Sing into this app and a gaggle of magical forest, Moomin-like characters will harmonise with you
Introducing your new acapella partners: a bevy of woodland creatures animated by Iorama to react to users in real time. Entranced, we ask the studio how they did it.
- Liz Gorny
- 24 May 2022
Let’s set the scene. You clock off from your WFH shift a little stressed, plod over to the sofa, crack out your phone and click on your new fixation app: Chantlings. On the screen, you’re greeted at a forest clearing by a huddle of curious characters. As you’ve visited the app every day this week, you know what to do: you start singing whatever tune pops into your head – be it a mangled version of a Billie Eilish bop or just a simple hum – and your forest friends harmonise along with you, bobbing along gently to the beat. This is the kind of simple, transporting experience users can expect from the new app from Iorama animation studio (Finn Ericson and Eran Hilleli) and digital audio outfit Heart of Noise. While the experience is all about simple pleasures, Iorama tells us that the process behind the work was a bit more fiddly.
For starters, all the animation on Chantlings is happening in real time; “there is no recorded clip anywhere,” Iorama confirms. The app is built in a game engine, Unity, which is then linked to a harmony and audio engine, a process the studio says is “like three engines dancing together”. The harmony engine informs musical aspects of the app but also abstract elements of the experience, like the mood and feeling the chantlings emulate. “This is all quite challenging as it’s not pre-configured or recorded animation. It’s a craft which is based on iterating a lot, tweaking and testing so we can feel how it plays out.” Iorama adds: “We are not big singers but enjoyed singing so much throughout the development.”
Musically, the chantlings behave like an improvisational vocal group. Through audio signal programming, they have the capacity to listen to a user and gradually understand what is intended tonally, singing along and adding complementary notes. On the idea behind the project, the studio states: “We set out to design a music app that can be operated without touch. It brought us down a rabbit hole of acoustic analysis, musical counterpoint, vocal synthesis and reactive character animation.” While creating an intuitive audio experience comes with its own challenges, such as the sound of the chantlings themselves, creating a visual to connect sound to character led to some of the biggest challenges. “Perhaps the trickiest part of the visuals was phonetic mouth movements;” says the studio; something they resolved with a solution based on low frequency formants.
While tech obviously plays a huge role in the formation of Chantlings, perhaps the beating heart of the project is the look and feel of the animation. Iorama explains: “Regarding look and feel, we were playing on the border between 2D and 3D aesthetics, we love the 2D nod to anime and more graphical illustrated pieces but with that simple aesthetic of early 3D games which don’t try hard to hide their digital nature.”
The endlessly charming look of the chantling characters is down to similarly diverse inspirations. For example, the Boulder character, which sings bass in Chantlings, “started off as a riff on Tove Jansson’s Groke character from the Moomin books”, says Iorama. While the chantlings actually started out as human characters, the studio quickly realised they wanted to use beings to evoke a magical “singing ritual” in a forest instead. Meanwhile, Chantlings is, of course, indebted in tone to Ghibli for its use of land and lore. The effect is an experience that’s magical but not too fantastical, one that holds the potential to convey both sadness and excitement.
In the final Chantlings iteration, Iorama has undoubtedly managed to pull off one of its key aims on the project: to “find specific characters that are believable and feel rich in personality, characters you’d want to spend time with and imagine their life outside this experience”. The Chantlings app is currently available for the iPhone and iPad, “for anyone brave enough to explore the colours and shapes of their voice through singing”, states a press release from the animation studio.
Iorama / Heart Of Noise: Chantlings (Copyright © Iorama, 2022)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.