Movies

‘Coco VR’ is Pixar’s quiet attempt to tackle a new medium

To accompany the release of ‘‘Coco’’ (above), Pixar and Facebook-owned Oculus produced ‘‘Coco VR,’’ Pixar’s first foray into virtual reality.
Disney-Pixar via AP
To accompany the release of ‘‘Coco’’ (above), Pixar and Facebook-owned Oculus produced ‘‘Coco VR,’’ Pixar’s first foray into virtual reality.

Pixar’s decision to add a Disney featurette ahead of its holiday blockbuster ‘‘Coco’’ may not have gone over so well. But the animation company has quietly made another move in association with the Mexican-themed hit. And this one could be more significant in the long run.

To accompany the release of ‘‘Coco,’’ Pixar and Facebook-owned Oculus produced ‘‘Coco VR,’’ an experiential film that allows viewers to plunge into the movie’s Day of the Dead underworld in the emerging medium of virtual reality. For the past few weeks the roughly 15-minute film has been available free on a number of VR headset platforms, as Disney dips into waters that other studios — particularly new subsidiary Fox — have already jumped in.

It is Pixar’s first foray into VR. (Disney has had some nascent efforts.) The results could be a key indicator of the fate of a much-touted VR entertainment revolution — and whether legacy firms like Pixar will be behind it.

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‘‘We were interested in doing something for a long time,’’ said Marc Sondheimer, a Pixar executive who helped lead the project from the company’s side. ‘‘ ‘Coco’ seemed like a perfect fit because the fantastical worlds you go to we thought would be really fun to explore in virtual reality.’’

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The first-person multiplayer film allows users both to wander through and ride a train around the underworld; think of it as a really interactive bonus DVD. While playing ‘‘Coco VR’’ viewers can detour into side-room art galleries and public-plaza concerts alongside film characters such as Hector and Ceci. Users can also try on different costumes and pop off (and on) characters’ heads. There are a number of Easter eggs aimed at rewarding multiple uses.

Maybe most consequential is the networked aspect. ‘‘Coco VR’’ is meant to be experienced in tandem with another user, with two people able to walk alongside and talk with each other in VR no matter how far apart they are in real life.

‘‘Leaning into social has been very important,’’ said Yelena Rachitsky, executive producer of experiences at Oculus VR. ‘‘It’s powerful,’’ she noted, to ‘‘create a socially interactive experience that isn’t a straightforward game.’’ So-called cinematic VR has struggled to find the right balance between story and interactivity — in contrast with games, which often lean heavily toward the latter.

Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014, has recalibrated its content efforts after earlier this year disbanding Oculus Story Studio, the Emmy-winning unit that was made up of, yes, former Pixar artists. The company says it wants to keep funding stories but wants to work with outside partners more often, including Disney, under an umbrella deal, as well as startups like the Canadian pioneers Felix & Paul Studios, whose new work will be showcased at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.

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‘‘We don’t think of it as farming out,’’ said Colum Slevin, the head of experiences at Oculus VR, when asked about the new direction. ‘‘For us now, what’s important is leaning into the wisdom of the crowd. We see ourselves as removing obstacles for creators, to find someone who has a brilliant idea but doesn’t have partnership or funding and try to get them over the line.’’

Oculus’s philosophy speaks to one of the business dilemmas facing VR content: Will it be led by startups, Silicon Valley giants, Hollywood behemoths, or some combination of the three?

It also remains an open question whether consumers will be more interested in original material or the branded marketing-oriented content of ‘‘Coco VR.’’ Pixar’s Sondheimer is candid that one of the goals of the project is ‘‘to get butts in seats.’’

Both Pixar and Oculus are mum on costs and the tally of downloads of ‘‘Coco VR’’ so far. VR has been plagued by low penetration of headsets; content, which once lagged behind the technology, now has moved far beyond the ability of many people to consume it.

Still, Pixar executives said they’d like to continue exploring potential VR spinoffs for its upcoming slate, which includes new installments in the ‘‘Toy Story’’ and ‘‘Incredibles’’ series.

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‘‘Resources are very precious at the studio; we have a hard enough time making linear films, and [that’s] much more known to us,’’ Sondheimer said. ‘‘But I think this has opened people’s eyes to the medium’s advantages.’’

‘We were interested in doing something for a long time. “Coco” seemed like a perfect fit because the fantastical worlds you go to we thought would be really fun to explore in virtual reality.’

— Marc Sondheimer, Pixar executive 

At Pixar, he said, ‘‘we were a bit naive as a studio about what is entertaining in virtual reality. But we’ve learned a lot, even in terms of our moviemaking,’’ noting the ways that filmmakers on ‘‘Toy Story 4’’ are using VR to make their movies. ‘‘We should use it however we can. Our default answer shouldn’t be no.’’