With industry cred spanning Pixar, Dreamworks, Blizzard, and beyond—not to mention a 2017 Daytime Emmy Award for INVASION!—Baobab Studios rapidly established itself as a leading force in VR animation. And with this week’s full release of ASTEROIDS! on Gear VR, we were excited to feature them as part of our VR Visionaries series.
While INVASION! (narrated by Ethan Hawke) introduced us to the lovable-if-bumbling alien duo, ASTEROIDS! places you in the metallic shoes of a task robot onboard a spaceship with Mac, Cheez (Elizabeth Banks), and their sidekick, Peas (Ingrid Nilsen). We sat down with Baobab Studios CEO and Co-Founder Maureen Fan to learn more about the film and her team’s vision for VR as an artistic medium.
What motivated you to tell this particular story in VR? And how did the overarching narrative evolve from INVASION! to ASTEROIDS!?
Maureen Fan: We started off with INVASION!, which was the first piece that we ever created with bunnies and aliens, and that just performed extremely well. People fell in love with the characters and also the story, but we realized that what people loved the most was when the bunny comes up and sniffs you. People would try to pet her, they would wave at her and talk to her, and they would get on the ground and start playing with her as though she were real. It’s not like a film at all when you break the fourth wall—with VR, something in your reptile brain truly believes that these characters are real. And storytelling is all about getting you to care enough about the characters that you want to see what happens to them. That’s why you watch to the end of a movie—because you either want to see them fail or succeed. And the fact that they cared so much about this character that they felt they wanted to protect her at the end from these aliens made us realize, “Wow, this is something really magical about VR.”
We wanted to go further in that, because in INVASION!, you can’t actually help the bunny except by moving around and using your body as a shield between her and the aliens. But then the Touch controllers came out, and we were like, “Oh my gosh, this is great. We can let you actually help the other characters out in a more in-depth way rather than just moving your body around.” We wanted to take advantage of that, and find a way to turn that empathy that you feel for the characters into action—where you could really be part of the story and actually help the characters, so you feel a sense of responsibility for them but you’re no longer constrained. In a movie theater, you feel really bad for a character, you love a character, but you can’t do anything about it. How do we actually let you help—or harm—the other characters?
So that’s what led to ASTEROIDS!, which is a piece about the two aliens, Mac and Cheez, who were thwarted by Chloe the bunny and you. They skedaddled into outer space, and they’re trying to decide on their next target planet to go invade. In outer space, they run into all sorts of craziness like these bugs in ASTEROIDS!, and it’s up to you, a menial task robot to help them through these dangers. In the process you redeem yourself, because your relationship with them changes over time, and you help them realize what’s really important in life.
How did you build upon your earlier experiences with storytelling in VR during production on the full ASTEROIDS! launch?
MF: We learned so much from INVASION!, like how to direct the viewer’s eyes to the right place by using the characters themselves. If a character looks off in a given direction, the audience wants to look off in that direction, too. You can also use lighting and the size of the space, so we took advantage of that. In Invasion, we had a huge, open, wide ice lake, which was great in centering the eye—it was kind of boring to look at certain places, so you knew where the action was. In ASTEROIDS!, we wanted to create a tighter ship so that you would be incentivized to walk around the entire ship to learn more about the aliens. And then we put Easter eggs all over the ship—for example, there’s this one part, if you peer into a little glass window, you actually can look into the rooms of Mac and Cheez, which each reflect their different personalities and some of the adventures they’ve been on. So giving the audience more reasons to explore was definitely something we learned. But the main things we learned through INVASION! that we then applied to ASTEROIDS! was how to get you to care so much about these characters that you want to help, and then how do you actually allow them to help. It’s kind of like Eric Darnell says: If you’re listening to Beethoven’s 9th and you get a bunch of cymbals, and then the conductor stops it halfway through and says, “OK everyone, bang your cymbals now,” it kind of ruins the flow of the music. So how do you merge interactivity with narrative? For us, it’s important to have a tightly woven narrative—where we’re getting the audience to feel certain things at certain times, and there’s no point at which they stop and something goes into a walk cycle—but at the same time, put the audience into that narrative so that they matter and they can actually interact with the characters.
So we employed lots of subtle things. For example, we looked into psychology to understand how humans convey emotions to each other and care—to create that sense of connection. When two people are on a great date together, you can tell if they like each other because they’ll start mirroring each other’s movements—subtly. They don’t know they’re doing it at all, but they do that. We used that in ASTEROIDS! where the Peas character, who’s your robot dog, actually mirrors your motions because with a headset we can track where you’re looking, the tilt of your head, all these types of things to build connection. But it’s important that it’s super subtle and unconscious so that it doesn’t reveal the man behind the curtain. We want to build the connection without pulling you out of the experience so that you never think, “What does the game maker want me to do now?” We want you stay in the flow of the narrative and really care about those characters.
Did you reinforce those visual cues with spatialized audio?
