Over the past week two very interesting virtual reality (VR) projects have been released online. Neither of them are really videogames so much as they are fan tributes to films and TV shows. One is Greg Miller’s Jerry’s Place VR, allowing users to take a virtual tour of the setting from Seinfield. The other is a recreation of the boiler room scene from iconic Japanese anime, Spirited Away. The project, which was created by Nick Pittom is free to download. VRFocus recently spoke with Pittom about developing the virtual setting.
VRFocus: What was it about Spirited Away and this scene that inspired you to create this project?
Nick Pittom: I’d previously made Howls Moving Castle to learn new modelling and texturing skills, with the thought they might translate well to games. It went well and when I finally decided to take the plunge into a VR experience I decided that I should go back to Ghibli films. They have such great artistry and atmosphere and I thought there was something compelling there. I thought about the films I loved and the locations in them – I never planned to have the soot sprites or Kamaji at first. The boiler room struck me as a great location that had amazing visual elements, with nice little animating details, but also was contained and relatively small, so would not be too daunting. Spirited Away was also my first Ghibli/Miyazaki film (I caught it in the cinema when it released in the UK) so I felt that would be a good place to start. It was a mix of choosing a scene I loved, but also one I felt I could deliver to a good level. Now I have I feel more confident about moving onto more challenging locations.
VRFocus: Do you think the cel-shaded art style lends itself to VR?
Nick Pittom: It wasn’t really a consideration when making it as such. I simply wanted to create something that was as close to the film as possible, and the moving elements in Ghibli films tend to be cell-shaded, while the backgrounds are painted. Whether I would choose to make something cell shaded as an original game/experience I do not know. But there is something compelling about being that close to what is essentially a 3D cartoon, and I think there are lots of ways that could be explored. Cell shading can be a really nice style when used well. Jet Set Radio Future is still one of my favourite games, as is Wind Waker, so I guess the style appeals to me.
VRFocus: What were some of the challenges of bringing this project to fruition?
Nick Pittom: Pretty much all of it at the beginning. The was my first full game experience, as I’d only experimented with a few ideas before now, and also my first VR experience. I’d only done limited character work, limited texture and UV work, limited modelling work – my experience is, as you can probably tell, quite limited. But there were some especially challenging areas.
Figuring out the layout of the room itself was the first. It’s surprising how little consistency there is in the film about the specific dimensions and layout of the location. The number of storage boxes and layout change, even between shots. The boiler itself is somewhat a mystery, and a few smaller areas are simply not shown. So getting a layout that represented it as close as possible was the first challenge, but eventually it began to make sense and once I started building it fell into place.
Modelling is something I wanted to get right and spent time to ensure everything was quite low poly. This was to keep everything efficient and as fast as possible. But even now I am discovering ways in which I should be optimising my scene, so there’s still a lot to learn on that front.
UV unwrapping – the way the textures are ‘wrapped’ around the mesh – is massively time consuming and needs to be right. It’s labour intensive and to be honest a bit boring, but getting it done nicely is important and pays off. I learned a lot about that with this project.
The painted texture style took my some time to get right – and was very time consuming of course, but it’s hardly the work of a skilled artist. The trick was to combine it with the baked Ambient Occlusion – once I figured that out it just took time.
Kamaji was surprisingly straight forward in all honesty as he’s simply on an animation loop and the toon shader that comes with Unity worked nicely.
The Soot Sprites are what took the most time. I use RAIN AI to get them following certain paths and to flip their animations at certain points, but even with just 15 of them it was buggy as hell for a long time. It’s still a little buggy and I would like there to be more of them, but I ran out of time on that. Considering they still have a way to go to be ‘perfect’ I’d say they are the most challenging.
VRFocus: How long did the project take from the idea through to completion?
Nick Pittom: Five to six weeks, working on it pretty much every day, mostly in the evenings after doing my ‘day job’. Probably 3-4 hours most days, sometimes less. After I started I sort of became a bit obsessed with it and just needed to get it done.
VRFocus: Do you think it would be possible to translate all of Spirited Away into a VR videogame?
Nick Pittom: Possible, sure. It might take years, but it’s possible!
To recreate it as I have done – the locations themselves, perhaps a couple of characters doing simple repetitive animations/actions may well be possible. Personally I doubt I would undertake such a project as it would get quite repetitive in places and I would stop learning from it, but I see value in recreating certain key scenes and elements.
I would certainly like to tackle the train scene.
VRFocus: What lessons did you learn in the production of The Boiler Room? How will these impact your future projects.
Nick Pittom: It’s a difficult question as I’ve learned so much! The correct way to model/texture/animate and import into Unity is a big, broad element. Technical aspects like that I’ve learned a huge amount and I would like to think it will ensure that each project is not just technically better, but more involving for the player as I will be able to do more.
In terms of more nebulous ‘experience’ aspects I want to ensure there is a lot more interactivity for the player. There’s pretty much none in the Spirited Away scene and while it’s great to ‘be’ there, there is a limit to the value such an experience can give. With Totoro I want the player to feel like Totoro is actually there with them and reacting to them.
VRFocus: Are there any other film projects you’d like to translate to VR? Perhaps more anime?
Nick Pittom: More Ghibli certainly. I have started on the bus stop scene from Totoro and I would love to go back to Spirited Away for the Train scene. Mononoke, Nausicaa and Howls Moving Castle all have scenes I think would be awesome. Past that I am unsure. I suspect I will begin work on my own project soon enough.
VRFocus: What do you make of the Oculus Rift being so readily available for developers to experiment with like this?
Nick Pittom: Pretty much the best thing they could have done, in my opinion.
The barrier to entry is as low as it can possibly be, and I certainly would not be making these scenes now had the Rift been harder to get hold of or a lot more expensive. VR I am sure is going to be massive. Ridiculously huge. But there’s still a LONG way to go to convincing people it’s not just another fad, like 3D movies. Content is king and we need as much quality content as possible – and not just games, but experiences like Titans of Space as well.
It’s something people are getting passionate about and no matter what happens that passion will produce amazing experiences and games that will drive people to evangelise VR – it’s all going to build the platform. There’s no ‘competition’ at the moment really. Everyone benefits from as many people being involved as possible and having the Rift so available does that.
Unity is also a massive part of this, from my point of view (UDK as well of course) – as it offers a free way to develop for the Rift. It’s limited, so at a certain point you have to invest in the Pro licence, but hopefully by then I will be able to justify the investment. But without Unity I would not be doing this either, so I have to give them a lot of praise for producing such a great engine.
VRFocus: Do you anticipate VR becoming a mainstream technology or do you think it’s future resides in cult audiences?
Nick Pittom: It’s going to be more than a cult, niche product. Architectural Visualisation, military, medical uses, retail – there are so many areas it will take root outside consumer retail. That to me makes it more than a cult product. Whether it will be in every home, or at the same level as consoles… probably a little longer. Maybe a lot. There’s a fundamental limiting factor in that you actually have to try it to ‘get’ it. There will always be those who are excited and tuned into new technology, who will be into it no matter what, but it takes a hands on trial for most people to get on board.
But VR doesn’t need to explode. It doesn’t need to sell in the numbers a console would. It can grow organically. The hype that is building is not based on expensive marketing, or pretty pictures, but on people genuinely convinced it’s a new medium.