Emmy award-winning immersive storytelling startup Baobab Studios has teamed up with Penguin Random House for one of its latest projects: “The Magic Paintbrush,” a fantasy epic about a 12-year-old Chinese-American girl from Queens, will be published both in VR as well as in the form of a book series — a first-of-its-kind collaboration for immersive media.
“The Magic Paintbrush” is based on an old Chinese folk tale about a poor painter who gains possession of a special brush that makes his creations come to live. In Baobab’s version, which has been developed by its chief content officer Eric Darnell, the brush comes into play when the 12-year-old protagonist meets her immigrant grandmother for the first time. Being in junior high, she initially can’t relate to her Grandma. But the magic paintbrush, and the adventures it unlocks, not only foster a relationship, but help the girl to accept herself and her heritage.
“The story deals with the struggles we all face to find out what makes us who we are. The premise is that it is both our nature and our nurture—it’s all of our heritage, our DNA, our experiences, our dream of who we want to be, and so much more,” said Darnell. “But when we deny one of those things, we may put ourselves at risk of never becoming the person we really want to be.”
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Baobab teased the new franchise with a piece of concept art exclusively shared with Variety:
Darnell, who wrote and directed all of Dreamworks’ “Madagascar” films, began working on “The Magic Paintbrush” soon after co-founding Baobab in 2015. Penguin Random House recently signed on to turn the story into a series for Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. The series has been fast-tracked to begin publishing in 2021, which is likely when the story will be released in VR as well.
“I loved ‘The Magic Paintbrush’ folktale as a child. There was magic, adventure, heroism,” said Crown Books for Young Readers vice president and co-publisher Phoebe Yeh. “Who could resist a paintbrush that makes everything real? As a first generation Chinese American, I’m always excited when there’s a way to share a childhood favorite with new audiences.“
Crown Books has secured award-winning children’s book author Kat Zhang, whose previous books include “The Hybrid Chronicles”, “The Emperor’s Riddle” and “The Memory of Forgotten Things,” to pen the series. “This promises to be a truly Asian American collaboration with broad appeal to all fantasy enthusiasts,” said Yeh.
“In a way, we aspire for this to be the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ of children’s book series,” said Baobab Studios CEO Maureen Fan. “Not only in terms of lifting representation but having the ability to move across boundaries and captivate a wide audience around the world. We are so thrilled to partner with Phoebe Yeh, Kat Zhang and Random House Children’s Books on this endeavor.”
Baobab’s previous VR experiences include “Invasion!,” “Crow: The Legend” and “Bonfire,” among others. The company has often partnered with A-list Hollywood talent, with some of the actors lending their voices to Baobab VR films including Ali Wong, Oprah, Constance Wu and John Legend.
And while “The Magic Paintbrush” will be the a pioneering story for being released both in print and VR, it’s not the first time Baobab has crossed over from immersive into other, more traditional forms of media. Roth Kirschenbaum signed on in 2016 to turn “Invasion!” into a feature film.
“We are gratified that both the publishing and film worlds are responding to the immersive storytelling coming from Baobab and that these stories transcend mediums,” said Fan. “It inspires us to keep creating our interactive content.”
Baobab’s funders include The Chernin Group, Comcast Ventures, Shari Redstone and Liz Murdoch’s Advancit/Freelands Cap, 20th Century Fox, Evolution Media Partners, Shanghai Media Group, Youku Global Media Fund (Alibaba), Samsung, HTC and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.