Visit the Google home page today (May 3rd) and you'll find an unusual Doodle of a stick-thin man with a pristine suit. Click and you'll be presented with a YouTube player that brings the quirky figure -- French filmmaker Georges Méliès -- and his creations to life in a wonderfully animated 360-degree short. Google is calling it a VR Doodle, which it is, sort of. Back to the Moon will be part of the Spotlight Stories app, which works with Cardboard and Daydream headsets. It will also be available for high-end VR headsets, such as the HTC Vive, through Steam and Viveport.
Various Spotlight Stories, including Pearl, Buggy Night and Son of Jaguar, have been released on YouTube before. But they've never been promoted on the Google home page -- a surefire way to attract thousands, if not millions, of extra eyeballs. Not once has the program, which started with Windy Day on the Moto X in 2013, tackled a historical figure like Méliès, either. They're usually about original characters: a mouse chasing an orange hat on a blustery day, or a security guard pursuing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Some have promoted well-known properties, including The Simpsons and Gorillaz, but these are hardly Doodle material either.
Google Doodles, meanwhile, have celebrated holidays, sporting events and historical figures like programmer Ada Lovelace and scientist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Helene Leroux, a Doodler in London, pitched a Méliès tribute to Google last summer. The director, who lived between 1861 and 1938, pioneered a host of special effects, including the substitution splice -- an early version of the jump cut -- multiple exposures and time-lapse photography. He made more than 500 films throughout his career, among them A Trip to the Moon, The Impossible Voyage and The One-Man Band. He often starred in his own films and contributed to almost every aspect of their production, from set designs to directing actors.
Initially, Leroux wanted to make a Doodle video, possibly with a mixture of animation and live action. Google encouraged her to make a VR film instead, which quickly led to a conversation with the Spotlight Stories team and Nexus Studios, a company in London and Los Angeles that specializes in film, animation and interactive stories. Nexus had worked on Rain or Shine, another Spotlight Story that was adapted into a full VR experience last year. By sheer chance, Leroux knew the team -- she had interned there a few years ago -- and was good friends with François-Xavier "FX" Goby, a French filmmaker who became the short's co-director.
Next, Leroux contacted the Google Arts & Culture team in Paris. The department had a relationship with Cinémathèque Française, a French film organization that holds one of the largest movie archives in the world, including what's left of Méliès' work. Last November, Leroux and Goby visited Paris and pored over everything in the collection, including costumes, drawings and, of course, Méliès' films. "Being there and seeing the real things, it was extremely inspiring," Goby said.
Leroux, Goby and the rest of the team then worked on the Doodle in earnest. They took imagery from Méliès' most iconic films -- the lunar landing from A Trip to the Moon, for instance -- and developed a simple story that included Méliès' wife, who appeared in many of his films, as a capable princess and love interest. Finally, the team sought out the best example of each special effect that Méliès had invented. These include the duplication and double-exposure trick from The One-Man Band and the replacement maneuver -- in which Méliès would stop the camera, switch characters and start filming again -- from The Living Playing Cards.