You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

  • Lauren Dolgen Exits as BuzzFeed Studios

    Lauren Dolgen Exits as BuzzFeed Studios Boss After a Year

    Veteran TV producer Lauren Dolgen has departed as head of BuzzFeed Studios after one year in the job. BuzzFeed had hired Dolgen, a longtime MTV producer who worked on shows including “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant,” as head of BuzzFeed Studios to oversee the company’s slate of original content. Based in L.A., she had [...]

  • Snap-Derek-Andersen-Lara-Sweet

    Snap Fills Out Senior Ranks With CFO, HR Chief Appointments

    Snap CEO and co-founder Evan Spiegel has turned in house to fill the company’s CFO and head of human resources positions, completing an overhaul of the Snapchat parent’s executive ranks after a series of high-level departures. The company announced the appointment of Derek Andersen, currently Snap’s VP of finance, as chief financial officer. Andersen will [...]

  • Oculus Quest Gets Netflix App, But

    Oculus Quest Will Have Netflix, but Not Plex or HBO

    Facebook’s new Oculus Quest headset is launching with a number of high-profile gaming titles this Tuesday. Media apps on the other hand will take a bit of backseat, with some key players sitting this latest headset out for the time being. First, the good news for anyone who has pre-ordered the headset: One of the [...]

  • Lester Holt

    Chris Berend Tapped to Oversee NBC News' Digital Efforts

    Chris Berend, an executive who has been overseeing digital video for CNN and helped launch Great Big Story, a streaming-video site aimed at younger audiences, will jump to NBC News to lead its digital efforts. Berend will replace Nick Ascheim, who will move into a new role that is described as “improving digital and product [...]

  • Vogue, Conde Nast Entertainment Make Robert

    Robert Semmer Joins Condé Nast Entertainment & Vogue as Vice President of Video

    Condé Nast Entertainment and Vogue have named former Vice and Fader video executive Robert Semmer as their new vice president of video. Semmer will be based in New York and report to Croi McNamara, senior vice president of programming for Condé Nast Entertainment. “Anna and I are thrilled to welcome Robert to our award-winning video [...]

  • CEO of T-Mobile John Legere (L)

    FCC Chairman Backs T-Mobile, Sprint Merger With New Conditions

    FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave a thumbs-up to T-Mobile and Sprint’s proposed $26 billion merger, after the companies committed to enhanced 5G buildout commitments and agreed to spin off Sprint’s Boost Mobile. T-Mobile and Sprint first announced their plans to merge in April 2018, looking to combine forces to take on industry leaders AT&T and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content