The Filmic Equivalent of a Haiku: Erick Oh on his Sundance VR Film Namoo
One of the most understated pieces at Sundance’s New Frontier this year was Namoo, an animated short by Baobab Studios and director Erick Oh. Baobab has been pushing the boundaries of top-tier animated virtual reality since its founding in 2015, with its short immersive films growing in depth, length, and complexity and leading to a slew of awards and spun-off properties including feature films and series. Erick Oh is an award-winning director and animator from South Korea and based in California who’s worked at Pixar and with Tonko House and whose work has shown at Annecy, Anima Mundi, and other festivals.
Namoo (“tree” in Korean) is Oh’s first foray into virtual reality. An eleven-minute dialogue-free short animated in Quill, it metaphorically portrays the life journey of a man based on Oh’s grandfather, who passes from infancy through old age and beyond while a solitary tree grows beside him, acquiring all the key memories and mementos–sweet and bitter–from his life. The film is presented in six degrees of freedom, so the viewer can move around the action for new perspectives, but guides the field of view carefully so that the action is always centered. The stationary setting adjusts in distance and scale as the protagonist passes through stages of his life, providing viewers with a well-proportioned frontal tableau that always indicates where the main action is unfolding, but allowing enough detail that curiosity and a roaming gaze are equally rewarded. Then the final moments are a visual and aural revelation as the action begins to move and the field of view opens up to include the vertical axis, creating a fully 360-degree world.
During Sundance I spoke with Oh and with Baobab’s Head of Content Kane Lee, an Emmy-winning producer of Baobab’s VR films like Invasion!, Asteroids!, Crow: The Legend, and Jack; he’s overseeing the adaptation of Invasion! into a feature film.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me about your grandfather and where the idea for Namoo came from?
Oh: Yeah, my grandfather passed away a long time ago, actually, almost ten years ago. That’s when this idea first came to me, because of course when you lose someone you love you just think about a lot of things, right? The meaning of life and where do we go. And one of the interesting experiences I had was that after my grandfather was gone I really think more about him, like I feel like I’m more spiritually connected to him. So as much as I was really getting all this inspiration from him, I was getting that inspiration still after he was gone. He was still being a guiding star. So that’s how the core idea of this project came together.
So it’s been sitting in my closet for a long long time, like maybe I wasn’t actually ready to tell this story. Or maybe I wasn’t so happy with the mediums we were using. Filmmaking, maybe not enough. Painting, maybe not enough. Because it’s such a spiritual journey to your own place. And then VR just came to me. Maybe this! Maybe VR is really the right formula to tell this story. So that’s how everything started to come together.
Filmmaker: That could be why you felt like it was time to finally tell it, because of the medium?
Oh: I think it’s really both sides. Even myself as a person, as a human, I felt like I don’t have much wisdom and knowledge to really dare touch upon this deep subject matter. And at the same time, yeah, VR. So those two things come together.
Filmmaker: That’s interesting. I was going to ask why you chose VR; what was it about virtual reality that made this theme more accessible?
Oh: Yeah, VR, as we all know, is really just experience, right? It’s not just a linear storytelling, but it’s a more specific experience and you are becoming part of the story. And this whole experience of Namoo is about that. Of course you are following this main character’s footsteps all the way from his birth to the last chapter of his life, but actually at the end of the day we want the viewer to find themselves in it. So to serve that purpose I felt that VR was the perfect medium.
Filmmaker: Was there something about employing six degrees of freedom and allowing the viewer to move around and change their perspective that added to that?
Oh: Yes and no. Because at the beginning we thought about interaction or even more mobility. But we decided to go with a little more conservative version of VR, so that yes you’re able to look around or get closer, but you’re viewing this from a certain distance, because the tree is growing in front of you, basically, and you’re observing it.
Filmmaker: And you’re not actually able to get all the way behind it. So how was this the same or different from your previous work with traditional animation?
Oh: I think subject matter and storytelling approach-wise, I think the concept has always been very consistent. I always love to touch upon some very life-related themes, like humanity or similar themes. But it was my first time using VR, which was a very new language for me. So I was learning everything from scratch, taking baby steps through a new experience. That itself inspired me a lot on the way. It was kind of like, oh wow! Of course. If I just use a cinematic language I’ll reach for a certain goal, but with this new tool I can reach for a different level. That was probably the biggest difference.
Lee: From Baobab’s perspective, it comes from a piece Erick did called PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems, which won the Cristal, a jury prize for the best TV Production, at Annecy two years ago. It was based on the Oscar-nominated short The Dam Keeper, and what Erick did was he wrote and directed a limited series of five-minute episodes in ten different chapters. The animation historian Charles Solomon called it the filmic equivalent of haiku, sort of because of its elegance, its austerity, and its simplicity being the tip of the iceberg of a lot of greater meaning. And so actually when Erick presented us with his vision for Namoo it was also in ten chapters. We showed my colleagues a little bit of The Dam Keeper Poems and I think everyone instantly put two and two together and said, oh we’re going to take that idea of animation as poetry and storytelling and actually bring it into immersive cinema.
