Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers. 

Eugene Chung, co-founder and chief executive at Penrose Studios, a virtual reality production company, says his favorite play is Shakespeare's Hamlet. "It explores these depths--not just of the human condition. It also has to do with death and the afterlife," he explained.

It is unsurprising, then, that Chung's startup takes revenue by creating new worlds in virtual reality--exploring concepts such as love, loss, and loneliness.

On Wednesday, Penrose's second VR film, Allumette (French for "matchstick"), premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, just days after the company announced a seed funding round of $8.5 million (led by Accelerate-IT Ventures, with participation from TransLink Capital, Suffolk Equity, and 8 Angel). The amount is the largest of any VR investment to date. 

Penrose's previous film, The Rose and I, was also featured at last year's Sundance and Tribeca Film festivals.

Animation that plays on a deeply personal level

Its latest is a 20-minute interactive film that follows a young girl named Allumette, who sells matches in a city located in the sky. Viewers are encouraged to interact with their surroundings--stepping deftly through thick, white clouds, or skirting around flying boats. Tragically, Allumette's mother jumps into a burning boat that explodes before her daughter's (and the viewer's) eyes. As a result, she must come to terms with her parent's death and move forward in a world that feels (and is, aesthetically) darker than it was before.

"I'm interested in the idea of sacrifice. My mother sacrificed so much to give us the kinds of opportunities that she didn't have," says Chung. "That's the guiding force of this story."

At first blush, the animation feels simplistic: a winding street here, a windowsill there, or a new character crouched beneath a staircase. Yet consider that the company's in-house animators handcrafted each cloud by hand. It's a process that, if using traditional technology, would have taken about 100 hours. Thanks to Penrose's technology, those same details were produced in significantly less time.

Penrose has been hard at work on the film for more than six months, enlisting the efforts of all 20 of its full-time staffers.

A strong track record

This isn't Chung's first time to the rodeo. Prior to launching Penrose, he worked at Oculus VR, the startup acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. There, he co-created Oculus Studio, the company's narrative filmmaking arm. (His co-founder at Penrose, Jimmy Maidens, was a major investor in Oculus during its 2012 Kickstarter campaign.)

What makes Penrose unique in the VR startup landscape is, in part, the proprietary technology, which Chung insists most traditional film directors wouldn't think to develop.

"It's just like how the best stage creators couldn't transition to cinema a hundred years ago," he says. "It took completely new cinema creators, who weren't hampered by the old way."

Animators at Penrose have access to "renderers," a system built out by its engineering staff, which streamlines the production of items like clouds and buildings.

"We're creating these sets -- made virtually, by hand," he explains. The goal: To show the public audience that VR doesn't only belong in video games, it's also a mode of narrative storytelling.

The film will be a launch title for Sony's PlayStation VR. Facebook's Oculus Rift, along with Valve and HTC's Vive, are also expected to be involved in the release.

Published on: Apr 14, 2016