Paper Birds captured my imagination the moment I stumbled upon it in the program of Venice VR. Some films, books and even VR experiences have the amazing ability to enthrall you in an instance. Two lines on a paper – and you know: this is exactly what you were looking for.
Feeling the Story of Paper Birds
I had high hopes for Paper Birds – both in terms of narrative as well as aesthetics. Luckily, after experiencing it, I can say I was not disappointed.
The animated VR film tells the story of a near-sighted little boy named Toto who through his musical talent has the ability to open portals to a hidden world. Toto dives into this world of darkness in order to save his sister, who was taken away by the shadows. However, on his journey he will find something very different…
Paper Birds is directed by renowned art director Federico Carlini and German Heller, producer at 3DAR. Gloomy Eyes is a wonderful example of what Heller’s company has been able to create previously.
Last June, German appeared at an event by XRCrowd, where he discussed some exciting elements of virtual reality with Ricardo Laganaro, director of the beautiful piece The Line – A Linha. They glossed over the concept of active witnessing, the importance of world-building, and the necessary balance of narration and voice-overs (here’s a recap) – issues that I, as a viewer, also find especially relevant for anything VR.
Paper Birds is a beautiful example of how these elements can be molded together to create a touching and deeply immersive experience. Sure – trying to understand what you see and following the storyline attentively – you might end up with more questions than answers. This work is not about the mind, though. For me, it is a work made for the heart – the soul, even.
Sound as a Key Immersive Element in Paper Birds
Paper Birds combines some of my favorite elements: breathtaking style, simple interactions that contribute to the story, skillful use of the potential of virtual reality – and music. Indeed, you should experience Paper Birds with your very best headphones: your ears will be delighted.
Delighted not only by the music, but also because Archie Yates (of JoJo Rabbit fame; here voicing Toto) does an amazing job as a narrator. His voice is childlike and yet unbelievably mature: it manages to take you back to your childhood when you would gaze at the world, at once awestruck and afraid of its vastness and hidden places.
Lastly, listen to the little sound details that change depending on your position within the scene. I couldn’t help but smile and feel all fuzzy inside when I realized the radio was babbling away in Italian at Toto’s grandma’s house. They’re just small things, but these small things stirred up memories and had me feeling intimately connected to Paper Birds.
Navigating Between Sensation and Memory
At first glance, Paper Birds draws heavily from Gloomy Eyes. A voiceover introduces you into the story, the world emerges from darkness, and you feel like a ghost watching other characters come to life.
However, the mood is different. I first felt it in the starry-skied intro, only to really breathe it in when I saw the world around me covered in fog, almost suspended in time, basked in the early morning light that Toto so loves.
The graphical and auditory details are pleasingly accurate – the rumble before the rain, the drops falling sideways, the colors of the sunset… These details subtly evoke your own memories of similar moments you’ve experienced and the emotions they entailed.
As German says in an interview about Paper Birds on XRMust:
“My inspiration came from elements which caused a deep impression throughout my life, too… and I always craved to go back to those places.”
This is exactly what your mind manages to do during the experience: it stitches together these scenes with impressions from your memories. The damp, earthy smell of a sleeping city, the breeze caressing your skin while riding the cable car up the mountain, the sudden drop in temperature when the rain starts to fall – you really feel the world of Paper Birds.
Music as Company
Another element that aids this trip down memory lane is music:
“The goal of this piece was to use music as a bridge to go deeper with sensations that are deeply stored in our memory,” says German, “a composition of sensory landscapes and the music, which connects everything to our memories and emotions.”
Moving from memories, then, to something that lies beyond. When Toto starts playing his bandoneon (a type of concertina), you cease merely witnessing. The music leads you, and you start shaping the lights around you with movements that look and feel like a dance. It’s the first of many scenes where music becomes the story’s protagonist.
Listening to the beautiful music, you find your mind wandering off. The movement is mental as well as physical. Suddenly, you find yourself in a different world, one that appears endless, like the indefinite place limited only by your imagination.
Interactions Connect You to the World of Paper Birds
Interactions work in two ways in Paper Birds. Firstly, as German explains, “in this experience, if you come closer you hear different things, you discover details, you can explore”. Secondly – while dancing, for instance – you must become an extension of the world around you.
Alas, these interactions do not influence the storyline. Rather, they are a means to access your own feelings and connect with Toto’s – an intuitive process thanks to using hand tracking rather than joysticks. Using your hands adds a level of physicality that eases you into this bond and gives the experience a somewhat spiritual feel.
Distance and Proximity: Scale in Paper Birds
I was in a small room when I experienced Paper Birds for the first time. Thus, I often found myself standing in the middle of a scene. Once, I had to watch a scene from behind a closed door because I could not get any closer.
This might not have been a fault after all, as looking at settings and characters from strange and close perspectives, I was able to enjoy astonishing details I would have missed otherwise. It also made me feel like a ghost: aware of what was happening, yet unable, by my own nature, to see everything.
However, the new updated version (that awaits its release) is rearranged to fit smaller spaces – and this are wonderful news. Paper Birds is simply too beautiful, too detailed and – if you don’t mind a poetic angle – too filled with infinity to let the experience be muddled by the VR guardian system.
The first part of Paper Birds will be available on December 10th for Oculus Quest. The second part will follow in July 2021. In the meantime, you can enjoy 3DAR’s previous award-winning work Gloomy Eyes, already available on the Oculus Store.
May the music be with you.