A dreamy city in the sky is the setting for Allumette, a marvelous virtual reality fairytale by Penrose Studios that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade. The magic of the medium is in its power to transport, and slowly spinning in circles while this fantastical tale unfolds in 360 degrees is a feast for the eyes and emotions. Allumette is an intimate, animated reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen's “The Little Match Girl,” which explores the love between a mother and child and the impact of sacrifice for the greater good. “Allumette was very much driven from my own personal experience,” Penrose CEO Eugene Chung tells The Creators Project. “I thought about the sacrifices my parents, particularly my mother, made growing up. She worked very hard to give her family the kind of life she never had. The themes of sacrifice and morality are themes that are very deep and dear to me.”
The Creators Project previously profiled Penrose, previewing both Allumette and The Rose and I, a short film loosely based on The Little Prince. Clocking in at 20 minutes, while many VR experiences range between five and ten, Allumette (or, “matchstick” in French) is an immersive filmmaking opus, a proof of concept for artists defining the lexicon of VR storytelling.
The world of Allumette is modeled on Venice, with majestic boats drifting through wisps of cloud and cobbled bridges arching across blue sky. Many of Penrose’s artists and technologists came from Pixar and Dreamworks, and Allumette’s animation looks similarly tangible. Though the film is rendered in CGI, the environment feels organic. Lightly interactive, viewers can move around to examine the world from any angle, and in an inspired touch reminiscent of dollhouses and Lego metropolises, lean in to make walls vanish, revealing bonus scenes inside tiny boats and houses. “In many ways we’re combining the best of video games and stage plays and cinema, and we’re putting them together in this completely new artform. When it comes to something like looking into the boat, that’s not something you can do in cinema,” Chung says.
Donning a headset and entering Allumette’s world is affecting, and Penrose’s work is a thrilling pass the medium. “When I think of the early era of filmmaking, it’s almost like we’re back there. One of my favorite observances was by the film critic Pauline Kael, who talks about the early days of cinema as being this era of infinite exploration,” Chung muses. “That’s where we think we are in VR. These are just the early stages.” Aside from being aesthetically beautiful, Allumette proves that filmmakers can tell emotional, multi-act stories in VR. This opens the door for the medium to stretch beyond documentary and gaming into the narrative realm, and that, in and of itself, is a triumph.
Allumette will be made available later in 2016 on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and as a launch title on PlayStation VR.