Baobab, Oculus, Penrose, Et Al: The Disneys Of Early VR Animation?

Xconomy San Francisco — 

You’re a film director whose last feature was a blockbuster, and now you’re funded to make a movie from a fabulous script of your own. It’s a dream job, but there’s just one hitch. Every day, a fan is released onto the set to point your cameras wherever he or she wants. When your stars are ready for a big dramatic scene, the cameras might be focused on the view out a window across the room.

That’s a glimpse of the kind of challenge director Eric Darnell is taking on, along with his compatriots at Redwood City-based Baobab Studios, one of the pioneers of an unpredictable new art form—animated films made with virtual reality technology.

Darnell, who directed the animated features “Madagascar” and “Antz” for DreamWorks Animation, co-founded Baobab in early 2015 with former Zynga vice president of games Maureen Fan. The pair assembled a team of veterans from DreamWorks, Pixar and Lucasfilm, and started showing a demo sequence of their planned feature “Invasion” to investors. (Sneak preview: Scowling aliens meet bunnies in a snowy forest.)

The Bay Area is becoming a cradle for the reinvention of cinematic art through a technology that poses mind-bending questions for feature filmmakers. For example, how can you put viewers in the middle of the 3-D action, yet expect them to stay passively focused on a single story line? The Baobab team, Oculus Story Studio, and Penrose Studios, both in San Francisco, are part of a cadre of VR experimenters who are confronting these creative challenges for the first time.

Baobab made its public debut on the eve of a signal year for the budding virtual reality industry. In 2016 a pioneer crop of VR headsets will be launched for use by ordinary consumers—not just the tech-savvy developers who have been experimenting with the equipment. The headset is the essential piece of hardware needed to tap into the nascent virtual universe that fans will enter through personal computers and mobile devices.

After Baobab showed what it could do with VR, investors injected $6 million into the studio late last year in a Series A financing round led by Comcast Ventures, which was joined by VR headset maker HTC, Samsung Ventures, Advancit Capital, The Chernin Group, Freelands Ventures, Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Investors are pouring cash into VR startups, with some $350 million invested across 73 deals in 2015, and Magic Leap’s blockbuster $794 million Series C round earlier this week.

Comcast and headset makers HTC and Samsung are teeing themselves up to be major content distributors once VR takes its place as a mass market form of entertainment. Comcast has invested in NextVR, which allows audiences to attend live sports events and concerts in virtual space, and AltSpaceVR, which creates virtual rooms where far-flung friends can get together to watch a TV show or film. Looming as a formidable competitor is Facebook, which bought high-end headset maker Oculus VR in 2014 for about $2 billion in cash and Facebook shares.

Independent virtual reality producers like Baobab stand to benefit from a pressing need among these headset makers. To entice people to shell out a hundred dollars or more for their new equipment, there must be lots of virtual content ready for consumers to explore.

“None of that hardware matters if there’s not good content,” says Darnell, Baobab’s chief creative officer. “We have value for the industry.”

Baobab intends to develop animation features for as many headset makers as possible.
“We are platform-agnostic,” Darnell says. Early virtual reality users can see the teaser version of “Invasion,” the studio’s first animated short feature, through the Samsung Milk VR service. Baobab has also agreed to distribute its films through HTC, which is developing the HTC Vive headset.

Amazon and Best Buy are already selling Samsung’s Gear VR headset for $99, and Oculus is taking pre-orders at $599 for its Oculus Rift headset, for delivery in March. The Samsung unit works with late model Samsung GALAXY smartphones, while the Oculus Rift requires a robust PC.

Darnell says Baobab will release a fuller version of “Invasion” early this year, but it will be no more than six minutes long. Any feature length version of “Invasion” will have to wait to see what unfolds in the embryonic industry—and what virtual reality filmmakers are learning about the craft.

On the business side alone, there are hundreds of unanswered questions. For example: Who will develop viable distribution channels, and how will consumers pay to see VR films, which will likely be more costly to produce than conventional animated features? Another open question is when enough headsets will be sold to reward investments in content. Content, however, must be there to spur people to buy headsets. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem, one that every new media platform must confront.

But some of the most interesting questions arise because the narrative film in virtual reality will be sufficiently different from traditional movies that it can be described as a distinct form of cinematic art.

One of the main reasons is that a headset places the viewer inside a three-dimensional space, and a viewer can look in any direction within that space. This allows the viewer to share the powers of a director or cinematographer who, in a conventional film, would “frame the shots” in each scene.

If a viewer isn’t looking at the principal characters in that scene as they act out a key element of the plot, how can the VR filmmaker move the story along at a set pace? Must a narrative VR film be able to “pause,” or extend the scene’s length, until the viewer turns to look at the actors? If so, each viewer will have some control not only of the visual focus of the scenes, but also of the film’s pacing, rhythm, and total running time.

