Virtual reality is already big in the gaming world, but Hollywood and Silicon Valley are still trying to figure out how to reach a mass audience with films made with an experimental, less accessible, technology.
One Silicon Valley startup trying to crack that formula is Baobab Studios. Launched less than two years ago, the virtual reality animation studio is already backed by a group of high-profile media and tech investors that includes 20th Century Fox, Comcast Ventures, HTC, and Samsung. Those investors have pumped a total of $31 million in financing into Baobab.
Last year, Baobab debuted its first VR short film, Invasion!, at a string of prominent movie festivals in New York City, Toronto, and Cannes. The short film—in which the viewer takes on the role of a fuzzy, white rabbit witnessing the arrival on Earth of two threatening, but adorably inept, aliens—was well-received by critics and popular enough with audiences that it landed Baobab a deal with the Hollywood studio Roth Kirschenbaum Films to turn Invasion! into a feature film. (Baobab also released a follow-up short, called Asteroids, that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.)
While the movie deal will eventually bring Baobab’s characters to the big screen (albeit in 2D, not virtual reality), the VR startup is still focused on creating films that attract more viewers to a platform that often requires that they spend hundreds of dollars on a virtual reality headset.
Baobab is hoping that its latest project can help stir up enough interest in VR to help the medium go mainstream. Called Rainbow Crow, the animated VR series is based on a Native American myth about the origin of crows’ black feathers, with a highlight on themes such as diversity, acceptance, and self-sacrifice. The series’ prologue recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, which runs through the end of this week.
Star power isn’t a problem for Rainbow Crow. Directed by Baobab co-founder Eric Darnell—a DreamWorks Animation veteran who wrote and co-directed the films of the Madagascar animated movie franchise—the series features the voice and singing talents of Grammy-winner John Legend in the lead role, as an animated bird, while actors Diego Luna (Rogue One) and Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) voice a moth and a skunk, respectively.
In addition to touting the series’ cast and story, Darnell told Fortune recently that Rainbow Crow should stand out from its VR peers stylistically, as well. The director said he tried to match Rainbow Crow‘s “storybook quality” by opting for softer visual quality over the relatively crisp and linear graphics typically seen in VR films. “We’re not trying to duplicate reality,” Darnell said. “We’re trying to create this magical world that could exist nowhere else but in VR.”
To do that, Darnell said he had to create a world where the lighting is “very theatrical, and we use it in a sort of revelatory way to bring the space to life as the characters move through the space.”
Baobab CEO and co-founder Maureen Fan told Fortune that Rainbow Crow‘s visual style “required a lot of engineering and technical expertise” to achieve the softer look and the resulting effect is atypical in virtual reality, where animators usually aim to make their virtual settings look as realistic as possible.
“We’re going the opposite way, which is how to be more fantastical [and] it’s unintuitive that it’s actually more difficult to go that way from a technology standpoint,” said Fan, a former vice president at mobile gaming company Zynga. (Darnell added that achieving that softer effect would be easier in a regular computer-animated film because the director can control every frame, whereas a virtual reality film requires the director to make that effect constant throughout an entire virtual world.)
Beyond stylistic elements, though, Fan said she hopes that Rainbow Crow stands out for the quality of its storytelling. She’s a strong believer in the idea that VR cinema needs an influx of compelling content in order to reach a wider audience. Virtual reality may be growing into a multi-billion dollar industry. (Market researcher Greenlight Insights estimates 2017 VR revenue will top $7 billion.)
But the majority of people who currently own headsets are more interested in hard-core gaming and narrative content in the space has struggled to make the leap beyond novelty to the mainstream.
“We believe that at the end of the day, when the novelty of the technology goes away, it’s still storytelling that’s going to matter,” Fan said. Films and series with good storytelling, she added, give people a reason to strap on a VR headset on a regular basis, creating a repeatable business model for companies like Baobab.
That’s why it’s important for Baobab to have people like Darnell—whose four Madagascar movies earned a combined $2.3 billion in global ticket sales—on board. Meanwhile, the studio’s third co-founder, chief technology officer Larry Cutler, is another DreamWorks Animation veteran who also worked at Pixar Animation on films like 2001’s Monsters, Inc. And Fan, who said she’d always dreamed of working in animation, previously worked on Disney/Pixar’s 2010 animated mega-hit Toy Story 3.
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Darnell, who started working in computer animation in the 1980s, said that after two decades at DreamWorks, regular computer animation had become somewhat “rote” and that he was ready “for something that was going to work some different neurons a little bit.” Darnell was “blown away” after Fan first outfitted him with a VR headset and, he told Fortune, he saw an opportunity to “tell stories in a different [and] more powerful way.”
People like Darnell, and even John Legend, are part of a new wave of A-list Hollywood talent that’s betting on virtual reality cinema making the transition from experimental novelty to a mass market medium. Actors Ethan Hawke and Elizabeth Banks provided voice-over work on Baobab’s previous two short films. Director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) has fully embraced virtual reality, and he even plans to incorporate some VR tech into his upcoming live-action adaptation of The Lion King at Walt Disney.
The Tribeca Film Festival has been especially welcoming to VR content in recent years. In addition to screening Baobab’s projects two years in a row, the festival strongly pushes VR content in its Storyscapes and Virtual Arcade exhibitions, with 30 total VR exhibits at this year’s event (up from eight just two years ago). This year’s festival includes a VR installation created, in part, by musician Pharrell Williams, as well as a new VR short film from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) discussed his own recent work in VR at an event.
(Amazon Studios even recently tapped Tribeca’s former festival director to oversee its planned push to license and develop VR content.)
Considering the amount of Hollywood talent dipping their toes in the VR pool, it would seem that Baobab Studios is not alone in working to bring stronger storytelling to the new medium. Still, Baobab’s Fan thinks there could be a long road ahead before virtual reality cinema is fully embraced by a mass audience. After all, traditional cinema took decades to develop into a mass market medium from its early days as a technological novelty in the late-1800s.
For Fan, the expected ups and downs of exploring a new medium make it all the more valuable that Baobab has the support of a wide range of high-profile investors.
“One of the reasons we raised $31 million is to make sure we can last through the natural technological lifecycle,” she said.