As the writer/director of DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar, a blockbuster that spawned five sequels and one TV show, Eric Darnell could've easily hung up his hat and basked in his Hollywood legacy. But, instead, Darnell departed the studio he made famous last year to explore the "Wild West" of virtual reality with Baobab, an animation studio he co-founded alongside Maureen Fan, the former VP of games at Zynga. At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, the two debuted their first effort, Invasion!, a VR short featuring a lovable, alien-thwarting bunny rabbit and a prologue narrated by Ethan Hawke.
"He's a big fan of VR, it turns out," says Darnell of Hawke's involvement.
Baobab's six-minute-long computer-animated short tells a simple tale: Aliens come to Earth intent on a hostile takeover and are unwittingly defeated by a cute bunny. With its family-friendly tone, charming characters and clever physical humor, Invasion! is not unlike Darnell's past work. And it's precisely that familiarity that should have parents taking off their VR headsets and eagerly placing them on their children's heads.
"Our goal is to make stuff everybody can enjoy," says Darnell. "There's no reason to put in a dirty word or off-color joke if you can do something funny and appealing to a broad audience."
Believe it or not, this fluffy bunny thwarts a hostile alien takeover
Darnell drew inspiration for Invasion! from two classic sources: the original The War of the Worlds movie and Laurel and Hardy. The mash-up is immediately evident as Hawke's introductory narration is based on the H.G. Wells novel that inspired the original film and in the alien duo's bumbling comedy of errors. But whereas the current version of Invasion! centers on the bunny as the unwitting hero, originally Darnell had built the piece around the two aliens. And in that earlier version, which was available as a preview on Gear VR, the bunny died. It was a decision Darnell chalks up to lack of production time. "We didn't have time to animate it for the trailer," he says.
It also proved to be a great lesson in the do's and don'ts of VR filmmaking for Baobab. Early feedback from parents who'd seen the preview highlighted a key concern: Unlike watching a film in a theater's communal setting, VR is an isolated experience, giving parents no way to monitor and console children who've witnessed upsetting imagery or storylines (e.g., a dead bunny), thus making them less likely to allow kids to participate in these VR experiences. And so it was decided the bunny should live.
That commitment to all-ages entertainment forms the backbone of Baobab Studios, which boasts animator Glen Keane (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and founding members of Pixar, DreamWorks Animations and Twitch as advisers. With that considerable brain trust behind them, Darnell and Fan hope to replicate the high-quality visuals and storytelling-centric ethos Darnell helped foster at DreamWorks Animation and, in the process, transform VR from a niche novelty to a form of popular entertainment. The Bay Area-based studio has a slate of 12 projects in various stages of development. But given the early positive responses to Invasion!, Fan says it's likely the studio's sophomore effort will be episode two.
Eric Darnell (front left), Maureen Fan (front right) and the Baobab Studios team
"The audience chooses the franchises. We aren't the ones who choose the franchises," says Fan. "So by putting out this first one and seeing how much people like it, that's how we know whether or not we want to continue with additional episodes."
Indeed, the bulk of Baobab's output will rely on building strong episodic franchises the studio can continually revisit, though Darnell says longer-form, self-contained pieces are not out of the question. But before Darnell can get to work on experiences that push past the 10-minute mark, he needs to get viewers comfortable with the idea of spending time immersed in the virtual world.
"Our goal is to make stuff everybody can enjoy."
Eric Darnell, Baobab Studios
Much like Oculus Story Studio and Penrose Studios, Baobab has its own suite of proprietary VR creation tools. But where Baobab branches off from the pack is in its in-development conferencing software. Darnell says his team is hard at work on a system that would allow multiple users to collaborate, sketch storyboards, draw models and work on blocking and set design all within the virtual world.
"As a director, I can point to things and highlight things and ask the modeler to make it 20 percent bigger and move that rock over there," he says. "And we're all in the same world. We're basically authoring our content, our VR experience, inside of the medium. And that's superpowerful."
The Baobab Studios team demos a build of Invasion!
Both Darnell and Fan are extremely bullish on VR's consumer prospects and are positioning Baobab as a platform-agnostic studio. So when Invasion! and other projects are released, you can expect to see them hit every storefront from Vive to the Rift to PlayStation VR. Just don't expect to see Baobab's early shorts released with much controller-based interactivity. Both Darnell and Fan believe that, at least for now, VR viewers still want to be passively entertained at the end of a long day and not overwhelmed with control schemes and physical engagement.
"For me, the magic is really in inspiring the viewer to make their own choice and yet they're getting the story I want them to get."