Baobab’s Beau­ti­ful, In­ter­ac­tive Bird

Animation Magazine - - Front Page - Rain­bow Crow

The stu­dio’s de­light­ful of­fers a fan­tas­tic peek at what we can ex­pect from the VR rev­o­lu­tion. By Ramin Za­hed ev­ery­one,” notes Larry Cut­ler, CTO and co­founder of Red­wood, Calif.-based Baobab Stu­dios (with CEO Mau­reen Fan and CCO Dar­nell). “Cast­ing John Leg­end as the voice of the main char­ac­ter was such a great idea, be­cause he brings so much to the part. It was re­ally the first project we de­cided to de­velop be­cause we knew it would be a pow­er­ful piece to cre­ate in VR. From the be­gin­ning, we ap­proached the piece to have a more sto­ry­book graphic look than our two other pre­vi­ous pieces, In­va­sion! and As­teroids!”

Cut­ler says Baobab is a con­tent com­pany at a core level, so it lives or dies by the suc­cess of its cre­ative IP. “That’s why it’s im­por­tant for us to fol­low age-old sto­ry­telling tra­di­tions with great char­ac­ters that peo­ple fall in love with,” he notes. “If we do that well and fo­cus on telling our sto­ries in the best way pos­si­ble in VR, we think there are huge op­por­tu­ni­ties in this amaz­ingly unique medium.”

One ex­am­ple of th­ese new op­por­tuni- ties is In­va­sion!, Baobab’s Emmy-win­ning 2016 short which is be­ing de­vel­oped into a fea­ture by Roth Kirschen­baum Films. “It is the first time that we are tak­ing a VR piece of IP and tak­ing it to Hol­ly­wood to make it as an an­i­mated movie we can see on the big screen, as op­posed to what Hol­ly­wood is do­ing right now: Tak­ing ex­ist­ing IP and then fig­ur­ing out how to do VR add-ons to it. They are also bank­ing on Eric’s proven track fes­ti­vals this year is four min­utes long, the com­plete project will be around 40 min­utes.

“We were look­ing for a project that had a com­plete story arc, so we knew Rain­bow

Crow would have to be a longer piece,” notes Cut­ler. “We also wanted the project to look dif­fer­ent than our pre­vi­ous shorts and to have a more sto­ry­book graphic look, which lent it­self well to the story. With each piece, we are in­ter­ested in how we layer on the in­ter­ac­tiv­ity and how it blends with the story.”

The 30-plus-per­son team at Baobab used Maya to pro­duce the front-end mod­el­ing and CG an­i­ma­tion, and Unity for real-time light­ing and ren­der­ing. The stu­dio has also de­vel­oped some “top-se­cret pro­pri­etary tools” that have al­lowed them to have very high-fi­delity char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tion run­ning in real time. Tri­als and Er­rors The ex­per­i­men­tal na­ture of the rel­a­tively new medium is both a bless­ing and a curse. “On the tech­ni­cal side, you need to get all that data through the tiny pipe­line of real- con­ven­tional sto­ry­boards for VR helps you much less than it does for tra­di­tional films. As the in­dus­try grows, we can build big­ger tool kits and find new ways to grow. I don’t even know how long an au­di­ence will toler- ate be­ing in th­ese head­sets. So, keep­ing them short makes sense for us right now.”

Dar­nell says the new and un­charted pos­si­bil­i­ties of the medium keep him in­spired. “When you go to a movie or a play, it’s a very pas­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, com­pared to gam­ing, where you’re the main char­ac­ter in the en­tire uni­verse,” said the di­rec­tor. “VR is more like real life. You get in­vested in the im­mer­sion that it brings to the world. You can still be the main char­ac­ter in your life story, but there could be big­ger things hap­pen­ing around you. We can cre­ate this ex­pe­ri­ence where the in­ter­ac­tiv­ity is fu­eled less by win­ning but more about em­pa­thy and car­ing for the char­ac­ters, so you want to help them. I hope that we can start to ap­proach that kind of in­spired in­ter­ac­tiv­ity, which is closer to real life.”

From Antz to Crow Hav­ing worked on DreamWorks’ first CG-an­i­mated movie Antz, Dar­nell also has a smart per­spec­tive. “VR is so new and there is so much to dis­cover,” he points out. “It re­minds me of my early days in com­puter an­i­ma­tion back in the ‘80s, when no­body re­ally knew how to do any­thing and every­thing you tried re­quired ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and dis­cov­ery. It brings a lot of en­ergy and ex­cite­ment to the process.”

Dar­nell and Cut­ler both men­tion that the “VR tool­kit” is largely undis­cov­ered. “Quite of­ten the only way to know if some­thing is re­ally work­ing is to run it past a test au­di­ence, and then, the au­di­ences are usu­ally new to VR, too, so what doesn’t work to­day might work in a year when au­di­ences are more savvy,” Dar­nell ex­plains. “Of course, that goes in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, too. Some au­di­ences are so new to VR that just about any­thing will blow them away. How­ever, tech demos won’t be able to keep the au­di­ence’s at­ten­tion for long. Even­tu­ally view­ers are go­ing to want con­tent that has more meat on the bones. This is one of the rea­sons Baobab is fo­cused on sto­ry­telling—and do­ing our best to have great sto­ries and tell them well through char­ac­ters that au­di­ences can fall in love with.”

