Explore the Tree of Life in ‘Namoo’—An Interview with Oscar®-Nominated Filmmaker Erick Oh

Oculus Blog
January 24, 2022

If you haven’t had the chance to experience Namoo yet, now is the time. Written and directed by Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Erick Oh (Opera) and produced by nine-time Emmy® Award-winning Baobab Studios, it’s a hand-crafted narrative that follows the journey of a budding artist—and his tree of life—from beginning to end. And it was recently shortlisted in the Animated Short Film category for the 94th Academy Awards®.

A short film and VR experience, Namoo was made in VR using illustration and animation tool Quill. It was inspired by the passing of Oh’s grandfather and marks his most personal work to date. We sat down with him to learn more about this emotionally moving experience and the history behind it.

Tell us more about the inspiration behind Namoo. How did the project come to life over time?

Erick Oh: The genesis of this project takes us all the way back in time to 10 years ago when my grandfather passed away. It was the first time I was saying goodbye to someone whom I truly loved. During this grieving process, I thought a lot about life—where we come from, where we go afterwards. While thinking about all those things, I made myself a little doodle, almost a picture-book-quality drawing. It was about a little boy growing his own tree by hanging his own items and belongings on the tree. That was it. It was really just a couple of drawings I did. They’ve been sitting in my mental drawer for a long time, about a decade. And then two years ago, I had this inner calling that it was about time for me to take this out of my mental drawer and bring it to life.

It started from this couple of single paintings and turned into a 12-minute short, then a 13-minute VR experience.

How long was Namoo in development?

EO: While the core idea of Namoo has been there for about 10 years, our production period was about a year and a half—half a year of just myself writing a lot and drawing a lot, doing all those thumbnails and storyboards to make it into a narrative storytelling experience from a single painting or drawing, then another whole year to really produce Namoo into both the VR and short film versions with Baobab Studios.

Any favorite anecdotes you'd like to share?

EO: This was such an international collaboration. The team was small, but the artists were literally all over the place. One artist, Dan Franke, is based in Germany, and Nick Ladd is in Canada. And we also got Jon Brower based in Connecticut, on the East Coast of the States, and then of course, most of us in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And then I was in Korea for half of the production timeline. Our production manager, Anika Negpal, had to function 24/7 to connect all the dots, connecting all four different time zones into one place.

How did Namoo build on your previous works in fine art and animation? In what ways was it a departure from what came before?

EO: Namoo was my first time using VR as a medium. I’ve always been an artist who’s excited about trying new things, blurring all the boundaries, not being afraid of trying new things in terms of storytelling. I tried traditional painting, media art, narrative animation, and so on—and then finally VR for Namoo.

How I choose the medium is completely dominated by the message and the idea itself. Depending on what type of story or message I would like to convey, I find the right medium that could support it the best. That way of thinking is, in my opinion, coming from my fine art background. I didn’t study animation from the get go. For the first couple of years in college, I was just exploring a variety of mediums. I think that this experience made me be able to approach animation the way I do at my present stage.

Why was VR the right medium for Namoo?

EO: I already knew that Namoo would be such a spiritual journey toward yourself, so I wanted the audience to find themselves in the story. I thought to myself, there’s gotta be something more than just linear storytelling. It doesn’t have to be just a singular narrative. It can be much more immersive and interactive even and more about an experience. That’s when I thought about VR, because VR is all about experiences. It’s all about teleporting you to another space and making you experience things. You become part of the story. Baobab were the ideal partners in helping me realize my vision, as they are true pioneers in the field of VR.

Namoo is really about the journey to yourself. And VR was the perfect medium to deepen and expand the world of Namoo in my mind.

Namoo was created using Quill. What motivated that decision?

EO: While I was thinking about finally giving birth to the idea of Namoo, I was getting super excited about this VR wave because everyone was talking about it. It was a thing back then. As a creator, of course, I was inspired too. And that’s when I was introduced to this amazing software, Quill.

Of course, the biggest influence was coming from my friend, Goro Fujita, one of the creators of Quill. He single-handedly introduced me to the world of Quill, and I was blown away. Literally.

