How the creators of the Invasion and Asteroids are pioneering 360-degree VR films
Above: Maureen Fan, CEO of Baobab, a VR film studio.
Image Credit: Dean Takahashi
Baobab Studios is a new kind of film studio, making 360-degree cinematic movies in virtual reality. It came up with the hit animated VR short film, Invasion!, a funny title dreamed up by Baobab’s creative team, which includes Madagascar director Eric Darnell, a cofounder of Baobab.
And last week, Baobab debuted Asteroids!, the second episode of the Redwood City, Calif.-based studios’ VR series. The company was founded by Darnell and Maureen Fan, a former vice president of games at Zynga, to make interactive entertainment that blends elements of film and games together for the new medium of VR. The Asteroids! VR film debuted last week at the Oculus Connect event in San Jose, Calif.
The creative touch and pedigree at Baobab enabled the startup to raise $6 million last year as part of its effort to tell new virtual reality animated stories. The funding came from HTC, Samsung Ventures, Zynga cofounder Mark Pincus, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, Advancit Capital, Chernin Group, and Freelands Ventures. I caught up with Fan last week at the Oculus Connect event, where she talked about what the company is trying to achieve.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell us what you are doing.
Maureen Fan: Invasion! came out earlier this year. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and then we did Cannes and Toronto. Based on the reception—I’m not allowed to say the ranking, but it did very well. We knew that people liked the characters. Roth Films recently announced—their production studio did Huntsman, Maleficent, all the Alice in Wonderland. They’re partnering with us to do the feature film version of Invasion, because this did so well. Because people really liked the first VR episode, though, we decided to do another one. That’s Asteroids, which is debuting here.
Eric Darnell, my co-founder, he directed and wrote the four Madagascar films. We’ve been around for about a year now. We want to do storytelling in VR. A lot of people talk about storytelling, but some stories are documentaries. Some stories are the news. That’s different from three-act structure storytelling that Eric is passionate about.
We want to experiment with what it’s like to make you a character inside a film. What if you were Aladdin or Beauty in Beauty and the Beast? What does that feel like? Is is like a game, a film, or something in between? In Invasion, if you see the version on the Rift, when you look down you actually have a bunny body. When you squat the body gets fatter. People actually jump around in it, especially in the Vive version. You can jump around the entire room. The other characters follow you based on where you are.
The parts people were most excited about is when the bunny sniffs you. People started trying to touch and pet it. They even tried to dance when the bunny’s dancing with you. Later, when the bunny hides behind you, people would say, “I know it’s not real, but I feel its breath on my shoulder. I’m the only thing between that bunny and the aliens and I need to protect her.”
We realized, for episode two, that we wanted to explore those themes even more. The setting for Asteroids is in outer space, on their spaceship. They go out in the galaxy and they’re sharing a warm moment between their daily chores. You get to see what that’s like.
GamesBeat: Are you doing this exclusively for Oculus, or is it just showing here?
Fan: Right now it’s on Gear VR, but as a company, in general, we’re platform agnostic. Invasion is on just about every platform. It’s going to be on PS VR. It was included for Daydream. We’re on the Daydream home page and in their commercial that launched yesterday. But for Asteroids specifically, we’re debuting here and it’ll be on Gear VR first.
GamesBeat: Have you been able to make money with these?
Fan: The first look is going out for free. Invasion was free, because it was the first thing we did. In the future we’ll want to monetize, but right now these experiences are free.
GamesBeat: The full-length features, are you shooting for–
Fan: We didn’t really plan on the full-length feature. As a startup it’s important for us to focus. We do VR well. Roth does feature film well. They liked our IP. That’s when we saw that there was an opportunity to partner. But when we showed Roth, it wasn’t with the intention of doing that. We’re just showing people VR. They said, “We’re interested in turning this into a feature film.” We thought about it and decided that was fine, because stories can be sourced from anywhere. Why not VR?
It’s the first of its kind, which we’re happy about. It’s validation that our IP is good, which should be obvious from Eric’s track record. That’s one of the reasons Hollywood likes us, his proven creative background. But still, it’s nice to have validation. This was our first film. For it to get that much excitement made us really happy.
GamesBeat: How many people are in the company?
Fan: About 20 people.
Above: See a bunny in VR in Baobab Studios’ Invasion!
Image Credit: Baobab
GamesBeat: Are you going to do a whole series of episodes?
Fan: Yes. Invasion was always conceived as several episodes. Eric already created a lot. We have more than a dozen IP that he’s created and we’re choosing the first one to go out with. Invasion was the first of those. I was at Zynga for six years as vice president of games. Everything that’s drilled in to me is about testing. Based on the reception of Invasion, that’s how we knew to continue on with the rest. But we already had them ready.
GamesBeat: It’s more like cinematic VR, I guess? It’s not necessarily interactive.
Fan: With the Gear version it’s not interactive. It’s 360 video. But in the Rift, Vive, and PS VR versions, it’s interactive. Especially since we’re trying to push what it means to be a character inside it. Interactivity is absolutely important. Especially since we saw that the parts that bonded with people the most were the parts where the interacted with the characters. That’s a learning Eric had. But he doesn’t ever want it to feel like a game, where you’re doing something because you’re trying to get to the next level. He wants you to act out of compassion. You care about this character, so you want to do something with them. That’s what we’re trying to explore.
Everyone wants to know whether this is a film or a game. It’s neither. With games, you’re usually the main character. But you do things because you’re thinking, “What does the game-maker want me to do?” In a film it’s the opposite. It’s completely passive. You stop thinking about yourself. You empathize with the characters.
