Enter a Fairytale World Reimagined for VR in ‘Baba Yaga’ from Baobab Studios

Oculus Blog
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January 15, 2021
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The creators of INVASION!, Crow: The Legend, Bonfire, and more, six-time Emmy Award-winning animation studio Baobab Studios knows a thing or two about compelling VR film. In their latest adventure, Baba Yaga, you fight the legendary eponymous witch to save your family and find balance between nature and humanity. Your choices matter, with multiple endings and interactivity that changes the course of the story. And it’s available now on the Oculus Quest Platform.

You and your younger sister, Magda (Daisy Ridley) must brave the enchanted forest to find a cure for your mother’s grave illness. Brave the evil witch to save your family and village through love, magic, and the power of nature. Hand tracking makes it simple to navigate the film, with no controllers required.

The star-studded, all-woman cast includes Daisy Ridley, Glenn Close, Kate Winslet, and Jennifer Hudson, who also served as Executive Producer. Directed by Baobab Studios Co-Founder Eric Darnell of Madagascar fame and co-directed by Mathias Chelebourg, Baba Yaga is a fantastical and enchanting theatrical production that combines the best of stage spectacle with classic illustrative 2D pop-up, hand-drawn, and stop-motion animation.

We sat down with Baobab CEO and Producer Maureen Fan and Chief Creative Officer and Director Eric Darnell to learn more.

What was the inspiration behind Baba Yaga?

Eric Darnell: I was not familiar with Baba Yaga, so when I came across the character from Russian fairy tales I was intrigued by the differences between Baba Yaga and the witches that I grew up reading about. I was surprised to discover that while Baba Yaga is often an evil child-eating witch, in some stories that feature her, she may appear as a more amoral character. And in still other stories she is actually a good witch. This ambiguity was the beginning of our journey as we dug deeper into the story we decided to tell.

Did the project change over time?

ED: I have never worked on a project that didn’t change over time. The process of writing the story can be its own story. I learned this from David Mamet, who came to DreamWorks to give us some feedback on the first Madagascar feature as we were in the earlier stages of developing the story. When we were pitching the story to him, he stopped us when we got to the third act. “I don’t need to see any more,” he said. We were confused by this and replied, “But we have the whole third act to tell you about.” “That’s not necessary,” he said. “You can’t have a third act yet because I can tell that you have not gone through the third act of your writing process. Only after you go through your own third act of story discovery can you be certain that you have the third act of the story itself.”

We were a bit dumbfounded by this feedback, but ultimately, he was right. The third act of the final film was completely different than the one we would have pitched him on that day.

How long was Baba Yaga in development?

Maureen Fan: Eric had the idea for Baba at the beginning of starting our studio five years ago, but it was too complex for those early days of VR. We started developing it in earnest two years ago. It’s hard to say how long we developed for because the story always changes, even when you’re well into production. As the business person, I would love it if we could always figure out story and interactivity in the beginning, but anyone in the creative field knows, you learn about what works and doesn’t while making it. You have to go on a journey to discover the final act.

How did Baba Yaga build on your previous work in VR? In what ways was it a departure from what came before?

ED: Baba Yaga was not so much a departure from the work done before as it was informed by the work we had done before. Our growing understanding of how interactivity can be deployed was critical to Baba Yaga’s story. We realized that sometimes the way to increase the audience’s immersion was by reducing the amount and/or complexity of the interactivity. The experience gained in our earlier work helped to inform us how and when to push in this direction. The impact of this sort of mindfulness can lead to the moments of interactivity that have a real purpose and feel meaningful and practically critical for the audience’s experience of and engagement with the story and characters.

MF: With each of our projects, we try to go further in “making you matter,” which is our mission—to seamlessly blend narrative and interactivity. With Baba, we wanted to make your actions truly matter by completely changing the story based on your choices. At the same time, we wanted to make the experience accessible enough to draw in new audiences to VR.

People often ask us to define what we create. Is it a game? A film? Neither! Here’s an analogy: Imagine a three-year-old girl crying on a park bench at 5:00 am. In a movie, you’d feel bad for her but you wouldn’t get out of your theater seat to help her. In a game, you might talk to her to get information to solve a quest. In real life, hopefully you’d talk to her because you want to help her. At Baobab, we strive to make experiences that have the empathy of film (all the caring you get from character development and story), the agency of games (where you can do something about all that caring), and the motivation of real life (where you do things because you genuinely care, not because you’re trying to win).

In creating INVASION! five years ago, we learned that making you a character, even giving you a bunny body made you feel more connected to the other characters and the story. Tiny things like eye contact made a big difference. When Chloe, the bunny, got on the ground and tried to play with you, audiences were convinced that she was mimicking their own movements. Many of them got on the ground and tried to play with Chloe.