MF: Yes, everything is definitely spatialized, because it’s really important to capture your attention in that way. We need to use audio, visual, sensory, everything necessary—even the controllers themselves. I remember in one of the first versions of ASTEROIDS!, we had created round controllers when you looked down at your hands, and people would try to put their hands into every single round object they could find, like, “Can I make this do something?” It’s totally understandable and intuitive that people would do that—once you give people agency, they want to explore their powers—so we had to change the shape to a pentagon and make sure there weren’t that many pentagons on the spaceship. Lots of UI and visual cues as well as thinking through how a specific sound might represent that there’s something for you to do—there are a lot of game design principles that we brought into here.
What other works of art (visual, narrative, or otherwise) inspired you?
MF: It was really old-school ’50s sci-fi and horror. The funny reason why Eric even came up with INVASION! in the first place is that he was watching War of the Worlds—again—and he just thought it was so ridiculous that these aliens, who are so advanced in their technology, didn’t take into account the microbes of Earth. That’s what ultimately defeated them—because they didn’t think about the atmosphere. And so he thought, “That was kinda silly. Let me see if I can push that even further. How about the aliens not taking into account the cute, sweet, fluffy white bunnies?” Like, what is the most ridiculous thing, the sweetest, most cutest, vulnerable thing we could use to thwart the aliens?
He was also watching lots of Laurel and Hardy videos and thought, “Oh, I can make the two alien characters like Laurel and Hardy, where one is much more serious and one is much more sweet, and let’s have them come try to invade the world, and just—they suck at it.” He was also very inspired by Warner Bros. cartoons. For me, I was thinking of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, and you start kinda feeling bad for Wile E. Coyote. After some time, you’re just like, “Oh, if only he could just taste a little bit of Roadrunner!” So we wanted to create these likable characters that you still like, and that’s why the second piece was about them. They’re very cartoony and Warner Bros. style, so you can imagine them having a wonderful heart but getting thwarted by the sweetest creature ever. ASTEROIDS! was about developing them further, because some people after INVASION! just thought Mac and Cheez were so evil! The star characters were supposed to be Mac and Cheez, not Chloe—but Chloe just stole the show, and we want to go wherever our audiences go. So if they love Chloe, we’ll do more Chloe stuff, but we did want to make sure that the aliens were also lovable and that they had their backstories, too.
How do you think VR and AR will affect the art world moving forward? What impact do you see immersive media having on the nature of storytelling?
MF: People oftentimes ask us, “Is this storytelling? Is it a game? Is it a film? How do you categorize it?” And I like to say that it’s a completely different medium, and we try to create new terms instead of using old ones. So the analogy I use is the little girl crying on a park bench. If a little girl’s crying on a park bench and you see her—she’s too young to be by herself—you feel really bad for her if you see her crying in a film. But you’re not going to get out of your theater seat to go help her because you’re in a theater and you know it’s not real. In a game, you’d go talk to this crying girl because you want to help her, but oftentimes, your motivation is to win, to get information, to be a hero, to get to the next level. And in real life, you would go over to talk to her because you genuinely care and you want to help her. Our creative vision for VR is that you can have the empathy of film, the agency of games, and the motivation of real life. So you have these bigger-than-life stories, like you have in film, where you care so much about the characters, but now that you’re in a game engine, you can do something about that caring. You can act upon your caring, but ideally you act because you care—not because you’re trying to win. We feel this is something that’s unique to VR, and we think it has a huge, profound impact on showing humans what it means to be human.
Storytelling allows us to experience characters and stories beyond what we get to experience in our everyday life and empathize, feel different feelings, and also wonder, “What would I do? Who am I, and what’s my character?” But VR takes that even further because it allows you to not just think passively about those situations—you actually live it. In VR, you make those choices. It’s not just passive; you actually have a memory of taking that action. When you’re in that VR space and you’re faced with a question, you’re forced to confront what your actual choices are. Ideally, we’ve gotten you to care so much about the characters that you’re making the choices you would naturally make, not what you think the game designer wants you to do. That’s incredibly powerful, to be able to role play these different scenarios and different characters—and learn more about who you are and what it means to be human.
What role do you think VR has to play at the intersection between art and technology?
MF: A lot of our advisors—the co-founder of Pixar, the co-founder of DreamWorks, and Glen Keane, who I’m a massive fangirl of—they wanted to help us along this adventure because they say that VR feels the same way that it did when they started the CG revolution in animation, like when Pixar and DreamWorks first came about. They said back then, it was just a bunch of artists and engineers coming together—they didn’t know what they were doing, but they had great challenges and were up to the task. They made stuff together, to see what they could create—and they say that VR feels the same way right now, where it’s a bunch of artists and technologists coming together—don’t necessarily know what they’re doing, but experimenting and figuring it out and creating something new from scratch. And that excitement and that feeling, they want to feel that again. So they see this as an opportunity to pass down their knowledge from the previous generation to new generations of how to navigate that, and we’re super honored that they chose us to bestow their wisdom upon.
