Baobab Studios took the wraps off its next original virtual reality creation yesterday, debuting a trailer for the short VR film Bonfire. The full episode will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this week. I was able to play the episode on the Oculus Rift headset, and I talked with its creators about how this cute and interactive story came together.
Baobab’s VR tales stand out as masterful storytelling, which has enabled the company to win two Emmy awards and lots of kudos for its previous VR creations — Invasion!, Asteroids!, Jack, and Crow: The Legend. I’ve come to expect good things from the creative team that includes Eric Darnell, cofounder of Baobab and the creator of the animated Madagascar films. Headed by CEO Maureen Fan, the company raised $25 million in 2016, largely on the promise of what these film properties could become.
I met with Darnell, Fan, chief technology officer Larry Cutler, and others at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City, California. Except for the animated creatures all over its walls, the place could have been any other software company in Silicon Valley. Baobab Studios was founded by Darnell, its chief creative officer, and Fan (a former vice president of games at Zynga) in 2015.
Darnell is best known for his director and screenwriter talents on all four films in the DreamWorks Madagascar franchise, which together have grossed more than $2.5 billion at the box office. He also held top roles for The Penguins of Madagascar and Antz, DreamWorks’ first animated film. Fan has held leadership roles in film, gaming, and most recently as vice president of games at Zynga, where she oversaw three studios, including the FarmVille sequels, which contributed 40 percent of the company’s revenues. Previously, she worked on Pixar’s Toy Story 3.
Bonfire features the main character, Debbie, voiced by comedian, writer and actress Ali Wong. Debbie is a robot who serves as your assistant as you fulfill your mission while searching for a new home for humans as Earth runs out of resources.
As one of many Space Force scouts (No. 817) sent into deep space to explore other planetary systems, you discover a planet that could be habitable. You crash-land on the planet and build yourself a bonfire.
Debbie is your assistant, but she is hobbled because she has lost a wheel and can only spin in circles. In the alien jungle, you are surrounded by a creature in the dark shadows of the landscape, which seems genuinely scary. Then you meet a character named Pork Bun.
Pork Bun is cute pink-and-yellow alien with a big green tongue and a penchant for manufactured food that comes out of your robot. Debbie chats with you and provides you with comic relief. You gain Pork Bun’s trust by tossing out little marshmallow-like treats.
Then you have to make a decision. I won’t spoil it. It’s a comedic VR experience, but you have to interact with the characters and make a decision that will determine which way the narrative will go. Darnell said the team wanted to deepen the fan’s engagement via interactivity, and take that farther with this film than previous pieces have gone. Your decisions matter, and you have to take action in order to get a good outcome for the story. You exercise your conscience.
While the characters are cartoonish, graphics are pretty impressive. There are shadows from the campfire, cast on to the face of Pork Bun. The movements are fluid, yet the character’s shape is quite simple. The team worked on the 12-minute film for around six months. I thought it turned out great, with a familiar emphasis on a self-contained story.
You can see the progression of VR technology itself looking back in time over Baobab’s history. With the original Invasion! story, you were a bunny, but you had no hands or input devices in VR. Now you can pick up little marshmallows and feed Pork Bun, using touch controls. You can also take advantage of technologies like artificial intelligence.
“This was supposed to be a short piece,” Fan said. “Because we’re very ambitious, this turned out to be much bigger than we expected.”
Fan said she was excited to work with voice actor Wong, who has had a good career as a standup comedian.
“We’re very focused on trying to put the viewer inside the story,” Darnell said.
“It’s powerful when characters make eye contact with your character,” he said. “The next thing is for you to build a relationship with the character. You have to make a decision under pressure. And the choice you make really matters. There are real stakes involved.”
Darnell said, “And through the choice that you make, you reveal something about who you are, at least to the characters in the story, if not, maybe even to yourself. The point is to really make the viewer feel invested in the characters in the story.”
Larry Cutler, chief technology officer, said the team went through a lot of iterations of characters to arrive at the final versions, as the posters on the office wall showed. The system also has to use AI to detect what you are doing in VR and how the simulation reacts.
Fan said the company will work hard to make sure that Bonfire runs across a wide variety of VR headsets. The future release platforms for the VR film are to be determined.