From the creators of Gloomy Eyes comes a new VR film about Toto, a short-sighted child with an exceptional talent for music. He must find his way through the world of darkness to bring back his sister, taken away by the shadows. He’ll use the depth of music to open portals to the invisible world. He’ll confront the shadows, and they’ll reveal their purpose. Follow Toto as you step into a miniature toy-like town to discover the mystical lands of light and darkness in Paper Birds, available on the Oculus Quest Platform.
Starring Archie Yates (Jojo Rabbit) as the voice of Toto, Paper Birds incorporates hand tracking to give you more freedom and let you feel like an orchestra conductor. With light interactivity, you’ll use your hands to paint along with the music, unlock portals, and direct the light of the invisible world.
We sat down with Paper Birds Writer and Co-Director German Heller to learn more.
What was the inspiration behind Paper Birds?
German Heller: I used to play music in shamanic sessions for many years in Brazil, over hours and hours. While playing in the forest, I felt the music was connected to everything around me. Colors, scents, feelings became a blend and transported me to an inner space in which I would discover many things about myself.
The access you have to the audience through VR is far more intimate than any other media. I felt like I could tell a story that can bring you closer to that experience of music, as a bridge to your emotions.
The story is about finding the inspiration within yourself and the world around you, learning from teachers and mentors, but its plot talks about how we often tend to idealize others and renounce our self power. The main character is a little boy, Toto, who realizes that his grandfather and role model wasn’t what he thought it was. Toto has a special connection with music.
How (if at all) did the project change over time?
GH: The essence of the project remained pretty much the same since the very first writing. But the scenes did evolve a lot over production. We’re researching storytelling language in VR as we progress, so many decisions about direction were taking place after trying out different ideas. That made the project so much better. We had a lot of space to go back and redo things from scratch until we felt we achieved the feel we were looking for for each scene. Some of the metaphors in the story also redefined themselves during the process. We basically got to know better what the “great shadow” was... and found out that the grandfather was the true villain in the story. More of that will be seen in Part 2.
How long was Paper Birds in development? Any favorite anecdotes you’d like to share?
GH: Paper Birds Part 1 was between eight to 10 months. There were many crazy anecdotes. The main one might be that we did this project during a pandemic with a lockdown. The day of the submission for the official premiere at the festival La Biennale di Venezia, I tested positive for COVID. It was perfect timing to rest right after so much work. I was lucky to be completely asymptomatic.
How did your previous work in VR help inform your work on Paper Birds? Did any lessons learned from Gloomy Eyes come into play?
GH: I see Paper Birds as a continuation of the process we started with Gloomy Eyes. More than half the team is the same. We used everything we learned and tried to build on top of it, the main thing being that this was natively conceived for Quest. I was very excited to work for a standalone platform, but we had to face several technical limitations.
Also, the inclusion of interactivity with the hand tracking felt like something really fresh—something that was an experiment I really wanted to try.
Any cultural references players should be on the lookout for?
GH: Paper Birds is a mixture of tones and colors. There is a great influence from a mixture of the European feel, the culture immigration, the melancholy of Tango, the scents of a port town with wet wood and water. Our main influences were movies like Coraline, Les Triplettes de Belleville, and Spirited Away. Part 2 will have more of a Jazz influence also.
Paper Birds has such unique character designs. How did you decide upon that distinctive style?
GH: We worked with the king of character design, Oscar Ramos. We had a very clear and defined idea of the feel and the personality of each character. He was able to translate that to a key concept art that we developed before even writing the full script. The characters were the pillars of the story. We drew them until we had them at a level where we could truly see them, and they would tell us their story.
Who did you work with on the soundtrack and sound design? What was that experience like?
GH: Cyrille Marchesseau was in charge of giving life to the heart of the piece: the music. This French guy is just an amazing genius. He was deeply inspired by the project from the very beginning. The result of his work exceeded my expectations, which were huge in the first place. He managed to include the bandoneon around a musical world with many other elements. The music of this piece is at times deeply emotional and also gets to be very mystical in a perfect balance. I can’t thank him enough for contributing so much beauty to this project. I really recommend experiencing Paper Birds with great headphones.
And the sound didn’t fall behind. We worked with Source Sound, Francois Lafleur, Tim Gedemer, and many others. The sound was so detailed and perfectly balanced. It really needed to create space so the music can shine, and it did much more than that. Congratulations to them for their exceptional work.
This project also included an Astor Piazolla track recorded in the ’70s by the great Juan José Mosalini.
What’s something about VR films you feel would surprise people?
GH: With VR, you have so much reach and power to the user. Your movie is right in their face. I believe the biggest element here is the art to reach their emotions in a delicate way, without them even noticing—to create an experience that touches them, so when they take the headset away they realize they were in another world.
What advice would you give to a creator looking to start building for VR?
GH: Mmm... many. One would be: Never renounce beauty. I come from an animation background, and VR has many elements of a more gaming kind of platform. I think it is a big challenge to achieve beauty in VR because of technicalities, but it is very possible to do so. Beauty is a very important aspect of the world, and in VR we feel it much more.
Another one would be to be subtle, not to be too aggressive with the audience. Not to overload too much, and if you do it, do it very consciously and create a quiet space afterwards so they can recover. We have to really take care of the audience—enough VR roller coasters.
That also reminds me of the importance of courage and originality to try new things. What would you yourself want to experience? There are many things that are yet to be discovered about the language of the media and a lot of space to explore.
What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?
GH: Well, yeah! With my ridiculously talented co-director Federico Carlini, we’re fully focused on Paper Birds Part 2. There will be a lot more there. We’re playing with different scales of characters and the possibility of having the user direct an orchestra with hand tracking. Part 2 will be very different—less contemplative and more action-based.
We’re also prototyping a fantastic game concept that I think will do what we’ve learned in storytelling for VR with a lot of humor. I think that project will take us to a whole different level.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
GH: It might seem selfish, but I would actually want them to share their thoughts with me! I would be very happy to hear from them, hear what they thought about Paper Birds, their favorite scene and their least favorite... and any suggestions, comments, ideas, or random thoughts they might have about the piece and the format. My Instagram is @germanheller.
Paper Birds Part 1 runs roughly 20 minutes. Keep an eye out for Paper Birds Part 2 coming out later this year.