Baobab’s New VR Film ‘Bonfire’ Puts the Viewer at the Center of the Story

How Baobab Studios Made 'Bonfire,' Its
Courtesy of Baobab Studios

Baobab Studios, the VR studio known for Pixar-quality animated virtual reality short films like “Invasion!” and “Crow: The Legend,” is back at Tribeca Film Festival this week with a new VR short that puts you at the center of the story — and lets you experience bonding around a campfire a million miles from home.

“Bonfire” is the story of an explorer who crash lands on a distant planet that could be humanity’s last chance at finding a new home. The explorer, which is played by the viewer, gets some help from Debbie, a trusty robot sidekick, who is voiced by comedian Ali Wong. The robot may not be able to move around much after the crash landing, but still happens to produce excellent marshmallows to feed his human companion.

There’s only one problem: The strange creatures who live in the planet’s spooky forest — especially one that seems more puppy-like and curious that attack-dog dangerous.

The experience puts the viewer in control, letting her or him figure out how to interact with those creatures, an ultimately whether to tell the rest of humanity about this hidden paradise. “This is our most interactive project yet,” said Baobab CEO Maureen during a recent interview with Variety.

“Bonfire” lasts between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on the choices a viewer makes — but Baobab’s chief creative officer Eric Darnell, who wrote and directed the film, was quick to point out that it’s not a choose-your-own-adventure story. “Rather than branching the story, it’s branching emotions,” he said. In other words: You can’t ultimately change the story of “Bonfire,” but your behavior can have an impact your relationship with your newfound puppy-ish friend.

Baobab engineer Amy Rebecca Tucker likened this approach to the flow of a stand-up comedy set. Comedians have their basic flow plotted out, and know which jokes they want to hit during a set. “There is not a huge difference in story direction,” she said. However, they still read the room, react to their audience, and make them feel special, while at the same time sticking to their routine.

The team behind “Bonfire” arrived at this analogy pretty early-on in the process, explained Tucker, adding that it helped them to figure out how to balance interactivity and storytelling. “It definitely influenced how we thought about the story,” she said.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Baobab Studios

“Bonfire” concept art.

Still, casting the viewer as the main character of the film meant that Baobab had to account for a myriad of different actions. Viewers can feed marshmallows to the alien creature, throw anything they get their hands on into the fire, or even stay passive and not engage at all. “We try to account for all of them,” said Darnell.

To achieve this, lead animator Ryan Gong effectively had to break down each characters possible responses into a library of animated actions, gestures and responses, which were then ingested by the film’s artificial intelligence for believable real-time reactions. These micro-actions included “kind of anything under the sun,” said Gong.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Baobab Studios

Another challenge in making “Bonfire” was to balance the look of the story with the resources available on VR headsets to render these environments in real-time. That was especially tricky on mobile VR headsets, recalled chief scientist Michael Hutchinson, who said that much of this process involved “taking pretty pictures and figuring out how to turn them into math.”

One example: The friendly alien that emerge from the forest expresses emotions with wiggly lines on his face. And since those emotions can change in real time based on the viewer’s actions, Hutchinson used an algorithm to animate those lines on its face without eating up too much computing resources.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Baobab Studios

Hutchinson also took advantages of some of the unique display properties of VR headsets for visual effects without adding any computational strain. The forest in “Bonfire” looks pitch-black at first. But if you look closer, you’ll see more shapes emerge. This was achieved simply by using high dynamic range, which results in the viewers eyes literally adjusting, just as they would when one stares into a dark forest in real life.

Bonfire is premiering as part of the Tribeca Virtual Arcade Friday, and will come to multiple Oculus VR headsets this year. Pricing and other details have yet to be announced.