Today's blog post is a guest post by Eric Darnell.
Baobab Studios is the team behind INVASION!, a top performing VR animation narrated by Ethan Hawke that has drawn accolades from film festivals globally including Tribeca Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival, and the prestigious Cannes Next Marche du Film.
Eric Darnell, Baobab Studios’ co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, is known for his director and screenwriter talents on all four films in the DreamWorks Madagascar franchise. He also held top creative roles for The Penguins of Madagascar and Antz, DreamWorks’ first animated film.
What if you could jump into an animated movie and become a part of the story? Would you? Could you?
Before getting to that, let me share a bit of my background. After I got out of college in the early ‘80s I turned on my TV one day and saw something that blew me away. This was 1983, the year the Internet was invented. Home computers were in less than 8 percent of households. Mobile phones were an extravagance and looked like doorstops.
What I saw on that TV screen was a documentary on a new art form called computer animation. It was incredibly primitive by today’s standards, but at the time it was groundbreaking. I had never seen anything like it. It was highly stylized and yet very real at the same time. And I finally knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I got my first real job at a company called Pacific Data Images. It’s there that I started focusing on using computer animation to tell stories.
Five years later, DreamWorks partnered with Pacific Data Images and over the next 20 years I was lucky enough to be a director and writer on 5 computer animated feature films starting with Antz, Dreamworks’ first feature animated film. Then Madagascar and all 3 of its sequels. Through all those years, the thing I spent more time on than anything was the stories we were telling.
Then, in February of 2015 I put on my first Virtual Reality headset and, just like 32 years earlier, I was completely blown away. I knew it was time to try something new. So last summer me and a few other folks started a Virtual Reality company called Baobab Studios.
Baobab is focused on creating virtual reality narrative content – specifically, computer animated interactive storytelling where the viewer is a part of the story.
I want to use interactivity to promote one of storytelling’s great strengths; the capacity to elicit deep and profound emotional experiences through the development of empathetic connections with the characters within the story. That’s a long-winded way of describing the kind of powerful emotional experiences we all have with storytelling in movies, books and theater -- with great stories, well-told with characters that we can fall in love with and matter to us. Stories are a part of what it means to be a human being. As Kenneth Burke said, stories are equipment for living. Stories are in our DNA.
What’s unique about Virtual Reality is that you can immerse the viewer in the story in ways that you can’t do with those other mediums. I want to put the viewer inside the story – make the viewer part of it.
Our first VR animation, Invasion!, begins by placing you in a snowy landscape that is all around you. You are not sitting in a theatre -- you are out on a frozen lake, the snow falling all around you, and you are free to look wherever you want. When you look down, you see that you have the body of a little white bunny. When you look up you see the clouds rolling by.
There’s a bunny in the distance – she spots you, hops over and looks you right in the eye.
On the Vive you can walk around and the bunny will follow you, and she will maintain eye contact. When this eye contact happens in Invasion!, everyone’s eyes are glued to that bunny. She has the audience’s full attention. And though the audience is free to look wherever they want, when that bunny looks them in the eye, no one looks away.
But is this really that different than a movie? Actors will sometimes “break the forth wall” and look directly at the audience.
From the audience’s point of view, it is different. Simply put, people respond to the bunny as if she is real! The audience does things audiences just don’t do at the movies. When that bunny hops over, people spontaneously interact with it. Some people coo, some wave and say “hi”, some mimic the bunny’s pose, some reach out to try and touch her, some even play with the bunny and are convinced that the bunny is responding to their own playful antics.
That bunny represents something that I did not anticipate, and something that makes VR such a unique and promising medium for storytelling.
Why are audiences reacting this way? Because this isn’t a movie. There is no camera. There is no fourth wall. There is you – and the bunny looking at you. The bunny is acknowledging that you are a part of her world. And if you allow yourself to suspend your disbelief, you are in her world.
In VR, you are not pushing a mouse around or fiddling with a keyboard or game controller. You are simply there, making eye contact with another seemingly living being. This is one essential way that we all, animals included, instinctively communicate with one another. It’s natural. It feels real. And, as far as the more primitive areas of your brain are concerned, it is real.
Later, when the aliens point their deadly weapons your way, the bunny leaps behind you and hides. Many viewers find this moment surprisingly compelling. They feel a surge of empathy and an instinctual desire to protect the bunny.
One viewer told me that when he turned away from the cowering bunny to look at the aliens, he could still feel the bunny’s presence behind him – he could almost feel the bunny’s breath on the back of his neck.
This is the power of the bunny -- which is, or course, a metaphor for what I see as the broader potential of Virtual Reality: To give you the opportunity to believe a character really exists and really matters, and then be able to act on that belief. You just can’t do this in any other storytelling medium.
Imagine if you could step into the worlds of the films I’ve made. You could be an ant marching next to Z on your way to do battle with the termite army. You could be the zebra-next-door who is best friends with Alex the Lion. You could be the fifth penguin out on a mission to save the world.
VR has the potential to let you, effectively, live a dream. That’s why I’m so excited to tell stories in VR. And bringing dreams to life is what Baobab Studios is all about.
is available for free today.
For more information on Baobab Studios: