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

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.

CREDIT: 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.

CREDIT: 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.

CREDIT: 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.

More Digital

  • Asian Streamer Iflix Completes $50 Million

    Asian Streamer Iflix Completes $50 Million Fund Raising

    Asia-based streaming firm Iflix has completed its latest funding round by bringing in major institutional investor Fidelity. The company says it is now looking towards an IPO. Iflix, which has operations across 12 countries in Asia, says that the funding cycle brought in “well in excess of $50 million,” but provided few new details. Other [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Columbia Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Ads placed for the drama had an estimated media value of $5.71 million through Sunday for 997 national ad [...]

  • Department of Justice

    DOJ Announces Antitrust Review of Tech Giants

    In a move that could potentially disrupt Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, the U.S. Justice Department announced that its antitrust division opened a review into “whether and how market-leading online platforms have achieved market power.” The DOJ, in its announcement Tuesday, didn’t identify which companies it is looking into as part of the investigation. Facebook, Amazon, Google [...]

  • Snap Inc

    Snap Stock Skyrockets as Company Adds 13 Million Daily Active Users in Q2

    Share prices for Snapchat’s corporate parent Snap Inc. shot up as much as 13% in after-hours trading Tuesday on news that Snapchat added 13 million daily active users in Q2 of 2019. The service ended the quarter with 203 million users, compared to 190 million at the end of Q1, and 188 million in Q2 [...]

  • jbl link bar

    JBL Finally Releases Its Android TV-powered Smart Sound Bar

    Over a year after first announcing it, Samsung subsidiary Harman is finally releasing its JBL Link Bar, a smart sound bar that comes with Android TV built-in. The new device effectively doubles as a smart speaker, and does away with the need for any additional streaming devices. Google and Harman / JBL first announced the [...]

  • Inverse-BDG

    Bustle Digital Buys Digital-Media Startup Inverse, Its Eighth Acquisition to Date

    Bustle Digital Group, continuing its strategy of snapping up smaller digital-media players, has acquired Inverse, geared toward an young-male audience with content about science, tech and culture. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. BDG founder and CEO Bryan Goldberg is well-acquainted with Inverse, which was founded in 2015 by CEO Dave Nemetz — who previously [...]

  • Pandora voice mode

    Pandora Launches Voice Mode for Everyone

    After first launching a limited beta earlier this year, Pandora opened up its mobile voice control to all of its iOS and Android users Tuesday. The new feature allows users to ask for songs, albums, playlists, stations, and even soundtracks for activities or times of day, with simple voice commands. Pandora’s voice mode is similar [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content