'Dear Angelica' from Oculus shows the power of VR illustration

It premiers at Sundance today and is also available to Rift owners.

Illustration is an unusual choice for a virtual reality experience. After all, when you can build and render fully-realized 3D worlds, relying on drawings alone almost feels like a step back. But that didn't stop Oculus from pursuing a bold new animated style for its next short, Dear Angelica. In fact, the company had to build a new VR tool (Quill, its VR drawing software) to make the film. The end result is a truly unique short -- one that shows that virtual reality can be immersive even when you're basically looking at static images. It's premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and will be made freely available to Rift owners today.

Dear Angelica centers on a young girl (voiced by Mae Whitman), who's coping with the death of her film star mother (Geena Davis). As she revisits memories of watching her mother's films, they're drawn out in front of you. It's all gorgeously rendered, with a wondrous sense of scale. In many ways, watching Dear Angelica is like stepping into an interactive motion comic; there's some wonderful illustration talent at work, but it's also buoyed by a bit of movement and changing camera perspectives.

While the film isn't very long, you can pause and step through a scene at any point. And since there's sometimes a lot to take in -- I sometimes found myself spinning around trying to capture every detail of more epic scenes -- it'll likely reward repeated viewings. It's clear that Oculus spent a lot of time crafting Dear Angelica. Art director Wesley Allsbrook painted the entire experience on her own. And the voice work by Whitman (who narrates the bulk of the film) and Davis is genuinely moving. Rounding out the entire experience is some fantastic sound design, which makes the relatively small-scale short feel like a Hollywood blockbuster at times.

Looking ahead, I hope Oculus can take the concept of VR illustration further to give us a fully animated experience. Dear Angelica is a tremendous accomplishment, especially since Allsbrook drew it on her own, but it would be intriguing to see what an even larger team can do. As an aficionado of animated films, I'd love to step into the equivalent of a traditional Disney or Miyazaki movie at some point.

As the third VR short from Oculus Story Studio, Dear Angelica feels like a more focused effort. It's not trying to wow you like their first short, Lost, or relying on a fun cartoon animal to spark your interest, as Oculus did with Henry. At its core, Dear Angelica is a simple story of loss and grief, it's just told in a completely new way.