The narrative poem “Namoo” (a Korean word meaning “tree”) chronicles the heartwarming and heartbreaking biographical moments, from beginning to end, of one particular man, whose journey is represented via a tree of life.
The animated short, written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Erick Oh (Opera), is a very personal one.
“The origin of the story goes back 10 years ago when my grandfather passed away,” Oh explains. “While grieving, I began to envision this core visual of one’s tree of life and how memories might shape it until perhaps, one day, it becomes something else entirely. For a decade, this idea has been sitting in my mental drawer and tucked away deep in my heart. But upon experiencing several more sad farewells, as well as meeting my newborn niece, I knew it was time to develop this idea into a short narrative, to show the life of someone from the beginning to the end, which again connects to another new beginning.”
Namoo uses a handcrafted animation style to depict the journey of an artist, beginning at his birth. The short, Oh’s second, made the 2022 Oscar shortlist and received two Annie nominations. Both the 2D theatrical and VR versions were produced by Baobab Studios.
Baobab was founded in 2015 as an interactive entertainment company and has since created several VR films, including 2021’s Baba Yaga, directed and written by Baobab CCO/co-founder Eric Darnell (see CGW’s Q1 2021 issue). For Namoo, however, the studio partnered with Oh, as Darnell, along with Baobab CEO/co-founder Maureen Fan and head of content Kane Lee, served as the film’s producers. The collaboration occurred after Oh shared the story concept with Lee while they were in Seoul two summers ago.
“Conceptually, it felt like capturing lightning in a bottle for me, so I had him come visit the studio in San Francisco, and we were off to the races,” says Lee.
Due to the pandemic, however, Baobab had to handle the entire production remotely across three different continents, as the studio recruited “the finest Quill artists in the world” to help meet their creative ambitions for the project.
Quill (formerly from Oculus and now back in the hands of its creator, Iñigo Quilez and his company Smoothstep) is a VR illustration and animation tool. In traditional animation pipelines, the various processes (modeling, rigging, texturing, animation and so on) are handled by different people, but by using Quill, one person can perform multiple functions. For example, layout artist Dan Franke built all the Namoo sets, Nick Ladd did all the environment animation and Jon Brower animated all the characters. As a result, the studio was able to retain a small but efficient team: The artwork and animation were crafted by a core team of just six, with the entire group totaling just over a dozen people. Production took just over a year.
That was not the only reason why Quill was the perfect tool for this project.
“This was my first time telling a story in a VR medium and Quill helped me skip all the technical difficulties because it enables an artist to draw, paint and animate intuitively,” Oh explains. “That helped us achieve a hand-painted watercolor and oil-painting look right away in VR space.”
Growing the aesthetic and images
As Darnell notes, from the very start, Oh had a unique vision for the tone and feeling of the piece, and a very specific artistic approach he wanted to employ to achieve that vision.
“Supporting Erick and his vision is what mattered most to the whole team at Baobab,” he says. “In general, our goal is always to support the vision of the artists who are leading our projects. We don’t think of ourselves as having a ‘house style.’”
Oh’s initial concept paintings were all watercolor, so the studio decided to capture that tactile, handmade feeling in the actual film.
“Because this is a very poetic and warm story, we didn’t have any second-guessing whether to support it by using a traditional watercolor aesthetic,” says Darnell. “Even when re-creating everything in VR by using Quill, we maintained the look we had discovered in 2D.”
As Oh emphasizes, Namoo is a very poetic piece, which focuses on life and growth. And, delivering warmth visually was very important.
In the film, the tree becomes filled with various objects as the character progresses from birth to death. In the VR version, which can be played on the Oculus Quest or Rift platform, the “player” can directly experience the changes in climate and seasons that take place in the film.
“You observe what’s in the tree or on the ground, what the boy is drawing in the sketchbook, and floating into the heavens,” says Oh.
The main character in the film is universal, as Oh wanted everyone to feel as if they could be that person.
“I wanted you to feel like you are growing up with the boy,” Oh explains. “Depending on how old you are or what type of life stage you are at, you’ll experience it in a very different way. But at the end of the day, life is filled with a variety of things. It’s not always beautiful, honestly; it’s filled with ups and downs. You have happy, joyful, amazing moments, but at the same time, you also go through sorrow or anger, rage or the lowest point, and rock bottom. Sometimes you gotta hit your rock bottom and go through all those ups and downs. If you lived your life to the fullest, the tree of your life is beautiful.”
Exactly how many objects are in the tree? Hundreds, possibly even a thousand.
This project marks a first for Oh in terms of working in VR and using Quill to create a story.
“Namoo is about the imperfections of a human life, so the film needed to feel human and imperfect. Quill enabled us to achieve that,” he says. “The artist literally draws, paints, designs and animates very intuitively with their hands in the virtual space. It’s as simple as grabbing your own paints and moving them around to bring life to it. Every single brushstroke is directly from the artist’s touch, so it really provides the handmade, watercolor, traditional warmth that a film like Namoo should convey.”
Anika Nagpal, production manager at Baobab Studios, contends that Namoo is the most ambitious project to have ever been attempted in Quill from an art and animation-quality perspective. As a result, the team was making many discoveries along the way and had to work collaboratively to find creative solutions to problems that arose during production.
