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In Conversation With The Crew of VR Animated Short 'Lutaw'

Geramy, a young inventor, simply wants to find a better way to get to school. The VR animated short film, Lutaw, highlights a particular issue in the Philippines in which several communities of students, unfortunately, must force themselves to swim and traverse across the smaller isles in order to attend to get their education.

Lutaw made its debut as part of Tribeca Cinema360 this year, through Tribeca Film Festival's own remote response to the coronavirus pandemic, Tribeca Immersive.

The film is directed by Samantha Quick and produced by Michaela Holland. With animation spearheaded by DJ Baylon and Juan Gabriel Fernandez, the film’s spatial audio was created by Matt Hauser and Dan Teicher of Immersive Music and Sound, with additional compositions from Filipino composer Teresa Barrozo.

Lutaw was one of six finalists that has been nominated out of nearly 200 submissions for the Positron Visionary Award at Cannes XR—a special jury prize for Best Cinematic XR. Works honored with this distinction “speak to the power of storytelling in VR and represent some of the best cinematic content in VR today”.

The team was able to share some of their thoughts on the motivation behind creating the film.

AFA:What inspired the motivation and need to create Lutaw?

Sam: Lutaw was made possible by Oculus’ VR for Good Program. In this program, nonprofits and filmmakers can apply to the program and Oculus will match a filmmaker to a nonprofit. I had never heard of The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation before I was introduced to the nonprofit’s founder,  Jay Jaboneta, two years ago. Jay began The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation after seeing children in his local area swimming to school. He identified a need in his community and organized volunteers online to coordinate the construction of boats and the distribution of supplies. Given the logistical issues of island living, growing this nonprofit across the Philippines was no small feat! Lutaw was created to shine a light on the work done by The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation and to raise awareness internationally.




Can you discuss the research and Filipino support that went into Lutaw? Can you also discuss the story and history behind the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation and the stories that transpired the need for this organization?

Sam: Before setting out to write and direct Lutaw, it was of utmost importance that I visited the communities where Yellow Boat is active and interviewed the children and community members extensively in order to tell the story as authentically as possible. Last January, I traveled to Caohagan, a yellow boat community off the coast of Cebu, and spent a week shadowing the children as they traveled to school and went about their daily lives. The interview questions ranged from mundane to personal but I noticed that no matter what the subject, their goals and aspirations were aimed at giving back to their community and supporting their loved ones. When we set out to develop the concept for the film, it was of great importance that we honor this theme which is how we settled on this story about two siblings working together to help the people around them.

Michaela:
Outside of the initial visit that Sam took to Cebu for research, we have had incredible Filipino support from our animation team, Chibot VR. They have been integral in the production process of Lutaw.

The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation started when Jay Jaboneta found out there are children in the south of the Philippines who have to swim to school. He and the other founders utilized the power of social media to create awareness about the issue. They were also inspired by the concept of the yellow school bus and applied it to water. Thus, the yellow boat was born. But they didn't stop there, they are now building classrooms and schools, dormitories that serve as half-way houses, childcare facilities, and other structures to ensure no child is left behind. The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation works to improve children's access to education and make it easier for them to go to school and stay in school.





How was Lutaw's final style finalized? Can you describe some of the processes that went behind pre-production to actual production? What is the significance in incorporating VR? 

Sam: The style of Lutaw was developed by Ruby Wang, a Taiwanese concept artist working out of Texas with Flight School. Flight School excels at developing interactive content that is both beautiful and streamlined for interactivity, and Ruby Wang worked with us to develop a visual style that was unique but also achievable given the budget and timeline. We drew inspiration from Miyazaki’s Ponyo and [Disney’s] Moana in particular, but it was really Ruby who developed the look and feel of the characters and landscape. I gathered a lot of visual reference material for the film while I was in Caohagan so that our art director Ruby Wang could draw the actual plants, animals, fabric patterns, and house designs that are present in Caohagan.

Michaela: We were highly inspired by the impactful storytelling of Pixar shorts, and their ability to create characters and story with hardly any dialogue. The creative team strove to build a script that would be visual, inspiring, and all-encompassing in every scene. We enlisted the help of a 360 storyboard artist, crafted a visual script, and pulled reference animation images. While Miyazaki and Google Spotlight were our initial inspiration, the key piece that helped us craft a lot of lighting and style was the Usain Bolt animated piece titled The Boy Who Learned To Fly.



Our score and sound design were also greatly influenced by the traditional Filipino instruments and a 70s Filipino artist named Freddie Aguilar. We sent all of these creative materials to our art director, Ruby Wang, and our score composer, Dan Teicher, and they made the magic happen.

