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The Lost Botanist and the power of virtual reality

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Virtual Reality (VR) is making inroads in entertainment spaces as the preferred experience for consumers of content across various sub-sectors, ranging from gaming to animation projects. Screen Africa chats to Rick and Ree Treweek, the creators of The Lost Botanist, about this game-changing technology and how it catapulted their project to new heights.

The global entertainment industry is explicitly embracing the innovations that are brought about by the technologies that are incubated in tech-hubs all across the world.

Virtual Reality is categorised as an emerging technology even though its origins can be traced back to the 1950s where it was strictly applied in controlled spaces. It was in the 1990s when VR became popular and was made available to the general public for means beyond medical and scientific research endeavours.

There is little doubt that the technology has made great strides in the 21st Century as it has diversified into Augmented and Mixed Reality.

Collision Course

The co-founder of Tulips and Chimneys (a concept and animation studio), Ree Treweek, revered for her work on the 2006 animated award-winning short story The Tales Of How, joined forces with her brother Rick Treweek to create a mind-blowing experience known as The Lost Botanist.

The collaboration saw Ree (a multi-media artist) break away from her traditional platforms and begin exploring the wonders of the VR experience, a world her brother Rick is all too familiar with.

“We (at Tulips and Chimneys) dream up and construct unique aesthetics for environments, sets, props and costumes for all media. We like to be involved in the early stages of conceptualising a project and overseeing its direction right through,” says Ree.

“We are highly skilled in character design – whether it’s a bohemian princess, a wacky vegetable or an outlandish pirate, we take great care to ensure that their stories and unique personalities are beautifully depicted,” she adds.

Rick kicked off his career making entertainment websites before launching his first start-up BreakDesign – which specialised in building websites for hospitality clients. Intrigued by new technologies, his focus shifted towards VR over the years, leading him to co-found a technology R&D studio known as Eden Labs, a hub for everything XR.

“We create impressive experiences with artists to push the limits of emerging technologies by developing XR – Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Holo-lens solutions,” says Rick.

Virtual Reality Meets Ancient Mythology

The brother and sister duo merged their backgrounds and experiences by bringing VR and animation together in a way that pioneers a new wave of consuming content generated and produced on the continent.

The collision course resulted in a project that went on to be the first of its kind by being the only African production to screen at the 2019 Annecy Animation Film Festival.

Rick describes The Lost Botanist as “an interactive adventure for immersive devices, a five-minute journey to another dimension that will restore your childhood sense of wonder”.

The short story is based on a world that has forgotten the importance of nature resulting in pollution stealing the beauty of stars from the desolate space. Through the VR experience, the viewer gets to encounter the world virtually.

“You arethe ‘Lost Botanist’in a world where dreams are starting to die. While researching the lost marvels of the natural world, you open a grimoire that transports you to the Under-Garden, the dream-like home of the spirits of all forgotten things,”enthuses Ree.

“In each of the wondrous places you’ll visit, you must find a mythical creature to guide you further into the unknown, from the Nethermere to the Amber Vale to the Nevermist…” 

The team created a fictional world inhabited by never-seen-before creatures that embody well-researched characteristics while applying existing mythologies.

Multiple Layers

Rick’s journey has been one filled with technological discoveries. Having explored the explosion of tech scenes in countries like Singapore, he experienced trends that shaped the world and are still a few years away from making their way to South Africa.

“I’ve always developed my fantasy world using tech, where Ree has focused more on multi-media platforms. So we figured we could do something quite interesting if we combined those approaches,” says Rick. “VR is the perfect platform because Ree’s approach (in content creation) is completely different and that is what sets The Lost Botanist’s VR experience apart from everything else that is out there. Add the mastery of Markus Wormstorm and the rest of the Tulips and Eden Gang – we knew we had something special brewing.”

“The technology is able to put the viewer in an interactive position, giving them a sense of being part of the story and experience, as well as the feeling of being in charge of the encounter. Through narration and sound, we help guide you through the experience but it feels as if you determine the pace and you are not hurried through the world,” adds Ree.

The animation on the project is spear-headed by Ree’s Tulips and Chimneys Studios – the company that has produced animated work for the likes of United Airlines.

The experience is curated in a way that makes it easier for the viewer to keep track of the moment without any revelations, hidden messages, or encounters flying over his or her head.

“The animation is so in-depth, people will often miss details or sub-stories as they only have so many seconds to watch each scene,” she says.

