Why Blender Is The 3D Animation Software You Need For Your VR Projects
Many of VeeR’s editors are using Blender, a free application for adding 3D visual effects to still images, videos, and interactive video games. The goal of the BlenderVR project is to offer a cross-platform solution for virtual reality applications which benefits from the Blender environment and associated community for creating quality interactive scenes. Francesco Siddi, a producer at Blender Animation Studio, is here to share his story with us.
For more information, please visit Blender’s official website: https://www.blender.org/
VeeR: As we know, you are a member of the Blender Foundation. How did you first learn about the community, and why did you decide to join?
Francesco: I started just like everyone else by wanting to create 3D content, and I began with using the Blender software. I really appreciated the interface that established Blender’s fame in the industry. As I discovered more about the community, I was drawn to it by its openness, and the amount of opportunities available for a contributor.
The Blender Foundation was founded as an entity aiming at the coordination and facilitation of further development of the Blender software. Affiliated with it is an animation studio called the Blender Institute, which uses exclusively free and open source software in its production. The key to Blender’s rapid growth in the past few years is a combination of artistic creation and software improvement. I came to Amsterdam where the Blender Institute is based at to work on producing short films, and we have run a number of projects since then. Among them, “The Big Buck Bunny” and “Sintel” have been incredibly popular. Then we made the “Tears of Steel”, which exhibited a heavier focus on visual effects, combining live action footage with 3D effects. After that we worked on the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Jury’s Prize winner “Cosmos Laundromat”.
VeeR: Could you give some examples of Blender engaging its users?
Francesco: Yes. On Blender’s website, we have a section called “User Stories”, where we collect the best and most interesting stories from all the Blender users. Blender has evolved beyond a tool for film production, which is put into perspective by reading those stories.
VeeR: How did you start creating VR videos?
Francesco: We made “Caminandes” which originally was in 2D, but then we worked with the Google VR team with the goal of investigating a VR pipeline in Blender. They were interested in developing their own tools for VR publishing, and became one of our sponsors for the production of the VR version of “Caminandes”. VR filmmaking proved itself challenging, both from a technical and an artistic point of view. When working in VR, there is an important trade-off between interaction and visual richness. Even if real-time render engines are constantly raising the bar, offline rendering is still an option for the highest level of quality.
VeeR: Compared to traditional filmmaking, how do you manage to capture the attention of your audience in a VR video?
Francesco: In the end, it’s all about telling a compelling story. Of course, the medium influences to a great extent how your audience interpret your content. By medium I’m not merely referring to the fact that the video is in 360 but also the devices people use to watch 360/VR with, such as mobile phones. You can insert your phone into your Cardboard and look around, and it lowers the threshold for people to have a VR experience. In 2D filmmaking, you need to attract the attention of the viewers to what you want them to see. In VR videos, of course it’s a much bigger canvas, but the core concept remains the same, and in that sense, I’d say they’re not so different from each other.
VeeR: But after the audience put their goggles on, how can you cue them as to where to look at?
Francesco: It depends on what kind of experience you want to give to people. You need to provide the viewers with hints like “hey, it’s on the other side”, but they have to be subtle. Suppose if you are watching a movie, and somebody is telling you, “look at this character”,”look what happens here in the background”, it will naturally annoy you. One of the biggest advantages of VR is that the experience is much enhanced by headsets. Sounds can be a great cue during production. You can easily turn some heads by giving out a sound in a certain direction to imply that something is happening. In some cases you might still want to go for a visual cue, though.
VeeR: As you guys have mentioned, you had some troubles with rendering. How did you eventually resolve the issues?
Francesco: These are some challenges that you have to tackle when you develop tools from the ground up. In the case of rendering, we had to render our film into very high resolution (8K) because it had to work on high-density screens. When rendering images for VR it is important to be aware of how they are presented to the users. In particular, the higher and lower parts of the image (closer to the poles) did not need to be looked at by the audience, and they presented a lower level of detail compared to the areas where the main action was happening. We took advantage of this and introduced a functionality in the render engine that would allow it to render with less detail (therefore more quickly) those portions of the image, and spend more time where it really mattered.
VeeR: Do you think in the foreseeable future, VR animations will give animation the strongest momentum that it might rival 3D or 2D animation in importance and financial contribution?
Francesco: I think they are different in a way. At this moment, given the current technology, it would be very hard to make a VR film 90 minutes long. Maybe in a couple of years, the screen will be floating in front of our eyes without any physical support, and you can just be immersed in this world and you can watch a film entirely in VR. In the end, VR will become an augmented version of the medium people use for consuming traditional content, but I think there will have to be some grand-scale innovations before this becomes possible.
VeeR: Where did you get the inspiration for Koro the llama and Oti the pesky penguin in “Caminandes”?
Francesco: Our director of this series was from Argentina where all these animals coexist, in an environment that blends the mountains with the ocean. Having spent a lifetime there, he had many story ideas involving all kind of animals. That’s why we are developing “Caminandes” as a series, where in almost every episode we meet new characters.