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 … Next Page »

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