I also think it’s really important that it’s not just the technology. The art part is so important because technology is automatically biased towards the people who created it. A lot of UI interfaces, for example, will be geared towards men more so than women, and it’s because they’re created by male designers, so that makes sense. And when we’re creating something as immersive as VR, where it has such a visceral reaction on our bodies and our memories, it’s really important that we include that art aspect, that human aspect in it—not just creating tech demos, but creating things that show us what it means to be human. And then it’s even more important that we have diverse voices, both behind the camera and in front of it—behind the computer and in front of it—creating these experiences so that it’s something that appeals to all demographics and also shares their viewpoints.
If people take one thing away from Asteroids!, what do you hope it would be and why?
MF: I think story is the most important thing, so the one message from the story I’d want them to take away is that friendship is what matters most. It’s easy to forget what’s important in life sometimes when you’re reacting on a day-to-day basis, but it’s important to stop and remember the things that matter long-term. When you’re 80, 90, 100 years old, what are the things you’re going to look back on and remember?
From a VR perspective, the real question is: How do we get audiences to care so much about the characters that they want to help the characters? How do you make characters that are so compelling and a story that’s so immersive that we get people to interact and act out of empathy and compassion for the characters rather than out of self-interest or thinking, “What does the game maker want me to do?
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
MF: There’s a piece that we have announced called Legend of Crow, which is still the working title—it’s been called Rainbow Crow. We’re still trying to figure out what the final name is, but we’re really excited. There’s a super diverse cast on it: John Legend, who’s not only the voice but also the executive producer, also Constance Wu, Diego Luna, and many more people we’ll announce later, and also Randy Edmonds, an 82-year-old Kiowa tribal elder because this is based off of a Native American tale. It’s about how the crow, who used to have these beautiful, colorful feathers and a beautiful singing voice, decides to use his celebrity and sacrifice himself to bring warmth back to the Earth. He brings fire back to the Earth, and in the process, the fire burns all his feathers black and makes his voice fill with smoke like the crow’s voice today, but it shows the sacrifice that he made for his fellow creatures. And also, each of the animals are insecure about their themselves, like the skunk is insecure about her smell, and you learn that the things that you think are flaws are actually the things that make you unique—and not until you accept the things that you think are flaws, the unique characteristics about yourself, can you accept others. It’s a theme about diversity, self-sacrifice, and bringing lightness to darkness. Just like in ASTEROIDS! and INVASION!, you’re a character in the piece and you have impact in the world. With every single piece we have, we want to experiment with the role of the viewer and innovate in VR—but I’ll leave it at that. When the experience comes out, people can see what I mean.
We have about 13 different IPs in development at any given time, so there’s a lot more coming out of our studio.
How has your background in gaming influenced your work on immersive film in the VR space?
MF: I think it’s both gaming, but also specifically casual gaming that’s helped a lot. The gaming aspects in general always help when you think about interaction—how to make interaction feel intuitive and every single interface. Whether it’s PC or console or mobile, each one requires its own type of UI and paradigm for interaction, and VR is different also, between mobile VR and the high-end VR headsets. Being able to adapt different interaction mechanics from different platforms is much easier given that I’ve already had to adapt it for both PC and mobile, but also just interaction—like understanding what drives people, whether it’s an achievement mechanic or collection mechanic, and also which types of mechanics are appealing to which demographics. That’s where the casual gaming is especially helpful, because what we’re trying to do is create universally appealing content that will bring VR out to the entire world. Right now, VR gaming, hard-core gaming, and VR documentaries are a very obvious way to go—those genres are perfect for VR because they’re so visceral. But we also want VR to go broader than those audiences, and we’re trying to create these friendly characters and family-oriented content, which is really what casual gaming was about.
I was Vice President of Games for the FarmVille franchise, and a lot of people from the old guard, like the hard-core games, they would pooh-pooh on the casual games, because they saw them as so simple—but it’s really hard to make something very complex and turn it into something simple that everyone can understand. I’m applying a lot of those concepts to what we’re creating. For example, one really exciting thing about mobile is that the controllers have fewer buttons. If you think about your grandma, your mom, or your kids—well, maybe not kids, because kids are pretty advanced with gaming these days—but the more buttons there are, the more confusing it is to them and the more ways they can mess up. So understanding the viewpoint of an average consumer and asking what is the simplest, most intuitive way you can design this device or the interaction for them makes it so that we can appeal to a larger audience and also create something that I think is simple enough for the hard-core people to really enjoy. Most people who play casual games like Candy Crush, any of those games, they don’t think of themselves as gamers at all. It’s interesting, the definitions of gamer v. not-gamer, so we create experiences that are interactive and narrative-based, and we hope that it appeals to a broad audience and brings more audiences into VR.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Maureen, and for the incredibly thoughtful responses. We can’t wait to see Baobab’s next project.
INVASION! is slated to become a feature-length film, brought to the big screen by Baobab and Roth Kirschenbaum Films. While we’re still waiting for word of a release date, you can check out the VR short on both Rift and Gear VR and dive into ASTEROIDS! on Gear VR today!
— The Oculus Team