Virtual Reality

Wallace and Gromit animators & BBC dive into virtual reality

By Kitty Knowles 8 April 2016

Bristol animation company Aardman has teamed up with the BBC to create a new emotive virtual reality experience.

Next week will see hundreds of fans flock to the South West for the UK’s biggest virtual reality festival yet, VR World Congress.

Celebrated animation business Aardman, which is part of Bristol and Bath’s burgeoning VR sector, is just one of the companies attending, but it turns out the creators of the much-loved Wallace and Gromit franchise have some exciting news of their own.

The Bristol-based company is partnering with the BBC and will be using VR to make news stories more emotive.

“I can’t tell you a huge amount, but it’s about looking at making news stories immersive,” Heather Wright, Aardman’s executive producer, told The Memo.

“It’s all about exploring emotions, how people experience emotions.”

“The BBC aims to inform, educate and entertain,” she said. “Previously we’ve worked very much in entertainment, but increasingly we’re moving into their education platform as well.”

The mysterious project is due to launch in May, and we can’t wait to find out what’s in store.

Virtual worlds

Neither the BBC or Aardman are totally new to virtual worlds, with the BBC’s experiments including immersive experiences for Strictly Come Dancing and nature series like Big Blue Live.

Read more: The 360° future of virtual reality news: a view from inside the BBC

Aardman, on the other hand, dipped its toes into the virtual pool for the first time last year, working with Google to release a 360° children’s experience.

Compatible with both Android smartphones and high-end headsets, Special Delivery tells the story of a sneaky Santa and a suspicious janitor.

Viewers follow the characters’ stories by moving their smartphone around, but can also angle their mobiles up, down and around to see sub-stories happening away from the protagonists (the main narratives pause when your not looking at them).

The joys & challenges of VR storytelling

The most intriguing aspect of virtual reality is that it puts the viewer in control, says Wright.

“You can watch the story on your own terms, that’s the thrilling bit,” she says.

But the new medium also presents creators with unique challenges.

“You don’t have the same control over the pacing of the story,” Wright explains. “Normally if you were going to add a gag, you could cut away and back, but with VR you have to relinquish that control to the audience.”

Indeed the fact that the audience can look anywhere, means that storytellers have to try even harder to remain engaging.

“It’s about finding new ways of creating excitement by hiding moments that have to be found,” Wright says. “In Special Delivery there’s a character who has increasingly trouble playing his saxophone in the background, for example, which is quite amusing.”

An end to stop animation?

It may well be groundbreaking, but virtual reality isn’t about to replace Aardman’s trademark stop animation any time soon, says Wright.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t do stop motion in VR,” she added.

“Merging old and new is what we’re about.”

When we asked if a virtual Wallace and Gromit was on the cards, Wright said no, but that Aardman “wouldn’t rule anything out.”

“We want to be at the forefront of tech because we find that intrinsically exciting, but in any format it’s always got to be about great stories and characters with depth,” she said.

“I don’t think that anybody of any age is ever going to get bored of watching a really funny or scary story that’s told in a more linear way.”

Aardman will follow audiences

For now, Wright is yet not 100% convinced if Aardman’s dalliance with VR will grow into something more lasting.

“There are so many types of VR headset but none of them seem to have the critical mass that means you can meet a really wide audience yet,” says Wright.

“We will be lead by where the audience goes: It’s up to audiences to decide whether or not VR has longer legs as a piece of technology.”

A virtual Wallace and Gromit may not be on the cards just yet, but how do you feel about a 360° Sean the Sheep?

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