It’s possible that a narrative film in virtual reality will, by necessity, be somewhat interactive like a digital game. Video games are a natural fit for virtual reality, because by their very nature they put users in the driver’s seat, controlling the progress and pacing of their actions within a fictional world.

Danielle Levitas, a research analyst for App Annie who is tracking the prospects of many forms of digital entertainment, predicts that gamers will largely drive the adoption of virtual reality. These early adopters also helped create beachheads in the consumer market for other technologies, such as the broadband connections that supported interactive games, and the DVD format, which boosted the market for videos, she says.

Still, Levitas doesn’t expect mass adoption to come quickly.

“Virtual reality is going to be a multi-year buildout. I’m not convinced that virtual reality in the next three to four years will be anywhere near mainstream,” Levitas says.

Darnell says Baobab will be learning from the game makers’ forays into virtual reality, but the studio’s top priority is to tell stories just as ordinary filmmakers do. Interactivity might be part of the mix if it enriches the narrative, he says.

“It all begins with a compelling story and a belief we can tell the story well,” Darnell says. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.”

In some VR films, the viewer might be a mere observer within the scene, invisible to the story characters. But some VR filmmakers might cast the viewer as a character, such as a spy, a ghost, or even a friend the hero confides in at private moments. “Maybe you can communicate with the character and change the story,” Darnell says. “All these are potential uses, though they don’t all have to happen.”

The narrative feature in VR, a cinematic form in its infancy, opens up still-unimagined possibilities. But the technology could also box filmmakers in to some extent.

There’s a lively discussion going on among VR experts about whether certain standard techniques of feature filmmaking, such as the widely used edit called a “jump cut,” can be translated into film storytelling in VR. If the movie takes viewers to a virtual mountaintop with a 3-D vista, can it suddenly jump-cut them inside a house for a family dinner party?

One not-uncommon complication of current VR viewing is nausea, as Darnell himself experienced while watching a cool clip of a Formula 1 race. “A good portion of people can’t handle that,” he says. Nausea or dizziness may result if there’s a mismatch between a viewer’s perception of his or her own body’s position and the movements of objects in the virtual world.

Darnell sees this effect as a potential curb on the early market for virtual reality, because some developers are putting out content without thinking enough about motion sickness. “I want to say, ‘Please don’t make content that makes people sick,’ ” Darnell says. “They may never put on a headset again.”

So does all this mean that VR filmmakers will never be able to use certain types of edits, or slow motion sequences, or other techniques from the film artist’s bag of tricks?

“I think it’s too early to start setting up rules about what you can do and what you can’t do,” Darnell says. He says he’s seen some jump cuts work in virtual reality sequences.

Audiences will also learn to interpret the virtual reality experience more easily when it becomes more familiar to them, Darnell says. In the 20th century, filmgoers came to understand the evolving language and grammar of film, including jump cuts, wide establishing shots, close-ups, fades, flashbacks, and other elements that signal the passage of time, a change of place, or other meanings and moods.

But in the early days of film, theater audiences recoiled in fear when they saw a train on-screen barreling toward them, Darnell says. “People would jump out of their seats and scream,” he says.

Virtual reality filmmakers are already trying out methods to corral the attention of a viewer whose gaze is wandering around the “set” instead of paying attention to the actors. For example, the VR filmmaker can trigger a sound to draw the viewer back to the characters, Darnell says. One studio used a small butterfly’s flight to re-direct viewers to the plot action.

But a basic technique comes back to the strength of the story. “The filmmaker can make the characters compelling enough that you want to know what’s going on,” Darnell says.

The filmmaking challenges are thorny enough when you consider a viewer sitting quietly alone in front of a PC. But what if consumers want to watch VR films together—a common way to enjoy traditional movies?

“People are working on that right now,” Darnell says. “There’s a reason why Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus. It wasn’t so people could sit by themselves.”

Group movie-watching would require multiple headsets, and possibly a way to hook them to the same device. But the technological challenges could be minor compared to the creative ones. Which viewer would control the film’s pace and “shot framing?”

The animated feature in VR may also have to evolve for viewers who aren’t sitting in front of a PC, but have full freedom of movement as they tap into the film from a mobile device. They could run after the characters, or gesture to them. “Of course you don’t want to do that in a room full of furniture,” Darnell says. “You could trip over your ottoman.”

At this point, Baobab is a small company with a growing staff of 15 full-time people and contractors. The studio is developing its proprietary technology and sticking to short features for now.

“That allows us to get material out quickly, to establish ourselves as leaders in the industry, and iterate,” Darnell says. The studio wants to be ready, no matter how the industry evolves.

Meanwhile, virtual reality filmmaking has been breaking into the film festival circuit.

Penrose’s five-minute VR film “The Rose And I” made its world premiere in the New Frontier section at the Sundance Film Festival 2016 in January, and Oculus Story Studio previewed its “Dear Angelica” there.

“I’m pretty convinced that VR in all its forms is going to be a really dominant player in the 21st century, like film was in the 20th century,” Darnell says.


Images provided by Baobab Studios