Making 3D animation more accessible with VR.

Ollie is a VR-native animation tool designed to introduce animation to casual users in a fun, playful, and encouraging way. Most existing 3D animation software is built for professionals, which makes it hard for people who don’t consider themselves artists or animators to get started. Our goal is to bridge the gap between curiosity and proficiency, and give prospective animators a chance to see what 3D animation’s all about.

Ever since I started working in VR, I’ve been really interested in building creative tools for artists. Tiltbrush was my first VR experience, Sandbox VR was my first major project, and, most recently, I had a chance to work with the Quill team at Facebook, where we developed a content ecosystem and tools for professional artists and animators.

Last year, after noticing more professional VR animation tools becoming popular (AnimVR, Quill, etc.) and reading about Daydream Labs’ animation experiments, I decided to try building a pose-to-pose animation tool in VR myself. The goal was to make 3D animation easier for first-time animators, and I tested the app with friends and colleagues who fit the profile. Here’s one of the very first prototypes I built:

WIP build with basic keyframing, three animatable attributes, and gizmos made for VR.

Despite limiting the animatable attributes to position, rotation, and scale, I was able to accomplish quite a bit. After refining the rotation controls, I challenged myself to animate ten of the twelve principles of animation in-app. You can see the results below:

Ten principles of animation, entirely animated in VR!

Here’s a reel with other work made with this prototype, featuring assets made in Blocks and Quill:

Animated in Ollie, with assets made in Blocks and Quill (a full in-VR workflow!)

While it was satisfying to be able to animate really easily in VR, it was unusually difficult to operate on a 2D timeline interface. Having to switch back and forth between the timeline and target object felt cumbersome, and the interaction didn’t use the virtual space to its fullest potential. In an attempt to address this issue, I started working on a way to spatialize the timeline by making the target object leave “ghosts” behind every time a keyframe was set. The result was pretty interesting — each attribute was simply represented by the ghost’s position in space, rotation, and scale, and each ghost displayed the corresponding frame information clearly. You can see the results below:

Playing around with one-controller keyframing. Using the tooltip as the primary interface / placing ghosts of target objects in space.

M3.5 felt like the most interesting direction the project has gone in so far — it was a significant departure from traditional representations of time (in other NLEs), and seemed like it could only be accomplished in VR. These prototypes, however, were only first steps towards building a more accessible way to pick up 3D animation, which is what my team and I are working on this year. Here’s why we think this work is important:

Every major shift in animation has been powered by really stellar technology. From Steamboat Willie (1928, first animated piece to feature synced sound) to Toy Story (1995, the first feature-length CG animation film), advances in computing have pushed the art of visual storytelling forward. However, every one of these technical feats have been catered to the needs of studios or professional artists, who have spent years learning the tools needed to tell really great stories.

The thing is, artists aren’t the only storytellers in the world. Dancers, teachers, rocket scientists, and fashion designers all benefit from telling great stories — whether it’s for a performance, pitch, or to visualize a new idea.

For the first time, modern technology makes it possible for anyone to paint, sculpt, and create masterpieces directly in three-dimensional space. The processes and tools that enabled the creation of the most iconic computer-generated films / effects are now more accessible to those of us who aren’t formally trained as artists. The availability of these creative tools reinforces the idea that anyone can be an artist, and anyone can tell really compelling stories. That’s where Ollie comes in. Anyone should be able to experience the joy of creating smooth, compelling animation just as easily as they’re able to consume it. The use cases are only limited by a user’s imagination.

Given the value of existing VR-native tools (Tiltbrush, Blocks, Quill, Medium, etc.), we have a chance to take the first step in reinventing the way people animate and perceive the medium. It’s a noble effort to make creativity more accessible to people who don’t see themselves as storytellers. From Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs:

Poorly designed “… tools can make you feel dumb or incapable, but great tools enable you to think big and realize your creativity in unique ways.”

That’s why this is worth pursuing. It gives anyone the opportunity to feel like an artist, and has the potential to shape the way people think about the art of animation.

Thanks for reading! I’ll update this post with more information and demos as we make progress. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out: sagarram [at] usc [dot] edu.