"To make the user believe that they matter" - Erick Oh, Kane Lee (NAMOO)
NAMOO is an animated VR experience that uses all the tools cinematic VR offers to animation to invite the audience on a spiritual journey through life and memories.
Sometimes - not often - you come across a story that feels like a poem. It speaks to your soul and leaves you with a smile because, just by watching it, you’ve found some hope again, and you’ve remembered how beautiful everything can be, in this crazy life we are living.
Sundance, this year, was a place of hope. Hope for a different future, like the one the users built together in Beyond the Breakdown. Hope that love and shared memories will never be for nothing, like in the meaningful Tinker (x). Hope for equality and justice and awareness for all human beings. Great lessons that we remembered with works like The Breaking Same and Secret Garden.
A story at Sundance that left me with the most beautiful, fulfilling happiness is NAMOO, directed by Erick Oh and produced by Baobab Studios.
“This evocative, immersive experience follows the journey of a man from birth to the end of his life, with the entire journey taking place on a grassy knoll next to a seed that grows into a sapling and, eventually, a fully mature tree. Namoo, which means “tree” in Korean, collects meaningful memories in its branches—from pacifiers, stuffed animals, books, and favorite scarves, to broken glasses and objects from times the man would rather forget.” Sundance Film Festival – New Frontier catalogue
Watching this short, animated piece created using Oculus Quill was something that, to me, went beyond curiosity for a well-made immersive experience and its technical advances. It was more of a spiritual journey into the meaning of our lives and the significance of each and every moment we experience.
The apparent simplicity of the work, one of its strengths, reaches you, right to the core of you, far more directly than any complicated lucubration could ever do.
NAMOO talks to you with lights, and sounds - no words to distract you - and an array of familiar objects that no matter what you like, where you work, what you are most driven by: you will still feel that the life of this man – who was inspired by Erick Oh’s grandfather – means something to you, teaches you something, and represents your own journey and the journey shared by all the people you cared about and have lost along the way.
We caught up with director Erick Oh and with Kane Lee, producer of the piece and head of content at Baobab Studios, for a heartwarming chat about NAMOO and its deep meaning. Here is what they told us.
Each story has its ideal medium: NAMOO and VR
ERICK OH – VR has been under my radar for a long, long time. But each story has its own medium: some of them need to be told as short films, others require a feature-length format. Others perhaps need to be written.
When the idea of NAMOO came to me, I could feel it required something different, something that was not just linear. For a long time, I didn’t know what it was, and I have been patiently waiting to find the right way to tell it.
And then I realized that VR was the perfect language. NAMOO is a spiritual journey that goes deep into your heart, and VR felt to me like the right format to express this, because it could capture this spirituality in a very natural way.
Creating the experience
E. O. – When we look at our life, we sometimes divide it into chapters. There are different stages in life that everyone has to go through. And that's where we started, the core idea of NAMOO.
According to this inspiration, we started designing each chapter and imagining the unique designs of the tree, and with it the weather, the changing of the seasons... The different camera perspectives make the size and the height grow with you and, along with the camera movements, reflect the character's mindset and his own growth.
So we are using everything that cinematic VR can provide. Music, time, perspective, choreography... all to really help you experience the story and feel it more deeply within you.
To recognize yourself in the story: the approach to users' experience in NAMOO
E.O. – I think it's really important to provide a reading space that viewers can find themselves in as they follow the story. Of course we're clearly giving them a guideline about the kind of experience they're having and the story, but we're not forcing them to fill this box in a one-dimensional way. We want them to feel and think in a multilayered way.
Making a poetic, simple and minimalistic piece gives you more room to breath and, somehow, broader opportunities for that and that’s how I usually approach my works, whether it's a short film, a clip, or a VR experience.
KANE LEE – The poetic style that characterizes this animation works very well in terms of everyone being able to find a piece of themselves in the story.
We were very intentional in making sure that while we focused on this one man’s story, at the same time, we would invite you to reflect on your own life through the power of VR.
Everyone has different interpretations: we have not only embraced this, but I think this was Erick's goal. Something that is hard to achieve, yet he succeeded. So for me personally this story represents that saying that we are not just humans on a spiritual journey, but we are spirits on a human journey. And that’s why I really connected with this work during this past year: in NAMOO there’s a human life in front of us, which we see in full, but then there is also another layer, which we understand intuitively. It makes me feel connected to this person’s soul, who is inviting me to join his journey both to witness it and to be a part of it. That is my perspective on NAMOO and the reason why I’ve been so passionate about it as one of Erick's producers..
K. L.: In 2021, we celebrate Baobab Studios' five-year anniversary. Our mission is to bring out your sense of wonder, inspire you to dream, by making you matter.
This last part is something we embraced from day one: to make the viewer fully feel and believe that they matter. There were very few character-based VR experiences when we first started. Many took you into new worlds, but didn’t really introduce any characters directly to you or make you a character alongside them .
But to us that was critical. And in Erick's experience, you don't have physical hands or anything like that, but you still feel metaphysically part of the experience, and alongside this character from start to finish.
