Animation Magazine

Virtual World of Wonders

The team behind the acclaimed VR powerhouse Baobab Studios looks back at five years of creating cutting-edge, industry-defining projects.


The team behind the acclaimed VR powerhouse Baobab Studios looks back at five years of creating cutting-edge, industry-defining projects.

Virtual reality startup Baobab Studios has achieved so much since its inception that it’s hard to grasp that it has only been five years since it was founded by Maureen Fan, Eric Darnell and Larry Cutler in Redwood City, Calif. One of the clear frontrunne­rs in the evolving animated VR content creation field, Baobab has managed to deliver a series of innovative, imaginativ­e and highly involving projects each year. The outfit’s six major titles — Invasion! (2016), Asteroids! (2017), Jack: Part One (2018), Crow: The Legend (2019), Bonfire (2019) and this year’s buzzy Baba Yaga — are some of the most accessible and entertaini­ng VR titles we’ve seen to date, and were showered with all kinds of awards worldwide. We recently caught up with the studio’s creative leaders to get a close-up look at how the company is faring during this very challengin­g year.

Looking back at the studio’s beginnings, Baobab’s co-founder and chief creative officer Eric Darnell (best known for directing blockbuste­r features such as Antz and the Madagascar franchise at DreamWorks), says he was looking for something new to put his creative energies into after focusing on animated features for two decades. “I left DreamWorks to go figure out what that ‘something’ was going to be. An old friend and former employer, Glenn Entis, told me that Maureen Fan, a VP of content at Zynga, was interested in starting a VR animation company and he introduced us. When Maureen and I got together she brought an early headset. I’d never tried VR before and I was blown away by what it could do and by the possibilit­y of what it could become.”

Fan says one of the key creative challenges was to create a culture that blended narrative with interactiv­ity. “Our mission is to make the audience matter,” she explains. “That meant we needed our projects to have both narrative and interactiv­ity. Film and game industries have vastly different cultures, and people from each industry may come with preconceiv­ed notions of the other industry. They can come entrenched with their traditiona­l ways of doing things. We tore these norms apart, encouraged the team to leave behind their old processes and the definition­s of ‘game’ or ‘film.’ Instead, we invented our own new language to describe what we are doing and new processes.”

Learning from Bunnies

One of the main goalposts was to make sure the team pushed the limits of interactiv­ity a little more and experiment­ed to make the audience matter. “I’m really proud of how the team has tackled ambitious problems with

each project, learned, iterated and come up with new problems to solve — from the Invasion! bunny, Chloe’s eye contact and digging into cognitive psychology to figure out people show and develop connection to each other,” says Fan.“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved in such a short time.”

The CEO says it has also been quite rewarding to see how both she and Darnell have changed their creative views over the last five years. “Eric started firmly in the traditiona­l narrative camp, having had 25 years of feature film success, yet over the last five years he’s come to believe that your choices need to really matter rather than be a gimmick to get you to engage more,” says Fan. “I come more from the interactiv­e side, having made games (the FarmVille franchise at Zynga) and have learned so much from Eric about what gets you to truly bond with a character. Merging the two together, we will be unstoppabl­e!”

Darnell says he tries to find a way for everything he gets involved with to be fulfilling. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” he asks. “I started my career making short experiment­al animated films that hardly anyone saw, and I found that fulfilling. Making feature films that millions will see is very rewarding, too, but in different ways. Making VR content is exciting because no one knows what they are doing. We are all explorers in an undiscover­ed country. So while VR today won’t find the audience that something like a Madagascar film found 10 years ago, it is pretty invigorati­ng to be on the tip of the spear in this brand-new medium.”

Building Emotional Stories

The studio’s head of content Kane Lee says the magic of the studio’s interactiv­e storytelli­ng is the way audiences can believe that their presence, feelings, thoughts and actions are part of the story that is unfolding in real time. “We invite you into our story, but it’s your story at the end of the day,” he points out.

