Interview with Baobab’s Eric Darnell on Asteroids! and the future of VR

Last year Samsung NEXT portfolio company Baobab Studios released Invasion!, its first animated interactive VR title. Invasion! was critically acclaimed, as it won a Daytime Emmy and was an official selection of Cannes du Marché du film, the Toronto Int’l Film Festival and Tribeca Film Fest.

For its second VR animation, Baobab is introducing Asteroids!, which will be launching on the Samsung Gear VR in December. While Invasion! is viewed from the point of view of two bunnies on earth, Asteroids! follows the adventures of Mac and Cheez, the two aliens we meet in the first adventure, as well as their robot companion Peas.

Leading the creation of these new VR experiences is Baobab co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Eric Darnell, whose experience in the digital animation world spans more than two decades. Darnell was director and screenwriter on all four films in the Madagascar franchise, as well as the director on DreamWorks Animation’s first feature film, Antz.

In an email Q&A, we ask Darnell why he’s excited about VR, how storytelling in virtual reality is different from other forms of computer animation, and what we can expect at the launch of Invasion!

Given your long career in computer animation, what drew you to start creating experiences in VR?

The first time I put on a VR headset I was blown away.  I realized that VR is not an extension of film — VR is a brand new medium — a real game changer. And I was determined to figure out how to use this new medium to tell stories.

How did you connect with your co-founders, and why did you decide to start working together?

I met Maureen Fan, CEO, through Glen Entis, one of the founders of Pacific Data Images, where I started my career in computer animation.  Maureen was a VP at Zynga at the time.  She had always wanted to start an animation studio, but knew it would be impossible to go head to head with a company like Disney.  However, she recognized that the technological disruption that VR brought to the game could give a startup an unfair advantage.  I knew Larry Cutler, CTO, from DreamWorks where he led a team that created DreamWorks’ Oscar winning animation tools.  Maureen knew Larry from Stanford.  So with our experiences in business, tech and creative, we became the three legs of the “Baobab milk stool”.

How is developing content for VR different from more traditional storytelling?

Eric Darnell, CCO of Baobab

In a sense, the storytelling is the same.  Filmmaking, theater, literature and VR all access the same basic storytelling principles.  What’s different is how each medium allows you to express those principles.  For example, in VR the viewer is making choices about what to look at.  The viewer is, in a sense, the cinematographer.  The goal, as I see it, is to inspire the viewer to make the completely free choice to look exactly where they need to look at any given moment to have the best possible experience.  And on a deeper level I want the viewer to care enough about the story and character(s) to instinctively ACT on their compassion.  The immersive nature of VR makes this possible in ways that other storytelling media do not offer.

You have a new interactive short coming out called Asteroids! What can viewers expect from the new title?

“Invasion!” was the first VR piece that made the viewer a character in the story.  But when we made “Invasion!” handheld controllers were not on the market yet.  The interactive possibilities were limited.   “Asteroids!” takes advantage of handheld controllers to give the user more opportunities to interact with the characters and environment.  This makes the user a integral part of the storytelling. Their choices really matter.

What were the big lessons you learned from creating your first interactive short, Invasion!? How did they carry over into the development of Asteroids!?

The most important thing we discovered with “Invasion!” was how powerful the connection between the viewer and an animated character could be in VR.  When watching a film, most viewers do nothing but sit and star at a screen, but in “Invasion!” viewers were doing things they would never do when watching a movie.  They were talking to Chloe the bunny.  They were trying to touch her and play with her.  Many viewers said they felt a very real need to protect Chloe from the aliens.  Chloe “mattered” to viewers in a way that inspired them to take part in her story.

In “Asteroids!” we integrated the use of hand controllers.  You are a “helper” robot complete with tube arms and electronic hands that allow you to interact with things inside the ship.  We even added a section of the story where you can play fetch with the aliens’ dog-like pet robot.  The goal was to see if we could generate a strong bond between the viewer and the character.  Our concern was that it might slow things down as we detoured from the main story.  In fact, we ended up extending the time the viewer could play fetch with Peas, the robotic dog, because audiences found it to be one of the most rewarding parts of the entire experience.

How do you balance the storytelling with the viewer’s desire to explore or take in these immersive VR worlds?

Balancing storytelling with all the other distractions that VR offers is a pretty significant challenge and a lot of factors play into it.  One factor is simply the experience that the viewer has.  A newbie might be just as happy to watch the clouds roll by as to pay attention to the story.  However, there are simple things we can do to help direct the viewer’s attention.  A magician will say, “If you want the audience to look at something, look at it.  If you want the audience to look at you, look at the audience.”  The same applies to VR.  An animated character can provide cues by where they direct their own attention.  And, of course, we can use lighting and sound to help direct the viewer’s gaze, as well.  We do a ton of testing because it is impossible to predict what will work best once you are already familiar with the content.

As you get more familiar with these VR experiences work, what are some things that excite you about new ways you can interact with viewers?

The most exciting thing about working in VR today is that the tools and techniques for making great VR are largely undiscovered.  So I’m most excited about the things we DON’T know about VR.  It reminds me of when I started in computer animation in the ’80s.  There was so much to discover, and the people that were involved in computer animation were all as excited as I was to see what this new type of film making was capable of.  It feels the same today with VR.  None of us really know what we are doing, but we are all eager to find out.

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