborne, Tim Ruffle, Mark Oftedal and Shannon Tindle. The one that stood out for me was a sweet animated piece called Pearl which tells the story of a father and his daughter. What drives this piece is the incredible song you hear as you watch this short film. It is a beautiful amazing story with spectacular visual animation. Patrick Osbourne did a fantastic job creating this story that everyone can relate to. 

"Pearl" is the heart warming story of a father and daughter who travel the country as he chases the dream of being a successful musician with his daughter in tow in a hatchback, while maintaining being the a parent with responsibilities. Pearl inherits his love for music, continuing their shared musical journey that comes to full circle & completion of a life long dream. 

The song No Wrong Way Home was officially launched a couple days ago on Google Play Found HERE, and the short is now available for download (a first for Google Spotlight Stories!) on HTC Vive through Viveport at 

The song in "Pearl" is very extraordinary pop song that you can't forget. I love the music, and was curious how difficult was it to create music for a VR film and what was it like to build the sound design. Pollen Music Group who has recently won the Proto Award in 2016 for the Best Original Score for "Pearl" shared some of their insights and development for "Pearl" and how this effects the creative process for composers, musicians, songwriters, and sound designers. I interviewed Pollen Music Principal Composers/Composers Alexis Harte , Scot Stafford , and JJ Wiesler. Included are photos during the sessions while creating the music for "Pearl" shared with us by the Pollen Music Group. 

How did you get involved in the Google Spotlight Series? Have you worked on other Google Spotlight series shorts?

Alexis Harte: "Scot had previously scored the Pixar short, Presto, which was directed by Doug Sweetland. When Doug was brought in to supervise animation on the first Spotlight Story, Jan Pinkava's Windy Day, he tapped Scot as composer. Over the course of six Spotlight Stories, Scot's role expanded to creative director of music sound, and he and Pollen have worked on every Spotlight Story since then."

Scot Stafford: "We've provided various combinations of music and sound supervision, original music, sound design, interactive implementation, and spherical mixing on all eight - soon nine - Spotlight Stories.  They've evolved from mobile 360 to VR as that technology has become available.  It's been amazing to be part of that process!"

JJ Wiesler: "Scot called me up and he was pretty excited. He said you are not going to believe what we are working on next. Do tell. The Simpsons! I was kind of in shock. I am of the right age where the Simpson are pretty defining. For modern, animated TV, it is the gold standard. He told me the timeline and schedule, and that also shocked me as it was a tiny fraction of what we've had on the other Spotlight Stories. Scot has been front and center developing the audio tools and implementing them on the Google Spotlight StoryEditor. 

"Working creatively with software as it was being developed on a super tight timeline with very high stakes is a tightrope walk only someone as talented as Scot could pull off. After spotting and scoring sessions in LA, many 16 hour days in row with only a day or two to go til the deadline, he said, 'I got it working in the editor and now I have to make it sound good.' And of course he did. The next phase will involve an ambisonic mix, bound for YT360, which is a medium I have come to love!"

What previous experience did you have with working in VR?

Scot Stafford: "None whatsoever. Windy Day was a huge step in 360 immersive storytelling. Glen Keane's Duet showed us how beautiful and emotional it could be. Justin Lin's Help! was our first big experiment in spherical mixing and binaural surround sound on headphones, which has since become a standard. And Pearl on Vive was the first time we could stand up in the world we'd created."
Is it exciting to win the Proto Virtual Reality Award?

Alexis Harte: "It was an honor to be included in such great company. All of the nominated pieces had amazing scores. But yes, we put a year of work into the song, score, and overall soundscape and it feels wonderful to have that work recognized."

JJ Wiesler: "It really is. We were given a unique opportunity to work with one of the most talented teams in storytelling and animation on a song-driven VR film. At every turn, we said, 'How can we make this better. Do we have the best song? Do we have the best singers? Does it sound good? Too good? Is it genuine? Is it simple enough?' In the end, I think you can watch the film and you don't really think about the song and soundscape separately from the story. It just sits right and I am really proud of that. It truly is an honor to win this award."

Scot Stafford: "It's a miracle that anything can sound good in VR in this early phase. The fact that people like it enough to honor sound and music is amazing to me. Ultimately, it's an honor to every person who helped create it. We built the sound and music on a beautiful story, and beautiful art, and bleeding edge technology that had to be created for it, and somehow work perfectly."

What are the challenges of working with sound and music in VR?

