Baobab Studio’s Eric Darnell Talks About VR Storytelling Ahead of VIEW Conference Keynote

Virtual reality is the next great frontier for entertainment. And one of the companies at the forefront of the VR entertainment revolution is Baobab Studios, which won a Daytime Emmy for interactive original earlier this year for its first VR short, “INVASION!

Baobab co-founder and chief creative officer Eric Darnell, a longtime animation professional who wrote and directed all of DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar” movies, talks to Variety about telling compelling stories through VR ahead of his keynote address VIEW Conference 2017 in Turin, Italy, on Oct. 24, some of the creative challenges VR presents and what’s next for the groundbreaking studio.

Your keynote address at VIEW is on immersive storytelling in virtual reality. Can you give us a brief overview of your talk?

Baobab Studios is focused on VR storytelling wherein the viewer is a character in the story. I’ll be talking about our goal of creating powerful connections between the viewer and the characters in the story and doing it in a way that makes the stories we are telling more powerful, emotional and immersive.

This is a key part of our creative vision for VR: Imagine a little girl crying on a park bench. If you saw this in a film, you’d feel bad for her but you wouldn’t get out of your theater seat to console her. In a game, you’d talk to her to be a hero, get to the next level. In real life, you’d talk to her because you want to help. I believe that VR has the potential to have the empathy of films, the agency of games, and the motivation of life. In VR, you can act upon your empathy, help the characters, and help them because you care, not because you’re trying to win.

You’ve had a long career in computer animation and you directed DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar” films. What first attracted you to VR as a storytelling vehicle?

What first attracted me to VR was putting on a modern VR headset for the first time. It’s something so difficult to explain to those who have not tried it. Even if it’s understood intellectually, VR is really something that must be experienced to truly “feel.”

When done right, VR is remarkably immersive. When a VR character looks you in the eye, it’s not like when an actor in a movie looks into the camera lens and breaks the fourth wall. Instead, it feels like the VR character recognizes that you are in her world and can express that your presence matters to her. There no walls, no (obvious) screens, and you don’t necessarily even need a mouse, keyboard or game controller. It’s just you and this character, together in this “other” world, communicating the way you might in real life, with eye contact and body language. It makes it easy to suspend your disbelief. It feels real.

Fortunately, my eventual co-founders, Maureen Fan and Larry Cutler, were both interested in this new medium’s potential in narrative storytelling, which is what I’d been focused on for the past few decades, so we all held hands and dove in.

What are the biggest differences between regular animation and VR/Interactive animation?

When the VR experience is being generated in real time 3D inside a game engine, everything changes. Wherever you look, the leaves might be blowing in the breeze or the clouds are rolling by. Wherever you look, you are in that world. Because the imagery is being generated at a very high frame rate — as many as 90fps — it feels more like real life. But this is just the beginning. The viewer and the character(s) can communicate with each other because the content is being created on the fly. It can be variable. Imagery and sounds can change based on what the viewer does, while the world inside a traditional film cannot respond to the viewer in such a way.

For example, in our first VR piece, “INVASION!,” you find yourself standing on a frozen lake. Snow falls all around you. If you look down, you discover you have the body of a fluffy white bunny. If you move around on the ice your body comes with you. Then another white bunny appears on the shoreline, hops over to you and looks you right in the eye. If you move around while the bunny is looking at you she will follow you wherever you go. She “knows” you are in her world and when she starts to playfully hop around, you know that your presence in her world matters to her. This is the very first step in developing a “relationship” with the bunny that feels akin to real life. And it works because it is so easy to suspend your disbelief. It feels real. And, for a part of your brain, it is real.

However, what’s similar between traditional and VR animation is that you need good storytelling. Whatever the medium, we would rather create a great story using stick figures than to tell a mediocre one using all the bells and whistles. The new technology can be a lot of sizzle, but you still need the steak.

Baobab won a Daytime Emmy for its first interactive short, “Invasion!” How long did that project take to produce?