“For example, we built an entirely-new pipeline from scratch for Namoo to bring together the best in multiple, different software to achieve that final look we were going for,” says Nagpal. “Our engineers and artists were the type of people who think both creatively and technically, and they worked very closely to make that happen.”
Art director Eusong Lee generated all the concept art using Adobe’s Photoshop, which was then imported into Quill, while Oh created the storyboards using TVPaint Animation Pro. Using the concept art as reference, Franke, Ladd and Brower used Quill to turn those concepts into 3D by drawing and placing colored 3D strokes to form each character, prop and environment.
“It’s a lot like creating miniatures and dioramas; there’s no complex modeling, UV wrapping or texturing. It’s just colored strokes, and it’s much less technical than other 3D pipelines,” says Ladd.
Once the Quill artists completed their first passes of the characters, Oh would do draw-overs so the artists could fine-tune the positioning and shapes.
Ladd describes the animation process in Quill as a mix between stop-motion and traditional 2D hand-drawn animation. Quill has an animation timeline, but unlike other 3D software, such as Autodesk’s Maya, there is no interpolation, so all the animation is done frame-by-frame. Each object and character is its own layer, and each new frame is a copy of the previous one, so an artist can change its geometry to create animation.
“There’s no rig, so you can manipulate the geometry however you want, and even add or remove strokes from one frame to the next,” explains Ladd.
Moreover, Quill has a red/blue onion skin that helps you see your previous and upcoming frames, similar to 2D animation. In fact, the process for animating is similar to 2D: The animator blocks out key poses, sets breakdowns and then does in-betweens once everything is approved, Ladd adds. Throughout the process, the Quill animators worked with Oh, who provided rough 2D animations as a timing guide.
However, there are no lighting tools in Quill, leaving it to the artists to hand-paint the lighting and cast shadows within the tool frame-by-frame.
“The software is entirely unlit vertex color with no built-in light rendering,” Ladd notes. “This lack of software lighting gives the artist total creative freedom to light or paint however they want. In our case, the Quill artists worked with Eusong Lee, who provided us with 2D-painted images of the exact lighting for each scene and character.”
Then, the artists painted the scenes in Quill based on that painting.
“I remember this moment in production, where we had originally planned to do computer-generated shadows in Unity, but in our early tests, they looked too perfect and didn’t fit in with the stylized look of the rest of the short,” recalls Nagpal. “So, we ultimately decided to hand-paint and animate the shadows just like everything else.”
Lighting and color were especially important to the art director from a storytelling perspective — the piece cycles through the passage of time as the audience follows the seasons and different stages of the main character’s life. As a result, the 12-minute piece had 18 different sets, each with its own lighting design. So even though the objects are mostly the same between sets, the artists ended up repainting each object in every set, essentially painting in the lighting design of each set, object by object, to suit the different lighting scenarios.
“This meticulous process really brings out the handmade, human feel that underlies the story,” Oh adds.
Quill was also used in the creation of the 2D theatrical short version as well — a first. As Darnell says, the filmmakers planned both a 2D and VR version from the start — the same story and idea, but executed differently, fully taking advantage of the strength of each medium. For the 2D narrative, Baobab built a pipeline from scratch to translate its entire Quill timeline to Unity, where the crew engineered their own cinematography tool kit, enabling Kelly Nakasone and Kent Seki to do all the camera work, before re-exporting it to Premiere Pro, where shots were edited by Vanessa Rojas. Final compositing was performed by Natan Moura in Adobe After Effects.
“The editorial itself was not too different from that used in a traditional filmmaking pipeline, and we were able to focus on pacing and timing for the right emotional arc,” explains Darnell. “On the other hand, we cannot do any of those things in VR. VR is all about experience, and the audience becomes part of the story. You can look around or lean forward to observe details more closely. You can also experience climate change very realistically, almost having this illusion that you are right there under the rain or in the middle of the thunderstorm. Those are things we cannot do in the 2D narrative. So after all, the key to being able to make both versions was understanding the strength and characteristics of each medium.”
Pushing VR forward
In all eight of its VR interactive narratives to date, Baobab makes each person a character in the story and enables that person to develop relationships with the other characters, thereby impacting the narrative.
“Every project we’ve created is an experiment in making you matter,” says Fan.
And with each project, the filmmakers have been stepping out of the box to further step into new territory while exploring interactive VR narrative filmmaking.
“I haven’t seen anything in VR with the unique sensibility that Erick has brought to Namoo,” Darnell opines. “And on a more nuts-and-bolts level, the ambitious goal of creating everything in Quill, which becomes something like a blend of straight-ahead stop-motion animation and ‘sculpting in time with 3D illustrations’ has surpassed anything like it that has been done before in VR.”
For its efforts in this medium, Baobab has received nine Emmy Awards to date. In addition, the studio has been recognized with two Annie Awards, while more Annies could be in Baobab’s future. It’s worth noting that some of the properties are transcending the medium and are being adapted into films, books and streaming episodes: An original series based on “Baba Yaga,” called The Witchverse anthology series, has been announced for Disney+.
Karen Moltenbrey is the former chief editor of CGW and editor in chief of Jon Peddie Research.