CEO CORNER: Baobab Brings the Magic of Hollywood Animation to Interactive VR

Baobab aims to take interactive storytelling in VR mainstream

Baobab has introduced a VR animated movie called Invasion!

bunny from afar nologo

Introducing Invasion!, Baobab’s interactive VR movie

“Across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as our minds are to the meekest and most vulnerable creatures that easily perish on Earth, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded our planet with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

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Invasion!, a computer animated VR short interactive movie, is the story of these menacing aliens that come to take over the Earth and destroy anyone that tries to stop them. However, despite the Aliens’ superior technology and firepower, the citizens of Earth are able to rise up and defeat the invaders.  But these citizens of Earth aren’t humans. Instead, they are two of the cutest, sweetest, cuddliest and meekest creatures of our planet — two adorable little white bunnies — and you are one of them.

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You are a character in Invasion!

You look down and see that you have a bunny body. Other than during Halloween, when can you be a bunny? What is it like to be Jasmine in “Aladdin” or Beauty in “Beauty & The Beast? The holy grail in VR films is to make you a character but to give you the same powerful experience as in a dark movie theater.  “Invasion!” Chief Creative Director Eric Darnell feels that the passive experience in a theater evokes emotion more easily because your ego is not involved. You are more free to only focus on characters on the screen.  When you’re in the film, does your ego get in the way? “Who am I and what do I need to do?” – as in games.  How do we make you a character and still give you as much, if not more, immersion and empathy for the other characters?  Eric explores this in “Invasion!” and the reaction has been positive. Audiences say that they were surprised at how protective they felt of that bunny hiding behind them when the aliens posed a threat.  They cared more about the bunny than they would have outside of VR – because they themselves were a character in the film. Catch the trailer here.

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Storytelling can be tricky in VR as the audience controls composition and pacing.  However, pacing and composition are key to creating a fulfilling emotional experience in storytelling.  Darnell has created techniques to inspire the audience to compose the shots and pacing he would have.  He directs the viewer’s eyes with sound and visual cues (such as where other characters are looking), art composition, and animation timing. 

Invasion! is a movie created for family audiences and is quite universally appealing. Unlike other VR content, it’s not arthouse niche, immersive journalism, a movie trailer, or a game. Right now, there are many tech demos that are beautiful, but lacking story. Baobab believes story comes first and VR is another toy box used to convey stories in a unique way.  When the tech-experimentation phase passes, as it does for all new mediums, audiences will hunger for great stories the way that they have with books, movies, plays, etc. Baobab aims to take VR past early adopters and to bring VR to the masses. From Tribeca Film Festival to Sundance, Baobab Studios is already a prominent studio within the film circuit.

Discover Invasion!

Customers can download Invasion! to experience storytelling this new way themselves by finding Invasion! online at www.baobabstudios.com. The game will run on Vive, Gear and Oculus headsets.

Baobab’s Mission

“Baobab’s mission is to create compelling cinematic characters and stories that bring out the innate wonder in people and inspire them to dream of new worlds they never imagined before,” says Maureen Fan, chief executive of Baobab, in a statement. “With our investors, team, and partners, we have the foundation to become the preeminent animation studio for VR.”

It is anticipated that users will be interested in Invasion! because it’s a completely new way to experience storytelling. The VR experience will take them into the world of the story. It will let them meet the characters and develop a relationship with them. It will give them the opportunity and ability to take action on the character’s behalf, letting them become a part of a story that they truly care about.

Baobab’s Founders

maureen headshotBaobab Studios was founded by Maureen Fan and Eric Darnell, who bring years of experience in gaming, animation, and story creation. Fan has had a thriving career starting at Ebay after graduating from Stanford. After leaving Ebay to pursue an MBA from Harvard, Fan joined Zynga as one of the first (MBA) product managers for FarmVille. Later, as, vice president of games at Zynga, she oversaw three studios, as well as the FarmVille sequels, which contributed to 40 percent of the company’s revenues. She was also on the production team for the 2015 Oscar-nominated animation short, “The Dam Keeper.”

Company Background:

Founded in 2015, Baobab has 18 employees and is headquartered in Redwood City, Ca.

Baobab Studios has raised $6 million as part of its plan to usher in a new era of virtual reality animated stories. The funding shows that VR is becoming a new entertainment medium that blends the film, tech, and gaming industries. The Redwood City, Calif.-based company is a new kind of film studio, backed by some heavy hitters in the tech space. Baobab is funded by Comcast Ventures, HTC, Samsung, Advancit Capital, The Chernin Group and Freelands Ventures, along with individuals including Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Executive Team

Maureen Fan, CEO

Maureen has held leadership roles in film, gaming and the consumer web. She was most recently vice president of games at Zynga, where she oversaw three game studios, including the FarmVille sequels, which contributed to 40 percent of the company’s revenues. Previously, she worked on Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” film and at eBay in product management and UI design. Her most recent collaboration, “The Dam Keeper,” directed by Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo, was nominated for the 2015 Oscar Best Animated Short. She received her undergraduate degree in an interdisciplinary program in computer science, art and psychology from Stanford University graduating Phi Beta Kappa and earned her master’s degree in business from Harvard University.

Eric Darnell, Chief Creative Officer

Eric’s career spans 25 years as a computer animation director, screenwriter, story artist, film director, and executive producer. He was the director and screenwriter on all four films in the “Madagascar” franchise, which together have grossed more than $2.5 billion at the box-office. He was also executive producer on “The Penguins of Madagascar.” Previously, Eric directed DreamWorks Animation’s very first animated feature film, “Antz”, which features the voices of Woody Allen, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, and Sharon Stone. Eric earned an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and a master’s degree in experimental animation from The California Institute of the Arts.

Larry Cutler, CTO

Larry Cutler brings deep technical expertise having spent over 15 years in the area of animation creation and development.  Larry serves on the Digital Imaging Technology Subcommittee for the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards (judge for the Oscar Technical Achievement Awards) and was the co-founder of the Digital Production Symposium (DigiPro). He was most recently the Vice President of Solutions at Metanautix, a large data analytics startup company (acquired by Microsoft). Prior to that, Larry spent 10 years at DreamWorks Animation where he held several leadership positions in the areas of character development, animation workflow, rigging, modeling, and character simulation.  He was the Global Head of Character Tech at Dreamworks Animation and led the development efforts for the acclaimed animation software Premo. Larry began his career at Pixar Animation Studios as a Technical Director on the films Monster’s Inc.Toy Story 2, and A Bug’s Life. Larry holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in Computer Science from Stanford University.

Board of Advisors

  • Alvy Ray Smith.  Co-Founder, Pixar Animation Studios
  • Glenn Entis.  Co-Founder, Pacific Data Images (became DreamWorks Animation)
  • David Anderman.  Chief Business Officer, Jaunt, former COO and General Counsel, Lucasfilm
  • Glen Keane.  Animation Innovator and Disney’s Directing Animator for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled
  • Kevin Lin. Co-Founder, COO, Twitch
  • Mireille Soria.  Co-President, DreamWorks Animation

Analyst’s Viewpoint

Employing VR platforms is a new and creative way of storytelling and Baobab is certainly one of a few early pioneers well positioned to move it into mainstream. A lot of attention lately is given to gender equality in the video game industry, particularly in VR. Maureen Fan, with her storied background in both arts and science, stands out as a role model for other women with a multi-disciplinarian mindset – as she has been able to realize her potential for combining creativity, technology and business skills via virtual reality.

Contact Information:

Website: www.baobabstudios.com

Company Address: 203 Redwood Shores Parkway, Suite 630, Redwood City, CA 94065