In 1985, Ethan Hawke had his acting debut in a science-fiction movie about space travel that paid homage to “War of the Worlds”. So it’s only fitting that 31 years later, he would have his virtual reality debut in an animated short that begins by having Hawke loosely quote the H.G. Wells classic to set the stage for a very different kind of alien invasion.
“Invasion!” has been produced by Redwood City, California-based Baobab Studios and is set to debut at the Tribeca film festival later this week. It features Hawke as the voice of the cosmos, an off-screen narrator that introduces the main characters, which include some cute bunnies and two very unexpected aliens with unknown intentions. Baobab released a brief teaser for “Invasion!” on Samsung’s Gear VR headset late last year, but this is the first time audiences get to see the whole thing, and hear Hawke’s voice.
Baobab co-founder and “Madagascar” writer and director Eric Darnell told Variety during a recent interview that he was looking for a voice with gravitas when his team approached Hawke — and was happy to learn that the actor was a virtual reality fan, eager to get his feet wet in the new medium.
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Of course, the fact that Hawke is a Hollywood household name doesn’t hurt either. Baobab co-founder and CEO Maureen Fan admitted as much during the same interview, saying that the company’s aim wasn’t to produce niche content for hardcore virtual reality enthusiasts or art house geeks. The goal was to make mass-market content for people who experience VR for the first time and don’t consider themselves gamers, she said. Fan likened this approach to her previous work experience at Zynga, where she served as VP of games. “Most people that play Farmville games don’t believe that they are gamers,” she said.
Baobab aims to find that mass-market sweet spot for animated virtual reality fare by heavily tapping into the Bay Area animation community. In addition to Darnell, the startup is also employing Michael Hutchinson as chief scientist. Before joining Baobab, Hutchinson worked as the technical lead for character technology at Dreamworks Animation. And some of the startup’s advisors include Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, DreamWorks Animation co-president Mireille Soria and legendary Disney animator Glen Keane.
But the company is also keeping close ties to tech, and the nascent virtual reality tech industry in particular. Baobab raised $6 million from Samsung, HTC and others last year, and Fan said that it purposely tapped into financing from VR headset manufacturers to be first in line for content distribution. Fan wasn’t able to disclose all distribution partners for “Invasion!”, but promised: “We want to be ubiquitous.”
Baobab now plans to release additional episodes featuring the two aliens introduced with “Invasion!”, and it is also exploring ways to monetize VR content through its own app as well as through distribution partnerships. The goal was to learn and iterate, said Darnell, which was one reason for the studio to keep “Invasion!” under 7 minutes. “By doing them short, it gives us a chance to learn,” he said. And by releasing short content over time, the studio can also play with new technical capabilities as they become available.
Fan estimated that the company won’t be able to make a whole lot of money with VR until the end of next year. “VR is going to be a bumpy ride,” she said. Part of the problem is that it will take some time for people to get their hands on headsets, but the real challenge will be to keep those who buy headsets coming back for more, she argued. “I don’t think there is enough content.”
Which, one could conclude, is a good problem to have for anyone producing VR content.