When hand controllers came out, we created ASTEROIDS!, experimenting with letting you help out those aliens and robots on their spaceship. We explored when the audience should and should not be able to interact. Is it OK if people just want to interact and don’t pay attention to the story? We wanted to have our cake and eat it too. We also explored giving you a character arc that changes based on what you do. If you help out the aliens enough, they begin to respect you and acknowledge you as one of their team members. If not, they still think you’re the lowest of the low!

With Crow, we experimented with “interactivity as a toy.” Can interactivity just feel delightful, like shaking a snow globe or popping bubble wrap? The answer was yes! It’s fun to wave your hands around as the Spirit of the Seasons to make the flowers grow around you and to make it snow, to conduct the music of the stars and planets!

In Bonfire, we set off to more seamlessly merge interactivity with narrative. We made you the main character instead of a sidekick. We let you interact the entire time, instead of the typical, “Now’s the time to interact. Now’s the time to watch, etc.” We built an AI character that has different needs (e.g., hunger, curiosity, friendship) and reacts to every one of your actions and changes his/her relationship to you based on what you do and when. We re-arrange the story based on what you do at any given moment. And your final choice matters—at the end you determine if humanity lives or not. What a ride!

But we we wanted you to matter even more with Baba Yaga. We set out to completely change the story with high stakes based on your actions. We want your choices/actions to be both delightful and consequential. What’s the point of acting if the story plays out the same exact way regardless of what you do? We created vastly different story branches based on your actions. Your choices completely change what happens—do you or your sister ever make it back to your family? Do the villagers get to stay or does the forest win? Do they live in harmony? We are proud to have created multiple endings that you’ll hopefully find fulfilling. It’s hard enough to tell one story well—try several!

We also focused on interactions that make you feel closer to the characters so you can develop a relationship with them. For example, in the scene where Magda offers you a lantern—we made sure that when you reach out to grab it, she pushes forward slightly to meet you halfway. This is subtle but feels real because that’s what humans would do—rather than to just stand there with a hand outstretched, waiting for you to get the lantern. We think these little details make a difference to your immersion.

Interactivity plays a different role than in a typical game, where the interactivity is the whole purpose and the fun. Baba Yaga’s interactivity is there to let you bond more with the characters and to have agency over the story based on decisions that you might make in real life.

Eric often says storytelling is about putting characters under pressure to reveal their true nature. We hope to make you a character and put you under pressure to reveal your true nature. Will you become the witch? What kind of witch?

We hope you’ll enjoy being transported into this different type of experience and that we can help expand the audience that discovers and falls in love with VR. While innovating on how to make you matter, we’ve also consciously tried to make the experience accessible, safe, and intuitive. I hope you’ll feel good about showing this to your families and friends—to convert them into VR enthusiasts! You all know how amazing VR is—now we gotta get the whole world in here!

What motivated you to work with an all-woman cast for the project?

ED: One reason to have an all-woman cast was because we could. No investor or studio was telling us what to do. We could tell our story any way we liked.

Another reason is, “Why not?” There has been so much work done that has essentially an all-male cast. So we decided it was about time to go in the other direction.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we recognized that our themes about valuing and connecting with the natural world pointed to a female-focused cast. Over the course of human history, it has often been women who connected in a symbiotic way with nature. Women were often the ones who recognized how tied our species was to the natural world and found ways to employ its resources to do good—for example, to make a tea from the bark of a willow tree to help reduce pain. (Of course, willow tree bark is the source of what we now know as aspirin.)

Sometimes others were wary of the seemingly magical abilities of these early female “scientists” and became suspicious of them, sometimes accusing them of gaining their “powers” from dark forces. This presumed connection with dark forces inspired other suspicious people—often men—to persecute these women as witches.

What was it like working on a VR production during a pandemic? Did you encounter any obstacles along the way?

MF: It was difficult to emotionally process the George Floyd event remotely. We wanted to funnel our emotions into action. We raised about $50K for the Equal Justice Initiative by creating and auctioning off original artwork. We had such an amazing response that we opened it up to other San Francisco Bay Area animation artists, who created their own artwork inspired by events. Aside from Eric, we had some incredible artists donate art including Mark Andrews, who won an Oscar for Pixar’s Brave; The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn; Finding Dory co-director Angus Maclane; Trevor Jimenez, director of the Oscar-nominated short Weekends; Dave Mullins, who directed the Oscar-nominated short LOU; Alexandra Boiger, illustrator of Chelsea Clinton’s children’s book, She Persisted; and many others.

To make sure our crew stayed healthy, we instituted exercise contests, which got really competitive. All together, our miles added up to walking from California to New York with some detours in between to visit our out-of-state crew. We also arranged for the team to have ergo chairs and tables if they wanted them.

To continue our creative collaborative environment, our team came up with amazing ideas to stay connected. Our production assistant scheduled team Zoom lunches, sent care packages to our staff, and even organized our holiday party in VR (with a physical gift box, of course). Fellow crew members offered to share their hobbies—our concept artist has a worm farm, and it’s badass! Another member of our production staff shared her process of going door to door during the Presidential election to let people know if their ballots were nullified if they didn’t submit them correctly.