It took us three and a half months and a brand-new team from different disciplines simultaneously building a brand-new studio from scratch — all from different disciplines but sharing a lot of talent, vision and heart.

What were your biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge was coming to grips with how different VR is from filmmaking. I came into the VR game a bit too sure of myself; I’d been directing feature films for almost 20 years. I naively told myself, VR can’t be that different. Well, I learned very quickly that VR is not an extension of film. VR is its own very distinct medium. So I got humble really fast.

Did anything surprise you during production?

One surprising thing was that audiences reacted to “INVASION!” in sometimes completely unexpected ways.

Directing the viewer’s eyes, to start with. In the beginning, it was more about viewers missing the story because they were distracted by other things or they didn’t know where to look. We learned a great deal about what we needed to do to inspire viewers to make the completely free choice to look exactly where we want them to look when we want them to look there. This turned out to be no small feat.

Finally, after much trial and error, we started getting things to work. For example, we used Chloe, the bunny, to direct the audience’s gaze. When she looked in a direction, the audience looked that way to see what she was looking at. We also used art, sound and lighting to guide the viewers’ eyes, borrowing from theater, magic, real life.

You really believe the characters and world are real. Alvy Ray Smith, one of the Pixar founders and one of our advisers, visited the studio to see a demo of “Invasion!” There is a moment in the story when some nasty aliens arrive and prepare to obliterate both you and your bunny friend, Chloe. She then hides behind you for protection from the aliens. When the experience was over, Alvy told me how he watched Chloe hide behind him, but then he felt compelled to turn back around to see what the aliens were going to do. It was then, he told us, that he realized he could still feel the bunny’s presence behind him. He could almost feel her breath on the back of his neck. So, even though Chloe was not in his field of view, she was still very real to Alvy.

What adjustments did you make, if any, when Baobab made “ASTEROIDS!,” the follow up to “INVASION!”?

We are telling stories. To do this well, we believe we must maintain a level of control of the spine and pacing of the story. Yet, if we can get the audience to love the characters enough, they will want to interact with the characters. We wanted to give the audience the opportunity to act upon their caring. This interactivity is what we explored in “ASTEROIDS!”

The challenge became finding the right balance between storytelling and interactivity. For us, this meant that the viewer was not the main character. Instead, the viewer finds themself in a story that is bigger than them – a story that’s happening in real time all around them. Just like in real life, the viewer can make the decision about whether she wants to get involved. Whatever the viewer chooses to do, the story keeps plowing forward. Instead of passing control of the story to the viewer – something that could result in variable pacing and branching narratives – the viewer has the option, but not the requirement, to participate in the story.

For example, a character may ask for the viewer’s help. If the viewer steps in and assists, she might be rewarded by the character liking her more. If the viewer chooses to stay on the sidelines, the character might like her less, or even be angry with her. So instead of branching storylines, we are dealing with branching emotions – both in terms of how the character relates to the viewer emotionally as well as how the viewer might feel based on the choices she has made.

“INVASION!” is now being developed into a full-length feature, but it will be animated in a more traditional fashion without VR. How that project is progressing?

The idea is for “Invasion!” to be created into a traditional animated film, but inspired for the first time by a virtual reality experience. As you know, developing feature animation projects can take time, but the fact that Hollywood producers Joe Roth and Jeffrey Kirshenbaum recognized the big screen potential for our characters based upon a 6-minute adventure in a new medium is incredibly validating and a testament to VR’s storytelling abilities.

Do you think VR could ever lend itself to full-length projects?

I suppose the question is, “What is a full-length VR project?” Perhaps it will become similar in duration to a traditional feature, or perhaps it is something different. Right now, the world of VR is so dynamic it is hard to know. But as the headsets become more powerful and more comfortable, and the creators of VR content become more knowledgeable and experienced, the answer to that question may reveal itself.

For now, we are focused on creating shorter form content because it gives us the opportunity to learn quickly and iterate on what we learn.

