Oprah Winfrey. John Legend. Constance Wu. Diego Luna. Baobab Studios’ latest animated VR film “Crow: The Legend” has an almost outrageous lineup of A-list talent attached to it. Even Eric Darnell, Baobab’s chief creative officer and writer-director of the film, still has to pinch himself sometimes. “For a tiny little startup, how the heck did this happen,” he asked himself during a recent interview.
But “Crow: The Legend,” which has its North America premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this Friday, doesn’t just feature big names. It’s also an ambitious 22-minute VR pic that combines a story based on a Native American folk tale with a unique and charming illustration style that differs from any other VR experience to date. Recently, the Baobab team invited Variety to their office in Redwood City, Calif., for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at how the piece came together.
Baobab Studios began working on “Crow: The Legend” in earnest in March of 2017. But for Darnell, who directed the “Madagascar” franchise before entering the world of VR with Baobab, the story behind it had been a much longer time coming. Ever since his father discovered during some amateur genealogy research that the family had a member of the Cherokee tribe in its ancestry, father and son had been fascinated with Native American myths and stories.
That’s how Darnell also discovered the story of “Crow and Fire,” a native American tale about selflessness and sacrifice. “It’s about how the crow became the crow we know of today,” he explained. And when Darnell co-founded Baobab in 2015, he pitched an adaptation of the story as one of the studio’s many potential projects. “It just has all the components of a great story,” he said.
“This was the story we all loved the most,” remembered Baobab Studios CEO Maureen Fan. “However, it’s incredibly ambitious with many characters, environments, and theme complexity. We experimented with other projects before embarking on this one, the one we always wanted to do.”
From the start, Darnell was acutely aware that his family’s ancestry didn’t give him much authority on subjects of Native American culture. “Basically, I’m this white guy from Kansas,” he admitted. That’s why Baobab partnered with Native Americans in Philanthropy and their CEO Sarah Eagle Heart early on. Heart not only became the voice of one of the characters in “Crow: The Legend,” but also provided key input on the story.
The same is true for Randy Edmonds, an elder of the Kiowa-Caddo tribe and founder of the National Urban Indian Council. Edmonds also provided Baobab with guidance, and became the voice of the narrator that guides viewers through the world of “Crow: The Legend.”
When Oprah becomes your divine being
“Crow: The Legend” is the story of a group of animals tested by the forces of nature when the spirit of the seasons introduces the first-ever winter to their idyllic habitat. Unsure whether they can brave the cold any longer, they eventually come up with a plan to appeal to a divine being dubbed The One Who Creates Everything by Thinking to bring back warmer weather.
Crow (Legend), a bird with an ego as big as his voice, would much rather star in a concert than help the other animals. But as his friends appeal to his vanity, he ultimately decides to embark on the perilous journey to meet The One Who Creates Everything by Thinking (Winfrey) — a journey that ultimately changes him and his relationship with his friends forever.
The story of the journey is very much based on the original folk tale, but Baobab’s take on it adds another component by bringing together Crow and Skunk (Wu), a shy admirer of the bird who eventually learns that the two aren’t that different after all. “Inclusion is a really important part of this piece,” said Fan.
That message resonated with Legend, who not only lent his voice to the piece, but also signed on as executive producer — something that ultimately opened the door for some of the other famous collaborators. In addition to Winfrey, Wu, and Luna, the cast of voice actors also include actress and YouTube star Liza Koshy and “Ready Player One” star Tye Sheridan. “It’s not a strategy for us to get stars,” Fan said. Instead, the studio got lucky finding a story that appealed to A-list talent.
A warm, fuzzy story-book look
Viewers of “Crow: The Legend” will find themselves immersed in a world that looks less like traditional animation, and more like something made out of felt, with warm, soft, and fuzzy outlines everywhere. The aesthetic is reminiscent of Eastern European children’s TV shows, or story books that eschew computer graphics for hand-painted imagery.
“Crow: The Legend” concept art.
Getting that look just right was something that Baobab’s head of research and development Michael Hutchinson worked on for a long time. “Trying to get the sense of softness was key,” he said. “With computer graphics, getting hard and shiny is easy.”
A first step was to introduce extra noise to the images. But dithering, as it is also called among computer graphics and visual effects folks, isn’t quite as easy if you actually have to render characters in real-time — especially if the rendering is done with the limited computing resources of a gaming PC, or perhaps in the future an all-in-one VR headset.
The solution to the problems was for Hutchinson to effectively develop multiple versions of a character that are layered on top of each other — almost like an inner core, and a warm and fuzzy coat that is wrapped around it.
Hutchinson’s work was aided by the decision to keep a lot of the shapes of bushes and other elements in the background very simple, and instead rely on those fuzzy edges to add warmth and texture. This helped to give the film a distinct look, but also freed up capacity for some of the more complex rendering of the main characters. “That was an example where art and technology worked together,” he said. “It was a happy accident.”
It’s a story, not a quest
Another challenge for Baobab was to add the right amount of interactivity to “Crow: The Legend.” Darnell said the team had learned a lot about adding interaction to narrative VR from its past pieces. In its most recent short, “Asteroids,” viewers could play fetch with a robot pet and trigger other interactive elements. However, as a result, some viewers were spending the entire watch time trying to unlock additional interactive features. “It just sabotages the immersion,” he said.
The same was true for VR stories that require viewers to memorize controller buttons in order to move their hands or perform certain actions, he argued. That’s why “Crow: The Legend” doesn’t use any buttons at all. In the story, viewers become the spirit of the seasons, and waving their controllers lets them spread flowers or frost across the grass and bushes around them. At the same time, the story still progresses if viewers don’t participate at all. “The interaction is not a game, a quest. It’s narration,” said visual effects art director Scott Peterson.
Later in the story, the viewer gets to help Crow as he flies through space to find his way to the divine being. Viewers use rays of light to guide Crow, who at one point encounters a group of asteroids that begin to sing whenever they are hit by one of those lights. Peterson and his colleagues grouped this asteroid choir into nine different sections that can be individually trigged and mixed together on the fly. “In a way, you actually are the conductor,” he said.
Coming soon to headsets and flat screens
Baobab has yet to announce its exact release plans for “Crow: The Legend,” but VR fans should expect the film to ultimately reach all major headsets as a two-parter later this year. The studio also plans to eventually make it available as a 360-degree video, and Fan said it was going to release a slightly shorter 2D version as well to make sure that it is being distributed as widely as possible.
And Fan and her colleagues won’t stop there: To continue their collaboration with Heart and Native Americans in Philanthropy, the studio has been developing a fellowship for Native American storytellers that is meant to give other members of that community the VR bug — just like “Crow: The Legend” did to Edmonds, the 82-year-old Kiowa-Caddo tribal elder.
“All Native American tales have a tradition of deep meaning and that’s why we tell the stories, sharing down the generations,” he said. “When I look at the impact these legends have, the insights they represent, taking that storytelling to a modern medium is extremely exciting. The beautiful VR work being created — inspired by our folklore — is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my many years.”