Movies that have been painted and animated with a VR headset are nothing new. Most, however, are single scenes that loop like an animated GIF. The camera might move around, highlighting small details, but there isn't much of a story. Wired, meanwhile, is different. It's one of the first pieces of VR animation (that is, created inside VR) with multiple scenes and a discernible narrative. The gorgeous short follows a boy exploring a world that doesn't have wireless technology. He falls from a cable above some enormous skyscrapers, provoking nearby residents to look up and appreciate the sky.
The film was created by a single person: Zeyu Ren, a design student and motion graphics artist in New York. He started the project after watching Alex's Sci-Fi World, a jaw-dropping loop created by Matt Schaefer with Oculus Quill, a Facebook-owned 3D painting and animation package. Intrigued, he started experimenting with the Rift headset owned by his college, the Rhode Island School of Design.
Ren had a personal project on Instagram, called Planet Diary, where he would paint 3D globes and write short captions about their fictional people and characteristics. In December 2016, for instance, he drew a blue sphere called Kicage and wrote: "Kicage, an ice world where residents have to migrate back and forth between north and south to avoid the flood created by the melting ice." Ren wondered if he could use Quill to visualize one of his fictional worlds. The student was attracted by the tool's speed, which enabled 3D animation without traditionally complex modeling, rigging, texturing and lighting.
"All of those things [normally] take such a long time to do," Ren told Engadget. "But in Quill, you can do all of that just by painting."
First, he practiced a little by painting his hometown of Huabei in China. The finished loop, posted to Vimeo in May 2018, covers a busy intersection with an Apple store, Starbucks cafe and various quadcopters hovering overhead. It's a rough, but comprehensible piece filled with animated billboards, street food merchants and children playing handheld game consoles. "You can see a lot of experimentation in that one," he explained, "as I try to create this immersive, city-vibe feeling."
That same month, Facebook art director Goro Fujita released Beyond the Fence, a Quill animation designed for the company's social Facebook Spaces application. A 2D version, which runs for two minutes, was also posted to Vimeo. Ren was inspired by the short but endearing story, which tracks a small robot as he tries to escape a rust-covered junkyard. Up until that point he had only seen short, GIF-like loops. "So I thought, 'Oh, it works,'" he said.
Ren knew from the beginning that he wanted to paint a world that still relied on cables for charging and global communication. "There are probably no batteries," he explained. The student imagined a dense forest that was packed with wires instead of luscious vines. To make a satisfying movie, though, he needed a story with some kind of 'change' in the characters or environment, as well as an abstract element, or sequence, to make it feel artistic and expressive.
He decided early on that there should be a scene with an airplane attached to a giant wire. "Because that's the beauty of this setting, that everything has to be connected by cable," he said. The rest of the story took a little while to come together. Ren considered a boy with a pacemaker who wants to escape his town but is physically tied to the house he grew up in. It was a complicated idea, though, and after talking with his teachers he scaled it back to a curious boy who notices a colorful butterfly outside his balcony.