For Baobab Studios, partnering with the United Nations on VR short “Baba Yaga” was a natural step. The company, which has won awards for its diverse, engaging content, worked with the U.N. and the org’s ActNow app for action on climate change and sustainability to tell the tale of “Baba Yaga,” inspired by ancient legends of witches who protect nature.

In the short, set to be released in early 2021, Baba Yaga is more a mantle to be handed down through generations. In this case, the title character, voiced by Kate Winslet, passes down the role of teaching others to live harmoniously with nature to young Magda (voiced by Daisy Ridley).   

“There are two really important things in the film. One is female empowerment. It’s an all-female cast with all female characters. The second one is environmentalism,” says Baobab’s CEO Maureen Fan. “And we couldn’t think of a better organization to partner with — that understands both these issues — than the United Nations.”

Eric Darnell, Baobab’s chief creative officer and writer-director of “Baba Yaga,” notes that although not photorealistic, the stylized characters represent the first time that Baobab animators have created human personae for VR. “We always had aliens [or animals] before,” he says. 

A key part of the studio’s storytelling is about playing to the strength of the immersive VR and putting the viewer in the middle of the story. Magda makes eye contact, engaging the viewer with tasks while Baba Yaga works to protect the Forest (voiced by Jennifer Hudson).

Darnell and his team, which included animation supervisor Ken Fountain and production designer Glenn Hernandez, had to make sure that the characters interacted with viewers like real people. “That means that things like eye contact when Magda looks at you — it has the potential to be very, very meaningful, and to make you feel like you’re connected to her,” says Darnell. Also important were the characters’ movements and environments, which are scaled to viewer size within the VR experience: Beds and chairs invite viewers to sit, and at one point, the viewer is locked in a cage.   

The animation team also leaned into the hands-free setting on the Oculus VR headset, so that you don’t need the hand-held controls to, say, grasp a lantern that Magda gives you, or grab a magic flower, or have beautiful diamond shapes emerge delicately from your fingertips during the end credits.   

Fan says the studio’s mission statement is to tap into people’s sense of wonder and inspire them to dream. “It does seem that when people feel like they matter, they just care so much more about these other characters; they feel like there’s consequences to their actions, which makes them even more engaged in the story.”