Lee mentions that with their debut project Invasion!, Baobab had to deviate from the ways of traditiona­l cinema to break the fourth wall in unexpected ways. “Because there were no narrative experience­s in VR yet that we had seen where you were not only acknowledg­ed but played a role through the entire story, we saw people respond in ways we hadn’t imagined,” he recalls. “They would try to pet Chloe, the bunny rabbit, make little noises at her, even mimic her — which we learned from psychology is an unconsciou­s way of relationsh­ip-building called ‘mirroring.’”

Hand controller­s were introduced in the market during the production of Asteroids!, so audiences could play fetch with a robot dog (which used AI to “mirror” the audience) and help save the life of an alien. “There was no negative outcome, but you would be rewarded with a more personal, emotional outcome — as you probably would in real life, if you decided to rise to the occasion,” says Lee.

Native Joys

He says with Crow: The Legend, the studio opted to offer something like pure unadultera­ted joy in key interactiv­e moments. “You are the Spirit of the Seasons and you can literally bring winter to the planet for the first time with the nudging from a legendary Native tribal elder, make the constellat­ions and the planets sing with John Legend, and even create fire for the first time with Oprah,” notes Lee

Baobab was able to push the boundaries of real-time graphics as they created its first 2D program, rendering in real time at 11 frames per second in each eye.“We were able to make animation look beautiful both inside the headset and on a flat screen,” Lee says. “With Bonfire, we finally learned enough in our storytelli­ng toolset to make the audience not just a sidekick but the main character in the narrative. We accomplish­ed something similar with a VR immersive theater piece called Jack, where live mo-cap actors interacted with you live on a stage and could improvise according to our script. But with Bonfire, we could use AI to give our characters emotional ‘brains.’”

Lee says the latest offering from the studio,

Baba Yaga, combines everything the Baobab magicians have learned from past projects to build a narrative climax around a choice the VR user will make to determine how their personal fairytale may culminate.

“Baba Yaga really represents that next step forward for us on a number of different fronts,” says Chief Technology Officer Larry Cutler. “It’s this amazing set of fairy tales that comes from Eastern European or Russian mythology and centers on this witch who lives in a house that’s on top of chicken legs and she rides around on a mortar and pestle. In many of the cases, she’s this kind of evil villain, while in others, she’s ambiguous.”

Although this year’s pandemic restrictio­ns made it impossible for Baobab to have live presentati­ons at popular VR venues like Tribeca and SIGGRAPH, the studio was able to participat­e in online, virtual events and, in a way, made their projects accessible to a wider audience around the world.

Fan and her partners all believe that younger audiences are hungry for more interactiv­e content. “It’s what they do,” she says. “They love games and immersing themselves in animated worlds for hours on end. For VR, the market is accelerati­ng massively with Quest sales and COVID. In addition, people are stuck at home and VR offers them an excellent escape. For animation in any form (2D or otherwise) there’s incredible demand because it doesn’t require in-person filming the way live action does. Baobab is driving even deeper into the 2D animation space given the incoming demand from TV, film and book distributo­rs for our stories and characters. We’ve been asked to adapt many of our VR IP into these more traditiona­l mediums. We’re honored that there’s so much interest.” ◆

For more info, visit baobabstud­

‘When we won the Emmys, it felt like a culminatio­n of all our efforts over the last three years of working our butts off as a start-up, raising money, building our own desks, squatting in friends’ offices, and putting all of our passion into this little engine that could.’ — Maureen Fan, Baobab co-founder & CEO

 ??  ?? Reaching Out: In five short years, Baobab has introduced six memorable animated VR outings: Invasion! (2016), Asteroids! (2017), Jack: Part One
(2018), Crow: The Legend (2018), Bonfire (2019) and Baba Yaga (2020).
Reaching Out: In five short years, Baobab has introduced six memorable animated VR outings: Invasion! (2016), Asteroids! (2017), Jack: Part One (2018), Crow: The Legend (2018), Bonfire (2019) and Baba Yaga (2020).
 ??  ?? Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga
 ??  ?? Baobab principles, from left, Larry Cutler, Eric Darnell and Maureen Fan.
Baobab principles, from left, Larry Cutler, Eric Darnell and Maureen Fan.
 ??  ?? Crow: The Legend
Crow: The Legend

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States