Pearl (2016) is an Emmy Award-Winning animated short from Google Spotlight Stories that utilizes multiple media forms in order to change the way storytelling is normally received. It is a musical montage that uses very little words to portray a father-daughter duo during their journey together in a car. The short that had started as a project for Google Spotlight Stories was eventually created for viewing amongst several mediums. And the different technologies that each mediums utilize helps change and tweak the experience for the viewer.
Pearl is directed by Patrick Osborne, who also directed the Academy Award-Winning Best Animated Short Film Feast (2014). Google Spotlight Stories is where Pearl’s theatrical edit was created. Then it moved into the YouTube 360 camera space, where Osborne and his team had to consider some major alterations that would have to be made. The viewer was now placed in the passenger side of the car where they remained throughout the entire film. During its creation for the traditional theatrical edit, technology for Virtual Reality was being produced, and Pearl was eventually modified to expand to the abilities that Vive and (later) Google Cardboard offered. So let’s breakdown the differences between all of these experiences and what they mean in regards to the perception of the storyline.
Google Spotlight Stories are meant to be watched on a phone, which was the first and most traditional version of the film. This is the version that is arguably the closest to the original vision of Osborne and his team. It is implied that every shot is intentional and highly planned. While this means the director has the most control over the viewer’s perspective, a theater edit is such a common viewing platform that people do not notice how much more control the director has over their interpretation of the film until they watch Pearl through a different medium. Because Osborne has control over the exact moments that are displayed on screen, that means the content of the story is emphasized rather than the technology features that are being used to watch it.
There is a more comfortable interaction between the viewer and the film since Google Spotlight Stories are primarily watched on a phone. It does not take the viewer out of the comfort of their mobile device, allowing them to evenly experience this short as they would any other short. This form of viewing on a simple phone means that there are factors that have to be considered, such as artistic representation. A phone would not be able to process the same complexity of an image as a computer system would, so Osborne and his co-creators had to think of more abstracted art forms in which to express Pearl. They landed on production designer Tuna Bora for the main artist, whose art style was based on polygonal forms. Osborne appreciated how she is able to simplify her art while keeping it grounded in reality. This was important not only because of the lower quality that it allowed in order to be supported on smaller screens more easily, but also because of where the focus of the audience went. Osborne says that in a wonderful way, the lack of detail allows for a deeper understanding of the characters themselves. The lack of detail in their art forces the viewer to pay more attention to the story development and music, rather than the details of the animation.
Youtube 360 is the most popular format in which Pearl is watched, acquiring 4.6 million more views than the theatrical edit. It is somewhat of a middle ground between the traditional way film is portrayed, and the high tech, less attainable technology of virtual reality. The camera is seated in the passenger seat, and you are now able to act as your own cameraman. In a talk about the making of this short, Osborne reveals that the inspiration came partially from his wife’s car, which is named Pearl. However, the importance of the car in Pearl doesn’t end there. The fact that the car is where the viewer is permanently stationed during the entire film emphasizes the car in a subtle way that the theatrical edit could not execute in the same way. Pearl is an anchor in the story between the father and daughter. The entire story is captured in flashbacks experienced by the daughter as she digs through old tapes she has found in her old car that is no longer in use. The placement of the audience in the passenger seat not only helps to position the audience in a familiar location throughout the film when it changes scenery, but it is also the most natural position for the audience. If they were to have been seated in the back seat, it could create a voyeuristic perspective on the story, instead of a more inclusive experience.
With more advanced technology, there is a harder push to get the audience as integrated into the story as they can be, though this adds even more challenges for the director in order for them to be able to stick to their original ideas for the film. Osborne talked about how people would feel so immersed in the film that they would try and do things such as sticking their head out the windows. They then had to create an outside space for the audience to exist in. When the viewer can look out the windows of the car, they feel more connected to the characters, as if they are in the car experiencing the same memory the daughter is having with everyone else. So then maybe the art form should change with this advancement too? The simplistic, abstract forms of Tuna Bora’s art could now be distracting to the theme of VR, where the viewer is meant to be as unaware of their actual state of reality as possible. In order for the audience to still feel connected to the characters, regardless of their artistic representation, Osborne and his team would’ve had to have created extremely strong characters.
Both 360 and VR indicate that the director must go in even more in depth with the setting of the story. It also means that Osborne needs to make sure that the audience does not get distracted with the abilities that the technology creates. So whatever the viewer could be looking at either has to be constructive to the storyline, or it helps direct the viewer to the place the director wants them to focus on. Luckily, new technology of 360 and VR does not only affect the visual experience, but it allows sound to be produced and manipulated to imply it’s coming from a specific location. The sound in Pearl is primarily a song with background noise. When you turn the camera away from the source of the sound, it noticeably becomes quieter, imitating real life if you were to turn your head away. When you hear sound from the video, it automatically grabs your attention and you are aware that you should be watching the area in which the sound is coming from. Sound in a traditional, theatrical edit is directly implied and given to the audience — it doesn’t have to be sought after, like in 360 and VR. The audience is more invested in the story with a given audio, and with audio that is more realistic, the audience is more invested in the setting and world of Pearl.
Pearl is a unique film that is found in many different medias, thus creating many different experiences with each viewing. As it starts off in the traditional style of film with very little interaction from the viewer, they eventually shift all the way to a VR viewing that attempts to fully immerse the viewer into the short. However, it is not the advancement of the tech that makes one version of the film better than the other; the audience is offered the opportunity for multiple interpretations and receptions to the film because of the different technologies.