The virtual experience of the animation is built by Rick’s Eden Labs. The Johannesburg-based entity has development XR experiences for Samsung, Jaguar and IBM Research.

“The fact that you are fully immersed into the environment and can look in every direction really is quite something. VR creates the feeling of belonging in the world. No longer seeing something in a rectangle format but truly immersed in the visuals and sounds of the production,” says Ree.

Changing the Game

The use of 2D animation in a 360-degree environment in this project is counter-intuitive as the animated content is developed for stand-alone VR devices – this is evident in how the experience keeps the viewer at the centre of everything he or she is encountering.

“We wanted to challenge ourselves and create the experience on a low-end platform, meaning that when it came to scaling up to larger VR platforms, a lot of the challenges were already solved by getting it to run on mobile VR where we have a lot more limitations,” says Rick.

This year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival attracted 90 submissions from nearly 30 countries – with The Lost Botanist being one of only nine VR submissions and Ree being one of the two female animation directors in the running.

At the 2019 screenings, the productionwas up against big-name projects like Gymnasia (from the Emmy-winning Felix & Paul Studios), Doctor Who: The Runaway (voiced by Jodi Whittaker) and Gloomy Eyes, narrated by Colin Farrell, which took home the Cristal.

“It was amazing to have so many eyes on the film and to meet other artists developing projects in this medium. It can feel like working on an island when you’re working on a project of this nature, suddenly we were able to have conversations with people that have been through similar experiments and experiences,” concludes Ree.



Get to know Tulips & Chimneys’ Nina Pfeiffer

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

From executive producer to director, Tulips & Chimneys’ Nina Pfeiffer chats to Screen Africa about her journey in animation…

WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND AND HOW HAS THIS SHAPED YOU AS A CONTENT CREATOR? 

I attended art school in Pretoria studying visual communications, and when I began my career I juggled my time between a theatre company, an animation studio and studying medicine. I eventually realised that this schedule was not sustainable and that ultimately my passion lay in the beautiful visuals of my medical books and understanding how a body works and moves. This made the choice to permanently move to design and animation an easy one.

WHY ANIMATION? WAS IT ALWAYS THE PLAN? 

I guess I should have known from an early age, even as a toddler I was obsessed with animation – I watched every Looney Tunes story 200 times each and wouldn’t miss the 7am animation that showed every day on SABC.

WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING AT TULIPS & CHIMNEYS? 

It’s my family away from home. Our work is not known for being mundane and the office reflects that spirit, it’s a fun, relaxed space. We’re quite informal with each other and often working on our own passion projects. Then a project will come in and it’s game faces on. I love every brief we get in, as it’s just another opportunity to sit with these talented artists and explore ideas.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION?

I love traveling. I love watching people, and I love watching animation. It’s always super inspiring to see how people pushed themselves and their team to do something new or different.

YOU RECENTLY DIRECTED YOUR FIRST PROJECT – FRUIT OF THE LOOM’S ‘TALES FROM TEACHER’ SPOT – WHAT HAS YOUR JOURNEY TO THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR BEEN LIKE?

My official title in the studio is first and foremost as executive producer, but the workflow of the studio means that I’m always very involved creatively on all the projects. I’d been waiting for a project where I could swop roles a bit, so the moment the brief came in I knew this was the one that I wanted to lead creatively.

UNTIL NOW YOU’VE FOCUSED ON COMMERCIALS, ANY PLANS FOR A FEATURE-LENGTH PROJECT IN THE FUTURE?

Definitely, we’ve been developing the concept for a feature film for the last few years, and it looks like it is very close to being optioned. So crossing fingers! We’ll keep you guys posted!

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CAREER CHALLENGE TO DATE? 

There are obviously lots of challenges in running a business and working on projects, but I would say that the biggest challenge was just starting. I was 22 years old when I realised I wanted to make animated films. All I knew was that I wanted to work for the best animation studio in SA and that I wanted to produce TV commercials. I had no experience and didn’t even know what I had to do as a TV producer, so I called the studio I admired the most and told the owner he needs a producer and that it was me.

I didn’t take no for an answer, and eventually he said yes. The day I started work I was on a shoot for a very well-known brand and a very high-budget TV commercial. I have never been on a shoot before, never met another producer before and now I was one, and had to fulfil that role. It was scary, but exhilarating…and I haven’t looked back since.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR CAREER THUS FAR? 