Cut­ler says there has been lots of work done to pro­mote VR tech­nol­ogy at home as well as lo­ca­tion-based en­ter­tain­ment, much in Europe and Asia, es­pe­cially China. “We’re lucky be­cause ev­ery­one wants our con­tent since In­va­sion! was very suc­cess­ful,” he notes. “VR is also great at putting the viewer in real-life sit­u­a­tions, such as doc­u­men­taries about the plight of refugees, etc. But a short like In­va­sion! ap­peals to all ages and is uni­ver­sally en­joyed. VR can cre­ate such im­me­di­ate em­pa­thy and re­sponse from the au­di­ence, and it can be quite pow­er­ful when you have that emo­tional con­nec­tion with the char­ac­ters. You’re not just watch­ing it pas­sively: You are ac­tu­ally play­ing a part in that world.” For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.baob­a­b­stu­dios.com.

Guerrab calls th­ese projects ex­per­i­ments: “Ev­ery show al­lows us to ex­plore our tech a lit­tle bit more.” Which is why Google Spot­light Sto­ries has worked on as many projects that don’t ship as those that do. Both Sonaria and Son of Jaguar have been seen at fes­ti­vals like

SIGGRAPH, An­necy, Pix­e­latl’s El Fes­ti­val, and the Fu­ture of Sto­ry­telling con­fer­ence. Field of Vi­sion The grow­ing net­work of VR an­i­ma­tion artists might ar­guably be as cru­cial to the de­vel­op­ment of this medium as the tech­nol­ogy is. Google has al­ready worked with

The wait is over! Chil­dren of the late ‘80s and ‘90s who have been wait­ing pa­tiently to find out some an­swers about their fa­vorite char­ac­ters from the hugely pop­u­lar Hey Arnold! se­ries will fi­nally get some clo­sure when Nick­elodeon pre­mieres Hey Arnold!: The Jun­gle Movie this Novem­ber. The two-hour movie re­unites us with Craig Bartlett’s “foot­ball-head” hero and the rest of the gang from Hill­wood, and ex­plores the fate of Arnold’s par­ents.

Not only is the an­i­mated project bound to make Arnold fans im­mensely happy, it also makes Bartlett a very happy camper as he gets to pro­vide an­swers to some of the ques­tions that have been hang­ing in the air since 2002’s Hey Arnold!: The Movie and the end of the show’s five-sea­son run in June of 2004.

“It seems like we’ve been wait­ing for­ever,” says Bartlett, who orig­i­nally cre­ated the Arnold char­ac­ter 20 years ago, for the clay­mated “Penny” shorts fea­tured in Pee-wee’s Play­house. “We got the green­light from Nick to make this TV movie about three years ago. So, we worked fu­ri­ously to shape the story— Joe Purdy and I wrote the first part and Lisa [Groen­ing] and Laura [Sreebny] worked on the sec­ond hour. In the spring of 2015, we had a gi­ant ta­ble read with some of the cast mem­bers, all the writers and Nick ex­ecs. Then, we got started to record the voices and sto­ry­boarded the movie…It took about two and half years of record­ing, writ­ing and pro­duc­tion, and we’re fi­nally at the fin­ish line! It must be one of the long­est in­cep­tion to de­liv­ery dates in an­i­ma­tion!”

Directed by Raymie Muzquiz, a veteran of the TV se­ries, as well as Fu­tu­rama and Clarence; and Stu­art Liv­ingston, sto­ry­board artist on Fu­tu­rama, Clarence and Steven Uni­verse, the new movie serves as a se­quel to Hey Arnold!: The Movie and the twopart se­ries fi­nale “The Jour­nal,” which both pre­miered in 2002 on Nick­elodeon as part of the fifth and fi­nal sea­son of the orig­i­nal show.

“I think it is the coolest look­ing ver­sion of Arnold ever,” say the six-time Emmy- nom­i­nated Bartlett, whose cred­its in­clude Ru­grats, Sid the Sci­ence Kid, Di­nosaur Train and the 2018 Nick se­ries Sky Rat. “Our Korean an­i­ma­tion stu­dio Saerom, who worked on the orig­i­nal se­ries, re­ally brought their ‘A’ game. It felt like a home­com­ing to work with them again. The Nick Dig­i­tal team in Bur­bank helped us a lot, too. Hey Arnold! be­came dig­i­tal in the last two sea­sons of the show. We now have a big­ger and wider res­o­lu­tion frame than we had be­fore. We wanted this movie to be more cin­e­matic, so I hope we can have some screen­ings in movie the­aters in some ci­ties as well.” Some New and Old Kids Bartlett was also able to bring back most of the orig­i­nal cast, while re­cast­ing some of the chil­dren’s roles. Justin Shenkarow, Olivia Hack, Nika Fut­ter­man, Dan But­ler, Dan Castel­lan­eta, Tress MacNeille, An­toinette Stella, Car­los Alazraqui, Dom Irrera, Mau­rice LaMarche, Jim Belushi, Kath Soucie, Danielle Ju­dovits and Danny Cook­sey are all back for the project. Al­fred Molina pro­vides the voice of movie vil­lain La Som­bra, while Ma­son Vale Cot­ton, Ben­jamin Flores, Jr. and Francesca Marie Smith star as Ar-

“Ihave been work­ing in this busi­ness for more than 30 years, and I have had a lot of cool op­por­tu­ni­ties. But for what­ever rea­son, Hey Arnold! seems to mat­ter more than any­thing else I have

En­er­gized Bunny: Baobab scored a hit with its charm­ing 2016 an­i­mated project In­va­sion!, which is be­ing adapted into a full-length fea­ture. A Bird for All Sea­sons: Directed by DreamWorks veteran Eric Dar­nell, Baobab’s Rain­bow Crow is in­spired by a Na­tive A

Scot Stafford

Craig Bartlett

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