Is Virtual Reality A Good Fit for Animation?

Virtual reality (VR) is the next big technology in storytelling and entertainment. Live-action is the current focus of development, but will animation benefit from such consumer immersion? If so, is it ready to adapt?


Mark Mayerson goes into some detail on his blog on the reasons why technology oftentimes takes time to develop. Virtual reality is similarly far from perfection today but video game Pokemon Go successfully puts augmented reality (AR) right into the public’s hands for both fun and profit.

How virtual reality will affect storytelling remains unknown. There’s little doubt that it will have an impact, but just what form it’ll take remains a mystery. Arguably video games will be the first sector to feel the benefits. Immersive storytelling is the entire point of video games, and technology development in that realm have already made the distance between the real and virtual worlds much smaller than other forms of entertainment.

Style is where animation is going to come up short. Traditional, 2-D animation almost demands viewing from the angle that the animator selects. The free-wheeling, roaming nature of virtual worlds presents an entirely new challenge to the style. Translating 2-D designs into 3-D has never worked well. Plenty of attempts have been satisfactory, but none created a persuasive argument for 3-D being superior in style to the original 2-D designs. In this sense, 3-D CGI holds the upper hand. Who could resist the opportunity to take the place of a toy in Andy’s bedroom? It’s entirely possible, and something that no doubt appeals to studios and consumers alike.

Will it produce superior storytelling though? My hunch says no. Blurring the lines between passive and active storytelling very much favours the latter. Animation is heavily dependent on the skills of the artists behind it to create worlds and influence the emotions of the audience. Shifting that burden so that it’s more of an even arrangement means that animation would be less about the story, and more about the consumer’s experience of it.

Perhaps the biggest concern with virtual reality is how it affects consumer’s perceptions and ability to imagine. Today, screens provide a physical barrier which forces viewers to ‘fill in the blanks’ in many ways. Eliminating this barrier removes the mental tasks of filling blanks and speculating on the unknown.

Granted, virtual reality has the potential to open up enormous amounts of potential. Virtual reality could mean that consumers never experience films or TV shows the same way twice. The holy grail for creators and producers alike is delivering a unique experience ever time. Such a setup is near-impossible to achieve today without producing additional content.

Virtual reality isn’t something to be feared per se. Radical changes to the way that animation is conceived, produced and consumed are on the way though. A plethora of storytelling choices awaits the consumer in the next 10-15 years or so. The animation front is a little too quite at the moment to suggest that it is preparing to adapt however, and that’s a little worrying.



1 thought on “Is Virtual Reality A Good Fit for Animation?”

  1. I agree with you that virtual reality seems to break from the story and becomes the experience of the story. But don’t forget abstraction. In abstract VR this might be an advantage. Who wouldn’t want a dreamscape that you can wander around in?

    You bring up a good point on imagination. In the future people might prefer VR to their own dreams and insomniacs might use it as a replacement for dreams. I suspect that VR will be ammunition for transhumanists because people will want their dreams to be as vivid as VR and will want to upgrade themselves as a result.

    Personally, I think that technology is moving way too fast. There’s only a handful of animation directors who’ve directed a sizable number of animated feature films. Why distract from that with a new technology?

    Regardless of whether or not VR has come too soon, it doesn’t allow for as much diversity in media as regular animation does. For 2D, you can only really do panoramas. For stop motion you could potentially move around but there is no way to experience anything that’s not prerecorded. Basically, the more interactive you get, the more necessary it is to have virtual 3D with physically based interaction. The physics can be cartoony or realistic but there has to be something to dictate how everything moves if it happens live.

    The eerie thing about VR and AI is that we’ll probably have crossed the border from basic AI to advanced self aware AI before we’ve realized it.

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