Pro Tips, Trends

Inside Conan’s Head: How to Animate Your Own VR Masterpiece


If you were one of the lucky 135,000 folks who attended this year’s San Diego Comic Con, you might have seen a bunch of human-sized Conan O’Brien Funko Pop! characters lingering inside the TBS Booth.

Those custom headsets were just a small part of the brand new VR project The Molecule created for Conan O’Brien. “We created an interactive VR experience that lets the viewer see 3D-animated Conan Funko Pop! figures in either Conan’s set or his office,” explains Drew Wood, VR Producer for the project. And while we can’t teach you how to create your own Conan Funko Pop! headset (big ups to the fabrication team!), we can give you some tips and tools so that you can make your own VR animation.

Creating the experience was a blast from start to finish. It was also less complicated than one might think — Conan’s stage and office were both actually still images that we animated on top of, and our animators used tools that they were already familiar with. A project of this scale was also a total team effort, so while this post will give you tips on how to animate in VR space yourself, it’s important that we shout out the rest of the folks who helped pull it off. Big thanks to 30 Ninjas, Brand Connections, and Turner Broadcasting.

Setting the Scene

The backgrounds for this project were filmed in Conan’s actual studio and office, and were shot by the amazing DP Marcus Johannes. Molecule CEO Chris Healer says that a shoot like this was particularly difficult. “Any time you are shooting full 360, you have to clear all space around the camera, and that is a tall order when everyone is trying to prep the rest of the show.” (Below, the crew prepares for a taping of Conan.)
The crew prepares for a taping of Conan

If you’d rather not shoot the plates yourself, however there are countless resources available to you right at your fingertips. Our Conan backgrounds were still frames — perfect if you want the focus to be on the animation itself — so you could theoretically animate on top of any panoramic image you like. Pond5 has a nice collection of high-quality VR video that you could work with as well:

VR Backgrounds Collection

Starting Your Animation

Got your setting? Great! Let’s make some magic. For this project, we animated the characters in Maya and composited them with Nuke, but you could use other software that you’re more comfortable with, such as Cinema 4D or Modo.

There are definitely some artistic challenges when animating in VR space. Larry Ruppel, Lead Character Animator for the project, reflects, “While VR takes away the viewing limitations of a particular camera framing, that newfound freedom of a 360-degree perspective means you have to devise ways to lead the viewer’s eyes to where you’d like them to look, so they won’t miss any of the action.”
Pro Tip: Make sure your camera is locked in the center when you’re building proxy geometry of your space. Otherwise, your characters won’t interact properly in their VR environment.

Revisions Upon Revisions

Logistically, one of the biggest challenges of animating in VR is the render. 4K VR footage with 3D character animations will take hours, if not days, to render — and if you have hundreds of versions from start to finish, you’re going to need to render way faster than that.

If you’re animating in Maya, we recommend the plugin PlayblastVR — it will let you render out a panoramic previz so you can temp your animation into a comp without having to commit to a full render. This little tool will seriously save you hours, if not days, of waiting around for each version of your animation to render out.

From there, you’ll need to be able to view your work-in-progress on a headset. We’ve found that the easiest and most cost-efficient way to do this is to get yourself a Cardboard headset and upload your work to Google’s VR view. You’ll be able to host your work on your own server, and view each of your thousand versions quickly and cheaply.

Google’s VR view is also a great solution if you’d rather embed your VR projects directly on your website instead of linking to YouTube or Facebook.

Conan O'Brien Headset at Comic Con

Finishing Up

If you’re working on your laptop from home, you’re going to need way more render power than what you’ve got in front of you. Cloud-based rendering services are an awesome solution for this. There are some great ones to choose from, but we really like Pixel Plow.

If, up until this point, you’ve been checking your work on a Google Cardboard headset, we recommend you find an Oculus or similar-quality headset to fine-tune and quality-check your piece before you call it final.

Although we’ve been mostly talking animation tips and tricks, we should also mention that most VR experiences include audio of some kind. A great consumer-level tool for immersive, spherical audio is the Spatial Workstation from Two Big Ears (which is available for free on their website!)

Show Off Your Work!

We’ve found YouTube to be the easiest way to share your work with the world. Facebook also offers 360° video hosting, and it looks like more social networks and video hosting sites will soon follow suit.

As mentioned, if you want to embed your masterpiece directly in your own website, kick your project back to Google’s VR View, and you’re all set. Overall, the biggest advice we can give is to be patient. Animating in VR space will take some practice, even for the most seasoned animators, and it will probably take much more time than you’re used to. It is a much different beast in many ways, but it’s thrilling to learn.

Plus, if you know of a solid fabrication team like we did, you could make your friends wear a funny viewer when you show them your project. The sky’s the limit — so go for it!

Audra Coulombe is the Marketing Manager for The Molecule, a VFX, Motion Graphics, and VR company located in New York and Los Angeles.