Mixing 2D and 3D for VR Storytelling

The Book of Distance is a beautiful historical VR Experience, in which elements of 2D and 3D are combined to make for a unique visual style. Learn more about the team and how they used Substance to make the experience come to life.


PC – My name is Paul Constance, and I was the 3D artist on The Book of Distance VR experience. My role was modeling, UV-ing, and texturing assets in the experience. 

EB – I’m Emma Burkeitt. I was the lead artist on the project. I collaborated with Randall Okita and Sam Javanrouh to develop a visual identity for The Book of Distance. During development, I also worked on layout and lighting, as well as some 2D and 3D asset production. 

SJ – I’m Sam Javanrouh, the art director for The Book of Distance. I joined the team early on, and my role was to develop a visual language for this story in close collaboration with our director, Randall Okita. Soon after, Emma joined our team, and the three of us developed the look and feel of this beautiful story.  

Story and art direction

PC – The story is about a Japanese man’s life-changing journey, and it’s narrated by his grandson. You follow the character as he travels from Japan to Canada in 1930 and experiences both happiness and sadness. The Book of Distance is in virtual reality, so it really pushes the intimacy of the story, allowing you to almost experience someone else’s perspective.  

EB – We wanted the experience to have a very strong and illustrative visual identity, since it has strong thematic connections to storytelling and memory, while also maintaining the physicality of objects, to help the audience member feel present in our virtual world. We chose to achieve this by combining realistic PBR materials with hand-drawn linework and elements of stylization inspired by shin hanga woodblock prints. We were drawn to shin hanga not only for its beautiful illustrative visual quality, but also because it was an artistic movement happening during the time in which the story was set. 

Shin hanga landscapes depict romanticized views of Japan, which made them quite popular in the West. The sense of fond nostalgia in these prints thematically supports Japan as a home and place of childhood memories for our hero, Yonezo, who at the beginning of our story goes through the experience of immigrating to Canada. 

SJ – This is a very personal story about Randall’s grandfather immigrating to Canada from Japan in the 1930s. It’s a journey through memories, conversations, exploration, and discovery. We had access to a large archive of family photos and documents from Randall’s family, as well as access to archival material through various resources. One of our challenges was that we wanted to stay true to the source as much as we could while creating a modern VR experience.

There were also elements of the story that were lost through time, and we had to help Randall’s vision to bring those unknowns to (virtual) reality! We needed to respect this very important story by researching the era and the details and the specifics surrounding it. This brought us to various Japanese art styles, mainly woodblock prints and especially shin hanga, which is an art style from the early 20th century. Emma had a personal connection to this art style as well, which made us even more excited.  

We also decided early on that we wanted to create an experience that would be in large part a theatrical performance, one in which the user is a participant.  

All this brought us the challenge of creating a 3D theatrical VR piece that’s largely inspired by shin hanga and a woodblock-print style, which are essentially 2D styles, while incorporating many archival photos and documents.  

EB: I’ve been looking at shin hanga prints for many years because my dad collects and sells them.  

Examples of the shin hanga art style:

Japanese Noh style

PC – Japanese Noh played a big part in our overall inspiration, along with many other art styles from Japan, such as ink painting, woodblock prints, and calligraphy. When creating the experience, we had to remember it would also have a large Eastern audience, so getting the correct influences and art styles was key.  

EB – Noh theater was an interesting starting point, but I would say the project’s connection to it became looser as we went through development, in favor of more general theatrical language, such as spotlights and theater flats (painted wooden background panels, etc.). We wanted to draw that sense of physicality and familiarity from theater, to ground the viewer in our virtual reality and emphasize the theme of our story as an investigation of storytelling as a method for promoting healing and understanding. 

SJ – When we decided to create a VR theatrical performance, we started exploring the various Japanese theater styles and were interested mainly in the Kabuki and Noh disciplines. Our great concept artist, Meka Karam, created beautiful concept arts based on these ideas. Over the course of the project, though, the Noh-inspired elements transformed and in certain scenes became less impactful than others. Traditional Japanese and Noh theater always informed our design, but not always in an immediately recognizable way. We called it: Magical Theater! 

From 2D to 3D

EB – Our main method for achieving the cohesion of these styles in the case of 3D props was through texture. After creating our realistic textures in Substance Painter or downloading them from Substance Source, we would — either directly in Substance Painter or with Photoshop — add illustrative elements such as hand-drawn lines inspired by shin hanga, or watercolor accents to give the objects a handcrafted, storybook quality. We leaned more heavily on the shin hanga illustration style in our theater flats.

Although our faraway background props were often just 2D illustrations (literally, quads with textures on them in engine), some of our closer-up theater flats, such as the waves in the boat scene, were 3D objects with 2D illustrations on their textures. To do this, we created 3D-modeled wooden bases and stamped the 2D illustrations we created in Photoshop onto the 3D model’s texture map using Substance Painter. This method made the close-up theater flats appear like actual wooden props that someone had painted/printed onto.  

SJ – Emma explained the process best. The key was to maintain the look of our textures and stay away from making the world too realistic by keeping in our shin hanga illustration style as much as possible. The idea of incorporating theater flats came to us early on and was the perfect tool for us to incorporate that style, wherever possible, to serve the story.  


PC – The tools I used were: Maya, Substance Painter, Substance Source, Photoshop, Oculus Rift, and Unity. 

SJ – We used Milanote for Mindmapping and Moodboarding everything. Procreate and Sketches and Concept on iPad for drawing ideas, Photoshop for everything related to images, After Effects, and Premiere for walkthrough tests and animation prototyping, Sketchup for installation designs and InDesign and Illustrator for printed marketing materials.  

Combining Substance Painter, Photoshop, and Substance Source

Pc – Almost all our materials were from Substance Source; it gave us a huge selection and saved us a lot of time, which is crucial when working within a small team. With Substance Painter and Photoshop, we were able to make the materials look unique by adding our own drawn art style to them. 


Tips & tricks for VR

PC – When making assets for a virtual reality project, my main pieces of advice would be: 

  • Know the general distance and positions of objects from the player/play-space, because you might lose fine details due to anti-aliasing on objects, and sometimes textures may even glitch. 
  • If you are texturing an environment, constantly go back and forth in your VR headset to see how your scene is affected by light and reflections.  

The Book of Distance

The Book of Distance will be featured at more international festivals and venues in 2020, with a home-consumer launch planned for later in the year. Programmers and industry members can contact the National Film Board of Canada for more information.  

The Tribeca Film Festival announced their interactive projects today though they are as of today unsure how they’ll be presented or when: https://www.tribecafilm.com/festival/immersive/virtual-arcade.

Final words

PC – Texturing so many assets within Substance Painter was a good way to get a deeper understanding of the software, especially when experimenting with so many different surface types.