When you put yourself inside a VR experience, what Eric wanted to avoided is making it feel like a game. He didn’t want the viewer to worry about themselves. He wants you to care about the other characters. Invasion was his first experiment in that area. What are ways to put you in the experience without feeling pressured, without feeling as if there was something specific the creator wanted you to do? I think we succeeded at that.
It’s kind of like a game, because you’re a character and it’s running in a real time engine. But it feels like a film because it’s a narrative experience. It’s not entirely one or the other.
Above: The aliens in Invasion! by Baobab Studios.
Image Credit: Baobab Studios
GamesBeat: Is the market progressing the way you would want it to?
Fan: It’s funny. Headset sales are great, but what needs to happen for VR to become mass-market is more content out there. If you pick up the Gear or Rift or Vive, there’s only a certain number of quality experiences. What will get you to keep coming back is more content in the ecosystem.
We’re specifically trying to—we feel like a lot of the content out there speaks to specific audiences, like hardcore gamers, the hardcore Rift users. There are documentaries about Syria, very deep themes. But we saw a need for universally appealing content. We’re trying to figure out how you get VR to the masses, not just to niche markets.
Our hypothesis about why Invasion has done so well – Samsung uses us as their main demo – is because it’s something that grandmothers and kids and everyone in between likes. I hope there’s more content like that. Content, ultimately, is going to get people to purchase headsets. They have to get excited about something. And it can’t just be a trailer. It has to be something meaty, something you can only see in VR.
GamesBeat: I didn’t detect too many things in there that made it a sort of must-be-in-360 experience.
Fan: Right. The reason people say they couldn’t have seen it on a regular screen—when you’re breaking the fourth wall, the character acknowledging you is a big deal. In a feature film, when the character acknowledges you—first of all, just in general it’s a no-no. You don’t do it. But if it does happen, in something like Deadpool, you still don’t believe that character’s really talking to you.
In VR you completely believe the character is real. Something in your animal brain makes you believe it’s real in a way that you wouldn’t believe it in a theater. Specifically, when the character is hiding behind you—because you feel like you’re the only thing between that bunny and the aliens, it makes you feel pressure, almost fear, in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise.
Eric and I had a debate about this. I’m naturally—I don’t like to be as active. I wanted the bunny to stand here when the aliens were shooting their antennae. Eric said, “No, that’s not real. Virtual reality should be more real. The bunny would hide behind you.” I said, “But that’s stressful. Just make it easy for me.” And he said, “No, that’s the power of VR.” I lost that argument, because after showing it to about 2,000 people, the majority of them came out saying, “When that bunny was hiding behind me, that was the moment.” They cared about the bunny. Getting you to care about characters is winning. We would never have been able to do that in a film.
Another thing, for example, is how you direct the viewer’s eyes. The entire point of VR is that the audience has agency. But then you have Spielberg’s famous remarks about how VR is dangerous, because filmmakers need to have complete control. A film director forces you to look wherever they want. In VR you can look wherever you want. So how do you get the user to look where you want, especially when pacing is important?
Eric developed a lot of techniques through experimentation. When the bunny looks to the right, you instinctively look to the right. But then we’d better bring in the spaceship pretty quickly, because if the user doesn’t see something interesting they’ll look away again. Still, you feel like you’re making the choice, so you feel more empowered, even though the director moved you to follow the same shot they would have. That’s another thing that’s very different between VR and film.
Above: The hero of Invasion!
Image Credit: Baobab Studios
GamesBeat: How do you settle on what format is the best way to create a particular kind of content? Between something short like this and a two-hour movie, you have lots of different choices.
Fan: It’s a trade-off. There are some statistics about how people don’t necessarily want to put the headset on for a long time. Even if we could make a two-hour movie in VR, I don’t think it’s a smart thing to do right now. We want people to have a good experience and that may not be a really long one. That’s why it’s important for us to keep them short.
We also do that because millennials, younger audiences, prefer to have things in bite-sized pieces rather than longer sessions. We learned that at Zynga. We had to design for super-short session times. We want it to be a comfortable experience that fits into people’s lives. That’s why we’re focused on short things.
It also allows us—as soon as you put out one thing, you learn so much from it. If we were to make a 90-minute film, by the time we were done, the technology and the cinematic language would be far out of date. By doing shorts like this, we can quickly take the things we learn and put them into the next project. We’re always experimenting. In the future, we may go longer. But we need more people viewing it and a more comfortable experience.
GamesBeat: Do you think seasoned filmmakers are generally doing well with VR now, or will it be other people?
Fan: Anybody can, but it requires—when you were asking me if this was a film or a game, that’s where you need to not think in those terms. Half of my team is from the game side. I’m more from the game side. Then Eric is from the film side. We’re constantly challenging each other, because VR is its own medium. We need to think about it differently.
That’s why Eric was excited to do this in the first place. He says, “I can make Madagascar 20, or I can be part of creating a new cinematic language.” He started at Dreamworks as an intern at the very beginning. He directed Antz, their first feature film. He says that VR feels like the beginning days of computer-animated movies, where nobody completely knows what it’s doing, but it’s a merging of art and tech. He’s throwing out everything he knows, but bringing in some of the things he’s learned over a lifetime.
The funny thing is, he graduated with his MFA from Cal Arts, where a lot of famous directors studied, but his master’s was in experimental animation, not just traditional animation. This is something that appeals to him, throwing the rules out the window. Whenever he does his speech – we’re giving a speech here on Friday about storytelling in VR — the first thing he says is to ignore all the rules, everything people say today about what you can and can’t do, including what we say. It’s too early to say what you can and can’t do.