Scot Stafford: "Too many to count.  This will all sound silly in a few years, but right now, it's just hard to know what you've done in VR, until it's done. It's also tempting to show off technology that you've just discovered. Taste only comes from deep familiarity with a genre and format, over time. That's impossible at the for me, it was the challenge of peering through the murk, imagining the result, then imagining what I'd wish we'd have done, and then trying to find a way to do that. So I guess the answer is 'time travel.'"

JJ Wiesler: "Throughout the story, the song alternates between studio and location recordings as dictated by scene. As the story progresses, we allow the score to gently overtake the diegetic audio, which creates a powerful emotional juxtaposition of music and picture. The location recordings, sound design and atmospheres are all mixed in three dimensions using an audio pipeline and custom software designed specifically for VR immersion. The basis of this workflow is ambisonics, a full sphere surround sound technique..."

Scot Stafford: "...combined with point sources, and traditional stereo. This technique is particularly important in Pearl, where our perspective remains in the passenger seat of our car, but the sounds originate all around us, through the sunroof above, from the backseat, from the hum of the tires on the road below, and from the world outside rushing by. The sound of being in a car on the road is familiar, evocative and nostalgic, and a key element - a lead actor - in both storytelling and immersion."

JJ Wiesler: "The sound and score for Pearl is both classic and cutting edge at the same time. It is a world of sound that relies as much on the simplicity of a song from father to daughter as on cutting edge spherical sound techniques."

Does having family influence your work in writing music or composing?

JJ Wiesler: "There is no doubt that being a father to a daughter (two actually) helped us connect to the story right from the beginning. I remember seeing the very first animatic that we had to start composing to and I saw myself in the father. I found myself watching him and where he was in each scene."

Scot Stafford: "All three of us have daughters we drive around. We see them in the rear view mirror, blink, and they've grown up."

Alexis Harte: "It absolutely does. We learn so much from observing children. I remember staring dully at my phone at the park one day when my then three-year-old daughter came running up to me with a look of pure delight, holding a leaf in her hand and shouting "It's green!" I've been trying to see the world in that wide-eyed, non-jaded way."

What technologies were used to create the composition & music for Pearl?

JJ Wiesler: "We used everything and the kitchen sink in Pearl. After the composition phase, we produced a studio version of No Wrong Way Home in much the same way any record is made. We relied as much as possible on live performances by the two great singers we had, Nicki Bluhm and Kelley Stoltz. We also made ambisonic location recordings of the singers in situ for the scenes where it really needed to feel real. Jamey Scott, our sound design virtuoso, gave us amazing material. In the end, we used object-oriented audio and ambisonic audio, which all reacts to head tracking, and stereo score which does not. There are 38 scenes and in each one we deployed these techniques as needed. To add to all this there was a 2D theatrical version being edited for which we produced an entirely different mix using much of the same sonic DNA."

What was the inspiration for the music in Pearl? Was the music created before the animation, and how much back and forth was involved?

JJ Wiesler: "Patrick provided much of the high level creative direction we needed. Organic, classic, timeless, story-driven. Harmonically, we knew we wanted it to be simple and memorable. From a song-form POV, I was inspired by songs, where the verses build to a tidy phrase that's used at the end of each cycle. These are separated by a little instrumental refrain. Like Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. Each verse adding to the story but being summarized the same way. I basically put together a progression and Alexis went to town on it. We made one important change after his first pass, which is a trick I learned from producer Eric Valentine. Define whatever is the most important line or moment in the song, now do something to make it more memorable. In this case we took the last line 'No Wrong Way Home' at the end of each cycle and we doubled it, making it half-time the second time through. This adds weight and makes it stick to your bones.

"Because animation was involved, we had to finish a nearly final version early, so the animators could work to the vocal and guitar performances. We made some tweaks along the way, but mostly our first pass is what you hear in the film."

Alexis Harte: "From its inception, Pearl was conceived as a song-driven film. While not a music video, the song would propel the narrative along as much as the film's visuals and story would dictate the lyrical and musical requirements of the song. Thus, finding (or writing) the right song was critical to the early success of the project.

"Pollen Music Group commissioned and curated an extensive search of indie singer-songwriters which was eventually narrowed to 10 tracks sung by eight different singers. Most artists wrote and recorded new songs directly inspired by Patrick's first animatic.  They ranged from local to international, folk to country to alt indie.

"After a kickoff workshop at Pollen's recording studio, several days were spent narrowing it down to two, and finally to one song ("No Wrong Way Home," by Alexis Harte and JJ Wiesler), which was sung and interpreted by four artists, male and female."