Yonatan Tal’s new Quill-animated VR experience, Lifetime Achievement, debuted in the Oculus’ Quill Theater on December 12th, winning positive reviews. The 15-minute short tells the story of an eccentric clothing designer voiced by Darren Jacobs ( Death Stranding), who is searching for the perfect gift for his revered seventy-year-old mother Marieve Harington ( How I Met Your Mother). Tal used a flat two-dimensional design style for his world, which gives the cutting edge tech an accessible, modernist aesthetic.
Lifetime Achievement, produced with Oculus, is now available on the free Quill Theater app in the Oculus store. At just 30 years old, Tal is suddenly one of VR’s top directors, making the story behind the VR narrative interesting and dramatic as well. We caught up with Tal via Zoom last week.
Charlie Fink: How long were you at Disney TV Animation and what division were you in?
Yonatan Tal: I was there for two years, in their Development department I got to work closely with show creators and develop pitches and pilots for new animated shows. On top of that, I storyboarded shows they had in production at the time, such as “ Monsters at Work” (Disney+) and “ Amphibia.”
CF: What year did you graduate from CalArts?
Tal: 2017. In my final year at school, they offered a VR class for the first time and I jumped on the opportunity. I made a little project with my roommate at the time. However, after graduation and during my time at Disney, I worked on traditional animation production. With that said, I still had one eye on what was happening in the VR field, I went to conferences and read news about new hardware and titles. I remember having an irresistible gut feeling that I NEEDED to work in VR. I truly see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to pioneer in an entirely new medium that combines art and innovation in ways humanity never experienced before.
CF: So it’s 2019. This is a year, year and a half ago. You left Disney. What happened next?
Tal: I leave Disney with no plan aside from the notion that I wanted to do VR. I just knew it was time to follow that gut feeling with no safety net. So I did three things: , First, I started my own little development incubator. I created little comics, and came up with short stories and visuals, in order to bring myself back to my instinct as a storyteller. Second, I bought a VR headset, a gaming laptop, and just got into VR, and especiallyQuill, as soon as possible. Third,I started educating myself about what it meant to start a business. The podcast “Startup” by Alex Bloomberg played a big role in my life at that time, even though I don’t see my studio, Parade, as a startup, but a life-long investment.
CF: Why Quill and not Tilt Brush?
Tal: Both software can produce incredible content, I just had friends in the Quill community, and I liked the style of the pieces created with it.
I taught myself how to use Quill by watching tutorials online. It was a learning curve, since I’m coming from a 2D animation background, and it took me some time to readjust to the 3rd dimension and to working inside VR. However, once I passed the technical hurdle, I could smoothly translate all my animation skills into Quill. I quickly realized how streamlined the software is and how it allows you to skip the whole CG pipeline and you just go ahead and create. Getting into Quill was so liberating as an artist. You create your designs and animate them right away, without worrying about rigging, skinning or texturing.
CF: Where did the story come from?
Tal: When I write stories, I usually begin with a message that I want to convey, and the plot and characters are formed around it. As the story is developed, or sometimes only after the entire project is made, I realize what I was truly trying to say in the first place. “Lifetime Achievement” is about being present in your loved ones’ lives. It’s directly based on my life, trying to make a career on the other side of the world, thousands of miles away from the people I am most close with. After 7 years of living almost entirely to feed my career ambitions, I stopped to ask myself “How big is the sacrifice that’s in living away from your family, friends and homeland, and is it still worth it?”
CF: So that was the part of the story that you really related to?
Tal: Definitely. I can’t create anything that I don’t care about. I just can’t, I can’t put anything out there that I don’t deeply relate to on an emotional level. “Lifetime Achievement” is stylized in a very whimsical, colorful way, but its story is rooted in an extremely personal and relevant theme.
Tal: once I started working with Quill, I realized that stylistically, keeping things simple and graphic could prevent the experience from getting dated with time.The overall aesthetic was inspired by Maurice Noble’s backgrounds for Looney Tunes, which I grew up with, and was obsessed with as a kid.
CF: More of that UPA designy style?
Tal: Exactly. Back in the day where Chuck Jones and Morice Noble created the golden age of Looney Tunes, they had to work with limited budget and time. They used their strong design skills to come up with smart solutions. I looked at it the same way when I worked on the production design for Lifetime Achievement. We also had limited resources, but I wanted to make the style feel intentional and accurate for the story. After the assets and storyboard were ready, it was time to hire a producer. Fortunately, I found an incredible one, Ziporen Hazum, that made the project possible to achieve. Together we brought in five more animators, the fantastic musician Daniel Markovich, and talented voice actors. Sound design was made by the audio team at Facebook, led by Paul Gurman.
CF: And how did Oculus get involved?
Tal: It was a few months after I finished at Disney. After I got some more experience with Quill, I reached out to the Quill team, led by their amazing producer Ryan Thomas and lead artist Goro Fujita who is the Quill master of all. I asked him if they were looking for pitches because I knew that they were starting to develop longer-form stories. I put together my pitch, which included the overall story, the design style, and a little animation test for the character. We had some back and forth, and eventually, it got greenlit. Through the process of making “Lifetime Achievement,” the Quill team was extremely supportive. Their mission is to give creators a platform to freely tell their own stories, in their own terms, and there’s nothing more liberating than that. Since the VR animation pool is still a small one, there’s a feeling of “we’re all in this together,” which is really nice.
CF: So you had a form a company to take that money from Oculus?
Tal: I did. Before I knew it I had to hire up, so it was inevitable.
CF: Now, you’re a CEO of your own studio.
Tal: The thing is, I always knew that I would have a studio at some point. I just didn’t know when it was going to be, but I like the fact that it happened organically, and that I was able to find team members of such quality in such a short time. Now that Parade’s first project is out, I can’t wait for what’s coming next
Charlie Fink: So, so what’s next?
Tal: To begin with, there is still a lot that I want to explore in VR narrative storytelling. So we’ll create more shorts, but the stories will be different stylistically and tonally. From there, I’d like to get into the interactive space as well. VR is inherently interactive, and I’m curious to find new ways to use interactivity for the sake of storytelling. There are so many interesting things happening in the VR/AR space right now, and I’m constantly looking for what Parade can do next in order to innovate.
I think that one of the most exciting things that are happening now is the rise of virtual beings. Animators were always fascinated with the moment when they play their animation, and their character comes to life. Now we’re actually getting closer to having life-size, moving, talking, and even “thinking” characters. It’ll be a while before we get to have those characters in their final form. Until then I’m excited to be at the forefront and help this emerging industry grow