Oculus Story Studio Shuts Down
Facebook shocked the VR community last week with a blog post announcing the closure of Oculus Story Studio. The narrative-focused internal team was formed around the beginning of 2014 with the stated mission of blazing a trail for filmmakers interested in the VR medium to get into real-time rendered experiences rather than 360 video. The studio would develop tools and techniques other developers could use.
Story Studio made its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with Lost, which puts you face to face with the lost hand of a giant robot. They followed it up with the story of Henry, a hedgehog in search of a friend willing to give him a hug despite his quills. That film won an Emmy. Most recently, they released Dear Angelica, which is an emotionally arresting story told through a three dimensional painting that evolves as the story unfolds.
Dear Angelica also gave rise to Quill, a digital painting app that is now orphaned. Oculus is planning to make it open source, but will cease to update the version on the Oculus store. Quill has been overshadowed by Tilt Brush in the public eye, but as it was developed as a production tool for Story Studio, it has a slightly different use-case that will continue to be useful for artists interested in following in Dear Angelica’s footsteps. The tool had also recently sprouted some animation capabilities that enabled some really compelling content, but the new features remain unreleased, so they may only become available once the open source project is available.
The Story Studio team seems to have had little warning about the decision. Only two weeks ago, Story Studio had debuted their latest project Talking with Ghosts at the Tribeca Film Festival. The LA Times was very positive about it in a piece running down five VR films from the festival. Saschka Unseld, who left Pixar to help form Story Studio and directed Lost and Dear Angelica, posted a wistful tweet about not being sure what was next. Maxwell Planck, another ex-Pixarian and the studio’s “technical cofounder” wrote: “Last week was … hard. I still believe in VR and the trail ahead. A life’s work worth doing shouldn’t be easy.”
However, despite an outpouring of sympathy on Twitter and a lot of reactions calling the decision a mistake, some are arguing that the VR content creation community is better off without Story Studio in the mix, even if they were providing technology through Quill or by open-sourcing Henry. Ben Lang at Road to VR makes that argument:
Claiming “mission accomplished” is a nice way to let everyone involved (deservedly) walk away from Story Studio proud of their work. But it isn’t the only reason it made sense to close the internal studio. Another was due to an awkward relationship to external studios who are trying to build real businesses in VR film.
Studios like Within, Baobab, Penrose, Felix & Paul, and plenty more have raised significant money in the pursuit of becoming defining studios in VR film. These companies would often rub elbows with Oculus Story Studio at big film events like Sundance and Tribeca, ultimately all competing for the same limited amount of attention.
But as Oculus is a major VR platform holder, it often ended up shining the spotlight most strongly on its own internal Story Studio works, with big press events and even preferential placement on the Oculus storefront; not exactly the kind of relationship you want to have with external creators whom Oculus wants to court and help thrive on their platform.
Our founding editor Ian Hamilton posited on Twitter that Story Studio may have devalued content on the Oculus Store by offering such high quality experiences for free. Unseld responded “It's a delicate and important balance where the right path isn't a black or white decision.”
Palmer Luckey is once again posting publicly on his Twitter feed after months of near-silence in any public forum.