September 06th, 2020 | by Agnese Pietrobon

“VR offers a much deeper and intimate connection to the audience” – German Heller (PAPER BIRDS)

Whenever I try VR, there is one thing I cannot help but be fascinated by. It is the way it takes you to a different world than you are used to and for a moment makes it even more real than the reality you are physically inhabiting.

It’s been said over and over but it is true: if you let yourself go, you don’t take your headset off with the feeling that you’ve just watched something. Rather, you feel like you have lived something, and that memory will stay with you and with the stories you tell your family and friends.

This feeling of being transported to another world is what mesmerizes you when you experience Paper Birds, immersive work in competition at the Venice VR Expanded of the 77th Venice Film Festival.

“Paper Birds is the story of a short sighted child (Toto) 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.
This journey uses the senses to evoque our inner darkness, and the mystery that lies within it. The unknown that we’re often afraid to see. A story about inspiration, intuition, emotion and how these qualities are invoked by the music”


Paper Birds is directed by German Heller and Federico Carlini and produced by 3Dar, the company behind another acclaimed VR work, currently available on the Oculus Store: Gloomy Eyes by Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado (here’s our article)

German Heller recently joined an XRCrowd event where he discussed some relevant elements of virtual reality and immersive works (here you can find a recap of the main ones).

We discussed with him how these elements feature in Paper Birds and here is what he told us.

At the origins of Paper Birds

German Heller - The original intention of this piece came from my own experience with music. I used to listen to music for hours when I was very little and I remember the feeling of being transported somewhere else.

VR offers a much deeper and intimate connection to the audience. The goal of this piece was to use music as a bridge to go deeper with sensations that are deeply stored in our memory. Like the feel of the wind and the smell of wet wood of a port, or the cold of tiny drops of rain coming through a window.

Paper Birds is a composition of sensory landscapes and the music (composed by Cyrille Marchesseau, who already worked with 3dar on GLOOMY EYES), which connects everything to our memories and emotions.

The story is about the disappointment of a young musician and with it, the awakening of his own potential.


The beautiful art of Paper Birds and what inspired it

G. H. - There are many elements combined in the art of Paper Birds. I felt always attracted to the bandoneon and part of the tango kind of culture of Argentina. But this isn't that specific, it's like a blend of it with some of the old Italy, or a lost town in France.

I was inspired by a game I used to play as a kid called Monkey Island in which the whole town was built upon bridges and water. I was fascinated by it. Also, I was deeply touched by Les Triplettes de Belleville, a beautiful French movie which was completely sensorial.

My inspiration came from elements which caused a deep impression throughout my life, too... and I always craved to go back to those places. The cable car, entering a waterfall, the room of Toto (the main character), even the invisible world where inspiration comes from. All places that I would like to be in.

VR can make you feel like you are there. My intention was to go... and invite everybody who wants to come.


The concept of active witnessing: watching something but also being a part of it

G. H. - Active Witnessing is absolutely applied to Paper Birds as well it was to Gloomy Eyes. We took it to a different level here, making use of the wonderful hand tracking feature of the Oculus Quest.

In this experience, if you come closer you hear different things, you discover details, you can explore. What is new is that you can interfere with the scenes a couple of times, using your hands.

However, we tried to stay away from the gaming mood. That is why we invite the user to drop the controllers, so they can be receptive, and be inside the story but without the responsibility and the need to do something.

The attention the user reserves to the characters and to the world goes deeper in this way and it creates more empathy. It makes the user feel that they are in a different space and it stimulates their sense of wonder.


A new way to interact

G. H. - We heard about the hand tracking at the Oculus Connect last year.

Immediately we knew that it needed to be in Paper Birds. It was in a beta version (and still is) so we're still learning what works and what doesn't, but the goal was always to add value, without affecting the receptive mood we desire for the user.

The balance between story and voiceover

G. H. - We wrote and recorded 10 times more text than what actually ended up in the piece.

There's a particular thing about VR: you need to really feel the scene inside VR with all the components. Only then you realize if there is space for more or if there isn’t.

The cadence of the voice of the actor, combined with the timing of the music, the feel of the space... it's really about equalizing all of that and telling only the necessary. Voiceovers cannot be complicated. You cannot talk about many things at the same time. It becomes too much. It's all about dosage.


The challenge of creating an experience for a wider audience

G. H. - We did Gloomy Eyes for a huge computer with a powerful video board. Paper Birds is for Oculus Quest, which is great but it's basically a cell phone chip running Android.

Basically, we had 20 times less hardware resources. And bigger ambitions for the look and feel! So making all of this working on Quest was the biggest challenge for sure.

However, I feel we succeed, and I love Quest. No wires, it is just much better. This is how VR is going to get to people.


Connecting with the audience

G. H. - I'd like the audience to connect with their sensitivity during Paper Birds, as I did while working on it and when I watch it. Music is very powerful and can really touch our core. And this piece is about music and being in touch with yourself.

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