And so what does it mean for a poem to come to life not only through animation but through complete immersion, using these amazing tools and emerging mediums like virtual reality? I think that was just too irresistible for us, kind of being the pioneers in our field as we were, taking Erick’s incredible Pixar-refined talents but with his experimental nature and then joining forces with Baobab and our mission to really push the boundaries of animated storytelling through immersive mediums, and look for very different points of view to share stories that are universal. That for us felt like such a logical next thing to do, for Erick and for us together.
Filmmaker: PIG: The Dam Keeper Poems has a very soft and handcrafted feel, perhaps in response to so much CG animation on the market today, and I could sense a similar aesthetic in Namoo even though it was created in Quill. Why did you go with Quill rather than another tool? Do you have any thoughts about the future of VR animation now that Tilt Brush is open source–what’s the future? Or do we know?
Oh: The future is a little much, but the Quill part I can share my thoughts.
Filmmaker: Yeah, how did that work for you?
Oh: Well you just described exactly why I did it. I still wanted a really traditional handmade touch to it, even though VR can come across as very a techy device to the artist. It is intimidating, honestly, right? But with Quill, when I first experienced it, I thought, wow, this is really intuitive. It really opens up a lot of blockers I was kind of afraid of, and then I see Quill artists doing some cool stuff, and that’s really when I thought, Ah, maybe that’s the tool. It could be fun doing it in VR. Because Quill, as you probably know, can make anything, draw or storyboard, everything in VR, very intuitively. So that just got me so welcomed to the VR space.
Filmmaker: Do you want to stick with it? What other things do you think VR could do for you going forward that 2D or traditional 3D wouldn’t be able to?
Oh: Longterm I want to return to VR, because as Kane said I’m very interested and excited about a lot of different mediums, not just single-channel narrative but also exhibition or installation VR, all those things. With all media art I always love to be open minded. So I do have other VR ideas, but at this moment I’m going back again, focusing on traditional narrative. But in the long run I’d love to have fun exploring lots of mediums, including VR.
Filmmaker: I feel like Baobab may be similar, with many kinds of projects.
Lee: I think our conversation with Erick wasn’t about whether or not to do VR. It was to understand what his vision was first, and then to put our heads together to think about how we could best realize it. That’s actually been the approach to all of our projects to date at Baobab Studios, which is why some of them are being adapted for the big screen, some of them are being adapted for the small screen, some of them are turning into books. It’s not a random process. It’s really partnering with people–we just love stories through and through, and so if we’re going to do a book we want to do it with the graphic novel imprint that will do that specific universe and characters best justice. Or if we’re going to turn it into a TV series then we want to make sure that whatever is going to happen will complement what our best efforts are in terms of creating the immersive cinema. I think we’re slowly becoming a different kind of animation studio, where it’s not like we’re married to one house style, or doing things the same way over and over and over again. I think it’s like building as many toolkits as we need so that we can tell stories in the best way. I mean, I think that as these processes and these techniques become faster and more efficient, and as the digital revolution keeps progressing in the world, it enables us to be able to try different things at speed, and at cost, and at scale. Having these different toolsets is really valuable.
The idea of doing an entire VR piece animated inside of the VR? Of course it’s very daunting! But I think Erick showed us his vision, we recruited all the best Quill artists around the world, in different countries. It was a true global remote production. And we realized that we could work on a remote pipeline seamlessly, and it was delivered on time and on schedule and under budget. It’s just another tool we can rely on. Obviously there are limitations animating inside a VR headset compared to the very expensive tools you get at a major studio, but they just embraced those limitations and asked, What are the strengths of immersive cinema? How can we use scale? How can we change the seasons around you? How can we immerse you in more? How can the point of view that we’re giving to you–in a more spatial setting, with beautiful staging and lighting, where you feel like you’re there–how can that make the story better than if you were just staring at a monitor?
Filmmaker: You addressed that very well, with the overall staging and the transitions in scale and perspective in the different periods in his life. But also, as you mentioned working remotely, was that because of COVID or had you already begun the workflow when it hit? Could remote work play into the future of the studio, or of your work, Erick?
Oh: Kane, you may have a lot of thoughts about this too, but from my perspective, yes of course there were some difficulties when it comes to editing or other specific areas where we wished we were sitting in one room. But except for that, I’ll say 90% of the production was really okay, it was really under good management. Yeah, thanks to the nature of our project, which was already globally, remotely working, we were able to actually be ahead of everybody else. But I think on other projects too it’s possible, and it’s already happening. So even if we go back to normal I think it’s really going to be one of the good options for production.
Lee: I mean, no one on our end thinks anything is going to replace the magic of being in person with a team member, and making that discovery in person. But when faced with the reality of what’s around us we happen to be moving in a direction anyway where we can ask, do we choose working with the best people, who happen to be halfway around the world and in different time zones, or do we just go for local talent? And in this case we just chose to go for the A-team, no matter where they’re located, no matter where they are. They’re passionate. This is remote. We’re trying to do something new. And then COVID happened, so, you know, in a weird way it was made to test whether or not this could work. So it was serendipitous in that way, although, again, we all very much miss seeing each other.