Baobab’s latest project is “The Legend of Crow,” which debuted at Tribeca this year. What inspired this project?

The story of Crow is inspired by a stunningly beautiful Native American legend. On its surface, it’s an origin myth explaining how the Crow, who once had colorful feathers and a beautiful song, lost his colors and acquired the raspy voice we know crows have today. On a deeper level, it is about self-sacrifice and self-acceptance – a recognition that the things we may see in ourselves as flaws may actually be the things that make us unique and special. And it’s through this journey of self-discovery that Crow can appreciate the changes in himself as well as the differences of others.

We combined this narrative with the visual question, “What would it be like if you could walk into one of your favorite storybooks as a child?” We end up with a world that is not planted in photorealism, but instead is innocent, timeless and magical and brings out the viewer’s sense of wonder.

It was important that we stay true to the themes of the original story. We’re collaborating closely with Randy Edmonds, our narrator, a Native American tribal elder who has crusaded for Native American rights since the Relocation Acts of the 1950s and a founder of the National Urban Indian Council. We’re also continuing to learn so much from project adviser Sarah Eagleheart, who is the CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy, an amazing organization giving a voice to indigenous peoples — it was an honor for us to discuss the project alongside speakers like the Obama Foundation at her Invisible No More Native Building Summit earlier this year. There are so many stories like this one that haven’t been a part of the rich tapestry of American cinema, and that’s part of what of what attracted John Legend to be the voice of our Crow. Another theme in the tale is one of diversity and so we’re proud to have Randy, John and others like Constance Wu and Diego Luna lend their talents to the project.

This is planned as a series. Why as a series?

Ultimately, rather than a series, a better way to describe it might be in terms of chapters, like in a book. And the reason for doing this is practical. Since it will end up being the longest piece we will have produced to date, we can give the audience the opportunity to take a break if they want to. It also gives us the option of releasing the piece in parts over time or release all at once, but no decision has been made on how we will release it yet.

“INVASION!” and “ASTEROIDS!” are available on the Baobab app. Will “The Legend of Crow” be on the app as well?

You bet.

Can you give us a hint about other projects Baobab is working on?

I can’t say much about that. I can say that we have many projects in development. Whatever we choose to do next will be a project that allows us to experiment with this brand new medium and give us the best opportunities to discover more of the hidden language of VR as we focus on telling great stories, and telling them well, with characters the audience can fall in love with.

What attracted you to participate in the VIEW Conference?

I was first invited to the VIEW Conference in 2012, soon after my fourth animated film, “Madagascar 3,” was released. I love the sharp focus of the conference and the intimate tone that allows speakers and audiences to really connect with one another. When [VIEW Conference director] Maria Elena Gutierrez invited me back to talk about what we are doing at Baobab, I jumped at the chance.

The VIEW Conference curates the very top creative speakers in CG and we are honored to be a part of it.

Are there any other presentations at the conference you’re excited about seeing?

There are so many interesting speakers at the VIEW Conference, some of whom I know and others I’m excited to meet. One of the great things about the conference is that there’s time to see everything so I don’t have to prioritize – I can see them all. We are, of course, excited to hear some of our advisers speak, including the COO and co-founder of Twitch, Kevin Lin. Maureen, our CEO, also helped to bring in VR executives from Oculus and ILM.

Darnell’s keynote will take place on Oct. 24 at 10 a.m., Italian time. He will also participate in a Future of Storytelling panel later that day with Weta senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri (“The War for the Planet of the Apes”), ILMxLAB’s Vicki Dobbs Beck, “Bladerunner 2049” overall VFX supervisor John Nelson, “The Little Prince” director Mark Osborne and Kris Pearn, director of the upcoming animated film “The Willoughbys.”

Darnell’s colleagues and fellow Baobab co-founders, CEO Maureen Fan and CTO Larry Cutler, will host a talk at the conference on emotions in VR on Wednesday, Oct. 25, beginning at 3:30 p.m., Italian time.

For a complete list of VIEW Conference speakers, visit viewconference.it/

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