Baba Yaga has a distinct visual style. Why did you decide to blend 2D pop-up animation with hand-drawn and stop-motion styles?

ED: Most of us had our first experience with fairy tales and witches with picture books. This seemed like a great jumping off point for us—to bring the audience into a picture book world and then combine this look with strong story and characters that allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief and become completely immersed in the events as they unfold. If we could do this successfully, we hoped that by the time the audience is into the second act of the story they are not thinking about the look because they are fully immersed and engaged by the story and characters.

Entering VR Premiere with Eric Darnell and Daisy Ridley (foreground). Courtesy of Baobab Studios.

Loren Hammonds, Kane Lee, Larry Cutler, Glen Keane, Jennifer Hudson, Daisy Ridley, Eric Darnell, Maureen Fan, and Mathias Chelebourg. Courtesy of Baobab Studios.

Jennifer Hudson poses with Forest Character at VR Premiere. Courtesy of Baobab Studios.

How do you think VR and AR will continue to change the face of the arts moving forward?

MF: COVID has forced us to isolate, and VR/AR has given us a way to still connect with each other. For our Baba Yaga VR premiere, we created a Baba Yaga world in AltspaceVR and held our premiere party with our Executive Producer, Oscar- and three-time Grammy-winner Jennifer Hudson, cast member Daisy Ridley, and the animation legend Glen Keane. We all created avatars, had “cocktail” hour, and held a panel there. You can see the action on our social channels @baobabstudios.

VR and AR will continue to allow us to do the most human of all things—to connect and relate to one another. Art allows us to examine who we are through someone else’s work. VR/AR has the potential to do this even more deeply because you can literally experience the world through someone else’s eyes.

ED: It is hard to say exactly how VR/AR will change the face of the arts. We are still in the early days that in some ways mirror the early days of cinema. Many things will need to come together to really push the medium forward. I suspect that someone, perhaps a kid who has grown up with VR, will make a breakthrough that will push VR/AR to a place that firmly differentiates this new medium from cinema, games, etc. In other words, I am waiting for the VR equivalent of The Great Train Robbery or Citizen Kane.

What advice would you give to a creator looking to start building for VR?

ED: Keep an open mind! And keep in mind that the last people to pay attention to are the ones who tell you what you can’t do in VR. This is not the time to be limiting ourselves or anyone else. This is the time to try things, to go out on a limb, to be an experimenter, to embrace failure as you recognize that “failure brings experience, and experience brings success.”

What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?

MF: We’re very excited to premiere Namoo, Korean for “tree,” at Sundance in a few weeks. We created this in Quill. It’s a lyrical poem come to life in animation. Inspired by the loss of his grandfather, Director Erick Oh paints a searing narrative of the life of an artist from beginning to end, full of self-defining moments both great and small, and leading to the man’s surprising conclusion when he comes face-to-face with his own Tree of Life. You can learn more about it here.

We just released Paper Birds with 3DAR, starring Archie Yates (Jojo Rabbit, Home Alone Reboot). We also released our five-year anniversary edition of INVASION! for free on Quest.

Lastly, we’ve had tremendous demand for our IP from the traditional space, and as an indie studio, we are gratified by this. It started when we signed a deal with Roth Kirschenbaum Films (Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, etc.) to turn INVASION!, our first VR project, into a traditional 2D flattie feature film. Since then, Hollywood has come to us to turn our IP into films, TV series, and books, some of which we’ve announced. For example, we’ve announced two of our tentpole projects, which are concurrently being created as a graphic novel series for Intercats and a book series for all ages for The Magic Paintbrush. We’re honored that the streamers and studios have such demand for our stories and characters. We believe our stories and characters transcend any particular medium, and this demand validates that.

Our mission remains to inspire the world to dream by bringing out your sense of wonder. Make you matter.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

MF: Given Baba Yaga’s strong environmental themes, Baobab has partnered with the United Nations on its climate change and sustainability initiative—creating a Baba Yaga campaign for the UN ActNow app to engage and educate users on ways to take action in safeguarding Earth’s natural resources. To further emphasize reforestation awareness, we’ve also partnered with Conservation International to sponsor a final community challenge to be featured in the app this month, reinforced by a donation for the nonprofit’s Protect an Acre initiative. Please help to spread the word to bring about action and download the app!

ED: VR is one of those things that is difficult to explain to others. To modify a quote attributed to Thelonius Monk, Laurie Anderson, and others, “Talking about VR is like dancing about architecture.” The best way to understand the potential of VR isn’t to talk about it. It’s about putting on a headset. So those of you with headsets, please do everything you can to share the VR experience with others. And to those who have not tried VR, do whatever you can to find a way to try out a headset for yourself. I guarantee that once you do, any skepticism you may have about the medium’s potential will evaporate on the spot.

Experience Baba Yaga today on the Quest Platform.