There are currently two main VR applications that allow direct animation inside VR: AnimVR by NVRMIND and Quill by Facebook. These tools are designed to maximize animator’s time and efficiency, and creators are increasingly getting into it. Everyday amazing creations are posted to theVirtual Animation Facebook Group… check it out! It is an exciting time for animation in VR. I recently got to chat with Milan Grajetzki, a talented interdisciplinary designer and co-founder of NVRMIND, (the VR research lab behind AnimVR). I got to learn a bit more about what he’s been up to since animating in VR has been picking up pace within the animators community. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.
With the release of Quill’s animation feature, animation in VR is gaining a lot of traction. The outreach performed by Quill (Facebook) has propelled animation in VR into to the light and people are taking notice of its potential.
Alex: Hey Milan, could you introduce yourself and tell us how you ended up creating such a powerful tool that is AnimVR?
Milan: Sure, thanks! I’m Milan and I work together with Dario on AnimVR, which is a tool that allows you to animate, integrate, and share animated assets in VR. I’m originally from Germany, but I live in Denmark. I studied at a media art school and my background is in music and programming. At some point I found Unity3D and I got into making games. I moved to Denmark in 2014 for a six months student program hosted by the Danish Film School. About fifty students came from all over Europe to work on games and animated shorts. They kind of locked us into a building for a couple of months, this is also when I got to go to my first game jams, and witnessed the Unity/indie game scene in Copenhagen. It was so nice that I decided to stay! After this project I moved in Viborg to work for ten months developing a game with CG & animation bachelor students at The Animation Workshop. Then I moved back to Copenhagen to work with the VR Unicorns. We had a lot of fun jamming out prototypes with our first HTC Vive Devkit, and from that collaboration Selfie Tennis was born, which we shipped as a release title when the Vive came out. Eventually, I moved back to Viborg and this is where I live right now as artist in resident of the Open Workshop program. AnimVR is my residency project. Once in a while I have a little bit of time to make music but nowadays, I’m usually busy with AnimVR and/or Unity stuff.
A: Can you tell us a bit more about the genesis of AnimVR? As you’re not an animator yourself, how did you end up developing a tool for animators rather than, let’s say, a VR music production station?
M: I went to the International Animation Film Market in Annecy in 2016. Around the time Tilt Brush got released. This is when animators started to know about VR and my friends were asking me when they could animate in VR. At the time it was not possible so I thought that maybe I should try to do it. I stayed home for a day during the festival and made a simple prototype (in which you couldn’t do much except for drawing, creating frames, and playing that back, it didn’t even have onion skins) and had my friends try it out. It kind of worked and I had a proof of concept. After I was back, The Animation Workshop was organizing the annual Viborg Animation Festival and they offered some support to refine the prototype so that people could try it out at the festival. After the prototype was done I made a post about animating in VR on reddit, and made the first version available to the public. Since that got such an overwhelming response, I started to think that maybe I was onto something, that I should maybe pursue further.
A: How did Dario enter the picture?
M: Around the same time, I stumbled upon a super inspiring talk by Alex Evans of Media Molecule about a certain way of describing 3D shapes and rendering them. I got really excited about trying something like that in VR, so I reached out to Dario who I knew back from the film school project in Copenhagen. He was the only one I could think of who’d be able to pull of the tech involved in this. His response was beyond excitement, since he had watched the same talk a dozen times as well. We decided to give it a go and had a basic VR sculpting app within a few days. Amir Ebrahimi, who I knew from visiting Unity Labs with the VRUnicorns, saw our prototype, and asked if we’d be interested to transform it into a tool for Unity’s EditorXR, which they were about to announce. Dario and I hacked away for 2 weeks, and the result was Creations, a VR sculpting app announced on our website. That’s when we noticed that we really like working together. It went super smooth and we were super productive. Around the same time Oculus Medium came out. It was pretty much based on the same kind of tech as creations, but much further developed in terms of UX. I asked Dario, if he’d like to join me working on AnimVR instead. So we could develop something that people were apparently very interested in, but didn’t yet exist. Thankfully he said yes.