So I gave it a try. I lived a couple of days inside Quill, you know, drawing and animating and painting and designing everything intuitively in virtual space using Quill. Before long, I knew I had to use this amazing tool Quill to tell the story. And I was already designing the world of Namoo, and then with Quill and VR—here we go, boom! Everything came together.

What was it like working on a VR production during a pandemic?

EO: Earlier, I told you that it was an international project. Every artist was logging in from different places in the world. This setup was already happening before COVID, before the pandemic swept us away. In a way, we were already in COVID system mode. Consequently, this production turned out to be one of the few productions that actually wasn’t physically impacted by the pandemic situation because we were already working remotely.

Looking back, we were bold and brave enough to actually do it because it was a VR project. We were communicating in VR, we were sending files in VR. We were sending VR shots and files back and forth to each other’s headsets. We were working on this project early on in VR, so it was perfect for this whole situation. We didn’t hit stops or blockers because we were building everything in the virtual reality world, not the reality which was being swept away by this pandemic. I feel fortunate that everything happened with the right timing.

What informed and influenced Namoo’s art style?

EO: I briefly mentioned the doodles and paintings I did 10 years ago when my grandfather passed away. I did those in watercolor. I invited Eusong Lee in as an art director. Eusong is an amazing painter, filmmaker, and a great friend of mine. I didn’t second guess the idea to have him because he is so specialized in lighting and color and controlling the warmth and mood through color. Because Namoo is all about the passage of time, telling the story through lighting was critically important. Eusong was the perfect fit. He also studied my own painting style, and he came up with this amazing artistic style that really satisfies all those things. He took my own tactile artist hand, the warm tones from my watercolor paintings, and then painted actual physical lighting on top of it. That combination became our guiding star for our style. On top of that we were able to transfer and apply it in Quill without any compromise.

How do you think VR and AR will continue to change the face of the arts moving forward?

EO: VR, AR, and even the metaverse—it is inevitable. It’s already happening. But I don’t think it’s going to replace anything. It’s just another platform, another medium to tell a story in addition to the amazing storytelling device of cinema, right? As an artist, it’s very empowering to have another amazing medium and platform to tell our own stories with. Even if I decide to stay as a filmmaker in cinema, being able to experience VR will be a huge inspiration to become an even better filmmaker.

I really want all artists to be open-minded, embrace the change, and not get intimidated by it. Just take it in as inspiration. It’s another language. It’s not going to replace anything. Just have fun and take advantage of all those amazing mediums of VR and AR.

What advice would you give to creators looking to start building for VR?

EO: I think that VR is something between a cinema language and a theater play. When you think about a theater play, the audience sits in one place, then the actors come on stage and start acting. They start performing in front of you. It’s different from watching a movie. There are live actors. You have the freedom to look at whatever you want. You can look at this actor while your friend who is sitting next to you takes a look at the other actors over there. But there are several elements that guide you to follow the storyline: visual cues, spotlight, direction of music and sound, performance and choreography of the actors, and so on. These are things you can use in VR.

Then, cinema is the other way. We can control the camera, the direction, and the vision with pacing and the cuts—all those things which are only possible in cinema. So we don’t want to get confused by what VR is capable of. You don’t need to force the best of cinema into VR. I think that may be the shortcut to failure.

There’s so much amazing content from VR while there are also lots of examples which aren’t working so well in VR because it’s all coming from a misunderstanding of this medium. Try to understand the strengths of VR and the weaknesses. Then you’ll be able to come up with something nice that fits VR content.

What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?

EO: Everything is confidential, but I’m working on a lot of new, exciting projects. I will continue expanding and deepening my world of storytelling just that way I’ve been doing—narrative, non-narrative, and more. Can’t wait to share more soon in the near future.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

EO: One of the goals that we wanted to achieve with Namoo was to prove that Quill is a great tool for storytelling. Before working on Namoo, I saw a lot of test shots and little vignettes done by many different animators and artists all around the globe. But I didn’t quite see them all coming together as one piece of artwork or story yet. I wanted to showcase a good cinematic story using Quill. I hope to see more of those challenges and attempts with using Quill in VR. Please just have fun though. No pressure. It’s all about expressing yourself and sharing your thoughts—expressing your emotions so we can all be more connected. Thank you so much.

Check out Namoo in VR Animation Player on the Quest Platform today.