When a piece is virtual reality, it shifts the production and pre-production process from the beginning. Our storyboards were not focused on frames—such as wide, medium, and close-up—but rather on the full scenes we were creating. Our focus as a creative team was how the audience was being immersed in each scene. How were we choreographing the characters, animals, actions, and plot to unfold around the audience? How were we positioning the audience member in each location? If we had movement in the scene, would it be easy to track or easy to miss? What was the priority plot point for each scene? And so on and so forth. That is why the diagramming and the 360 storyboards were key for the pre-production process. From there, it was really about more traditional animation production processes, such as art direction, 3D modeling, and character rigging. Reviewing the animatic, we needed to make notes about the height of the user and adjustments to the character choreography. The 6K quality for the 3D VR film made the render times take days.



Ruby: VR is a unique platform. Although working on pre-production in VR is pretty much the same as working in traditional 3D animation, the most important thing we have to always keep in mind is the technical limitation and eye leading elements when telling a story in VR. In VR audiences can turn their heads to any direction they prefer. It brings freedom to the audiences to discover little details in the environment we built. It’s like creating their own experience watching the story. However, we still want the message of our story to be told clearly and properly. Designing eye leading elements becomes very crucial. We purposely used some elements to draw our audiences’ attention, such as the swimming direction of the shark or making the background not as interesting as the main scene. We also had to face some technical limitations in VR. Different from traditional 3D animation render into videos, VR has to run on particular platforms. In order for more people to have access to the piece, sometimes we can not make things too complicated or heavy because lower power devices will have a hard time running the piece. Knowing this, we found a style not only suited for Lutaw’s story but also worked within our budget and technical limitation. Our director Samantha Quick did research in the Philippine to help me keep my design as authentic as possible, and Chibot did an amazing job of interpreting my concept arts into 3D elements. I’m glad we found a balance between all the limits we had and present a beautiful piece to tell.





Why is Lutaw conveyed through an animated medium? And why not through more traditional forms of animation?

Sam: Lutaw was initially meant to be a 360 film, but due to logistical problems with shooting on a remote island without power, I decided that animation would be a much more practical approach. Before I set out to write the script with Michaela and Irene, I knew that I wanted to create a film without dialogue so that we could maximize international distribution and awareness. I wanted anyone to be able to watch the film and understand the story. In my opinion, no one does animated dialogue-free shorts better than Pixar, so Michaela and I watched a lot of them as part of the research process.

Michaela: We didn’t feel it was necessary to create an extra budget and production time to find VO. We wanted the world to be vibrant enough and the characters' actions compelling enough that the project would not need dialogue. We were heavily inspired by Pixar shorts and their use of music, sound effects, and creating rules within the world. The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation is for children, and we wanted the piece to bring a child-like awe and playfulness to it within the hints of the resilience of these children’s situations. As a Filipino-American, family is a central theme in our culture. My bond with my younger siblings is dynamic, layered, and yet also simple. Themes of sibling relationships, frustration with homework, and taking matters into one’s own hands, are universal, whether on Caohagan island or Manhattan island. This became the universal theme that I felt would tie audiences to the piece and create engagement while experiencing the film.

What are you hoping audiences would take away from Lutaw? What future do you see in animation's role in telling more stories like this? 

DJ: I hope that after people watch Lutaw, they will gain some awareness of the plight of some underprivileged people with barriers, learning how The Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation is working hard to help alleviate that and that they too, the audience, can help make a difference by supporting Yellow Boat with its advocacy..








Judge
: Lutaw is a way for people to discover what is actually happening in a small part of the world, where normally, they don’t even realize the hardships children endure just to get basic education. I just hope Lutaw can help people see what's going on and hopefully take action with the use of organizations like Yellow Boat. Animation is an amazing way to tell stories, spread information, share ideas, and show events that are happening around the world. I see animation as a way for organizations like Yellow Boat to show the world what is happening in the hidden rural parts that the viewers would have never known about. I see animation being used more for purposes like this.

Ruby: I hope the story of Lutaw can bring awareness to organizations like Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, moreover bringing people’s curiosity to know more about what’s happening around the world. Our planet is so big and full with people living in ways we can not imagine. Maybe by learning about them we are more appreciative for what we have and furthermore contribute whatever we can to help other people. Lutaw’s story is not only light-hearted and positive, but also full of creativity and imagination. Our protagonist, Geramy, challenged herself to find ways to improve her current situation. Hopefully, that will inspire other people who are facing some difficulties in their lives too. Maybe it is hard for us to change the big environment surrounding us, but we can always work together and make things better!

Michaela:
When the audience is immersed in the piece, I hope they sense the care and time that our Filipino animation studio, Chibot VR, and our art director, Ruby Wang took into making the world rich and dynamic. When a person in headset witnesses Geramy’s gumption and refusal to quit, I wish for them to feel the compassion, authenticity, and warmth that we took in crafting the story.





In conclusion, come for the immersion of a virtual reality piece, but I invite you to also enjoy with a childlike wonder—laugh, groan, smile, dance, and cheer alongside Geramy and Isko. Because if we can understand someone else’s challenges and victories, then we have perhaps taken the first step in creating true unity.


Elvie Mae Parian is an animator who also likes to spend her spare time through writing and criticism. You can follow her on Twitter and see her own art on Instagram.

Find out More about Lutaw here and Yellow Boat Of Hope here.

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