Baobab’s Beautiful, Interactive Bird
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