That emotion, that quality is the VR superpower of making you feel like you matter. And to have that from someone like Erick, an amazing poetic animator who has such a distinctive way of looking at the world, was a guarantee of success in doing something new. So, we felt like we could collaborate and use this different set of animation tools in ways that we hadn't seen before in animation. In ways that make you feel like you are really stepping inside a poem that is unfolding, that has a very different rhythm than traditional linear storytelling, and a lot of different layers of meaning, and a simplicity and an elegance that allow you to embrace the poem and make it your own.
Animation in VR between technology and content
E.O. - Whatever medium you are using, whatever story you are creating, it is always successful if you don’t see or feel the technology behind it. Even in a movie, you don’t want to notice all the CGI, you just want to feel that it was blended into the narrative. And that’s how I approached VR as well.
There are many contents created just for the sake of VR, to showcase a technology or to experiment on it, and that’s great of course. But to me VR is a tool for communication. My goal was to make a good piece of art where VR was just the language I was using. So, I tried to create an experience where the audience could forget they were wearing a headset and feel engaged in the story the moment they were in.
K. L. – There are some limitations for animation in VR. It has to run on a mobile headset, the processing power is very low, all our experiences are rendering at 72-90 frames per second depending on the headset, so nowhere near the rendering capability that you have in a traditional animated film. But this project doesn't focus on hiding the limitations of animation in VR. It is a work that takes advantages of all the other tools that you have in VR: the staging, the scale, the elements that can subtly creep up on the viewer and impact them in less obvious, somewhat less heavy handed, but highly effective ways.
K. L. - For example, the sense of scale changes throughout NAMOO: this is something that Erick and we worked hard on, so that it served the story but in a way that we wouldn't be able to do in a typical animation or other media.
But every little detail of the experience was handcrafted and created with one question in mind: how can we bring the best of animation into VR, into this new industry, and at the same time embrace what VR has to offer animation?
Symbolism of NAMOO
E.O. - Korean culture is a big part of myself, but I did not try too hard to put Korean cultural elements into the piece. Rather, I tried to find the balance between sharing my personal experience and creating something that had a universal meaning. I did not take into consideration a specific philosophy. What I really wanted to share was how I see – and we see – the world and our lives.
K. L. - This project is Korean in the sense that Korea is Erick’s birthplace and the tree of life is inspired by the ones who came before us, so in his case specifically his grandfather. But we are called Baobab Studios. Trees have a deep meaning for all the artists and animators at our studio. And we are all inspired by those who came before us.
So, specificity represented by your origins is something we never wanted to shy away from, because it gives a unique sort of sensibility to this piece. But at the same time NAMOO is really tapping into the universal.
Each one of us has experienced loss. Each one of us has moments in life that are captured in our minds like a picture. Frozen moments that are so impactful and feel like eternity and other days and weeks that are gone in the blink of an eye. Actually, I think the entire world experienced this during the pandemic, so NAMOO is a product of our time, but at the same time we hope it is timeless. My takeaway from it is that everyone has their own tree, and everyone's tree has its own journey. And this concept, to me, is a very emotional one.
E. O. – I’m totally with Kane. The biggest symbol in NAMOO, to me, is the art of painting. Painting is something our character really cares about and at some point he gives up. It could look like we are specifically talking about the life of an artist, the life of a painter. But the meaning that the act of painting takes on is that of a dream. It could represent anything that you are passionate about. You're invested emotionally or creatively and then you lose it, and it's a heartbreaking feeling. So, NAMOO is all of that, a symbol that allows our viewers to recognize themselves in its story.
A universal experience and a heartwarming message
E. O. - When an artistic work is born and comes into the world, it no longer belongs to its creator alone. That’s what I believe. It goes out there and it says something. We are all living in difficult times, and what I’m trying to tell people through NAMOO is that... it is ok. NAMOO represents the embracement of our lives. Life is full of ups and downs. There are beautiful things and there are really painful things, and sometimes there are things you want to remove, scars that you don’t want to have. But those are part of you, too.
At the end of the day, you will face your own tree and it is going to be your tree no matter what. It could look ugly, beautiful, crooked, but it’s yours. So, what I'm trying to say to myself and share with the world is that no matter what, if you’ve lived your life to the fullest and really taken every single step sincerely, then that’s already the most beautiful and meaningful thing you could do.
K. L. - NAMOO tries to lay us bare and figure out what makes us human, and what defines our lives. There are a lot of things along the way that are not really important, and if we strip off the things that don’t matter and figure out the ones that really do, then we get closer to our core and to where we started all along. To me, it is really just a journey of acceptance. If I had to capture one feeling I had at the end of it all, this is what I would say: acceptance but with hope. And the idea that life continues in many different forms and that we are all in this together.
NAMOO will land on the Oculus Store later this year.
For all of you who haven't had a chance to try it out at Sundance, we highly recommend that you do as the next occasion. Because the meaning of NAMOO – the one that both Erick and Kane hoped to convey to their audience – is something you can perceive in every single scene. And something that leaves you much richer, spiritually and humanly, after you've seen it than when you started it.