M: The AnimVR alpha version at the time didn’t even have a ‘Save’ feature. So we started by fixing that, adding Undo etc. and two months later we released our first beta version. That’s also when we really opened up to welcome beta testers. Many of our longest users and connections to favorite artists come from those days. Since then, we released a Unity Toolkit, added a timeline, animatable cameras, various import & export features and lots more. We regularly update the app with new features, and maintain the Facebook groupAnimVR Support. Our main issue at the moment is that we’re only two people. We don’t have any funding, Dario is currently writing his bachelor thesis and I’ve been doing day job work as well. We’ve never worked full time on AnimVR, it’s always on and off and we’re getting to the point where we need to work full time on it. There are so many people contacting us, so many features we want to implement. Just today, I didn’t check my phone for five hours and I had like thirty-one new emails.
In a nutshell, we have all these cool ideas, and most of the features are already designed. All what’s needed right now is really just the time to implement them.
A: What is your roadmap like? How would you like to see AnimVR growing? Are you aware of any studios using AnimVR to create commercial content?
M: The nice thing is that Dario is almost done with his thesis writing! We’re going to Montreal in the middle of April because the National Film Board of Canada is inviting us to give a workshop and right after we’re going to Berlin to the Amaze festival. We will stay there for the whole month of May as we will have a desk at VR Base. For the first time, we’re going to work together in the same space (usually we work remotely) and full time on AnimVR. Our hope is that by the end of May we will be pretty close to what we want the release version to be. Key features that we want to work on include animating groups, refined UX, workflow optimization (like easily copying frames, quick selecting between tools, etc.). By the way, Dario’s bachelor thesis is about eliminating the rigging process for meshes. Which means that if everything works out we will have a system where you can import any kind of model and start posing it right away!
M: Now regarding the vision for AnimVR, there are two main things: one thing is that we want to be very open. That’s why we spend a lot of time making sure that our users can import and export all kind of stuff and integrate AnimVR at any step in their pipeline the way they want. The other thing is what I’ve always wanted from the start: interactivity. I want to fire timelines when I stick my hand into something, say a certain word, or look at a specific object! That’s the ultimate goal, and what’s most fun in VR anyway. By now we’re pretty close architecture wise so that we can actually implement these things. We have a lot of cool ideas about how to pull that off, at this point, all what we need is time. We’ve just founded our company and we’re building it up as we go. We’ve been contacted by big studios and we’re figuring out how to deal with them. Numerous other companies and freelancers already use AnimVR for commercial work. My guess is that a lot of animators that work in studios have AnimVR at home, and they’re probably the ones pushing the studios to equip themselves.
A: Besides time, what do you need the most right now?
M: We need content that explains what is already possible with the app, since Dario and I are both not artists, we often lack the ability to explain what a feature does, and why it is useful. I think most of the time, our minds hover around somewhere in the future: We implement a new feature, and get super excited about the explosion of possibilities that it opens up. But we kinda forget to tell our users about how it works and what the implications are. Thankfully Joe Daniels has been sharing a lot of amazing content made with AnimVR and provided great feedback from the very beginning. He’s a great guy and one of our longest testers. He has thousands of hours clocked in AnimVR, and he probably knows everything! Last year he gave a talk at Dreamworks about VR animation and he created a demo of a VR storyboard, to show off how these tools can transform, and speed up the production process. Whenever he has time, he’s always working on AnimVR projects. Same goes for Nick Ladd who’s been helping us a lot as well. He’s been exploring a lot of experimental workflows by combining assets created in different apps, and making extensive use of new features. After we added animatable cameras, he made a movie in 3 days, and used our Unity Toolkit to create a small game together with his brother. Those two have been our main ambassadors, but we could always use more!
A: What about exploring a more abstract side of painting/animating in VR, inspired by Jamil Mehdaoui’s work. What do you think of the current ‘animation in VR’ scene? Is there anything you would like to see more?
M: Jamil is one of the only person who does something different. I really like his work for that. I’m not super happy about everything kinda looking the same at the moment. The tools shouldn’t have so much power over what the artist makes and how it turns out. In general, I’m not very happy yet about how the rendering and painting works in AnimVR and Quill, even in Tilt Brush. Lines in space are good for some things, but not for others. And if you want nice gradients and colors, you still need to think about topology. I’d like to see something more expressive and artistic, where you can be sloppy and messy, tweak things on the fly, move shapes, and follow your intuition while you work. I really love the philosophy behind Media Molecule’s Dreams: People interested in new ways of content creation should check out some of Kareem’s Dreams Streams. We’re just in the beginning of it all, and I’m sure we’ll see more exciting ways of creating in VR very soon.
A: Thank you Milan and long life to AnimVR!