There have been so many, but in essence it’s having the opportunity to work on so many different pieces that we’ve crafted and can be proud of. Being able to go to animation festivals like Annecy and meet the world’s best directors, animators and producers like Peter Ramsey and  Richard Williams, and being able to show them our work and seeing their positive response still is the best feeling ever.

ANY ADVICE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WANTING TO PURSUE A CAREER IN ANIMATION?

It’s definitely not an easy career, it’s hard work, and a lot of the time, unless you’re the director, you get told what to do and it can easily feel like you’ve just become a pixel pusher. Don’t stop believing that you can be the best, and don’t stop making your own pieces. Creating your own IP is the way to keep your passion alive and make a super success. At the end of the day any work can become stressful and confusing, but reminding yourself and working towards a goal is what will keep the momentum going.

WHAT NEXT FOR NINA PFEIFFER AS A DIRECTOR?

For now I’ve got my hands full at the studio but I’m toying with the idea of tackling a short film. It would be great to play on a project that had no brief and was purely a creative expression.

 

Nina Pfeiffer moves into directing at Tulips & Chimneys

Tulips and Chimneys’ executive producer Nina Pfeiffer moved into the director’s chair for the first time for Tales From Teacher, a back-to-school campaign for Fruits of the Loom that was featured on Adweek and selected as Editor’s Pick on AdAge.

In each of the three spots, Pfeiffer and her team animated a real note that a teacher sent home with a student: about why Maya may have a worm in her pocket; how a boy got a nacho in his eye; and how Nikki’s friend accidentally ate her lip-balm. As the campaign tagline says, “Parents can’t be prepared for everything but they can be prepared for the school year with Fruits of the Loom’s back-to-school packs.”

“As soon as we read the brief, we knew we were in for a fun ride,” says Pfeiffer. “The scripts were so wonderfully eccentric that within the first brainstorm we knew we’d have to design a world as quirky as the characters on the page. Nacho, Worm and So Hungry were a great opportunity to explore a brand new aesthetic with exceptionally vibrant colours, wonky designs and characters that could melt the heart.”

Produced by Strange Beast, the campaign is a departure from the intricate, layered animations Tulips and Chimneys is known and loved for, like Cerebos Snow, which won a Gold Loerie in August, or The Curse of the Sad Mummy, their League of Legends music video that has over 16 million views on YouTube.

“As the industry grows and becomes more competitive, we recognised that we needed to develop a strategy to match the industry’s demands and ensure we had an offering that was diversifying,” says Tulips and Chimneys’ producer Dianne Makings. “We’ll always continue to do highly-crafted, detail-orientated pieces led by Ree Treweek, but now we’re adding Nina’s passion for more performance and character-driven pieces to what we offer.”

Pfeiffer fell into the role of producer when she joined the animation industry but her background and education was more creatively rooted. “While she’s always been credited as the EP, the workflow of the studio means she is always very involved creatively on all the projects,” says Makings. “We’ve been waiting for a project where she could swop roles a bit, so the moment the brief came in Nina knew this was the one that she wanted to lead creatively.”

“I was very inspired by the surrealism of the piece and really connected with the stories,” says Pfeiffer. “Most of our pieces are usually quite detailed visually.  They’re more about an explosion of visuals, whereas these pieces were very strongly driven by the characters’ performances. They are all supported by the visuals, but it was firstly about the performance or role the ‘actors’ had. We also loved that it had so much humour and we spent a lot of time thinking about how to bring the humour alive.”

Pfeiffer loved working with US agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky. “They were amazing,” she says. “They understood that animation takes time to craft and that set-backs could happen any time in the process, so they gave us the opportunity to craft the spots up to delivery, only commenting on elements they really felt strongly about throughout the production process. They didn’t throw any curve balls that set us back or ate into our crafting time, the feedback was always constructive, and they trusted us to take it to the best it can be.“

Likewise, the agency benefited from having a producer directing, as Pfeiffer brought all her logistical experience to meeting the tight nine-week deadline for three spots.

“We had to really make sure that every day was productive and that no process was delayed by a missing link in the chain or by miscommunicating anything,” says Pfeiffer. “Translating our designs into 3D had to be almost perfect with the first go, so Marc Moynihan, our lead production designer, made very detailed designs and notes upfront on what we needed to achieve, and for animation we did live action performance videos as references for the animators, to make sure we left little room for errors.”

The end results are spots which ooze charm, humour and a whole new way of looking at the playground.

Watch the NachoWorm and So Hungry spots. For more information and full credits, visit the Tulips and Chimneys website

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