Is VR Studio Baobab The Next Pixar?
“You can’t compete with Disney, except during periods of unusually large disruption,” CEO Maureen Fan told me, suggesting the company is following a strategy similar to the one Steve Jobs’ fearlessly and presciently followed with Pixar.
Baobab Studios, founded by Maureen Fan (Zynga) and Eric Darnell (Dreamworks), debuted its third immersive animated experience, Rainbow Crow, at The Tribeca Film Festival, which closed on April 30. Directed by Baobab’s Chief Creative Officer, Eric Darnell, Rainbow Crow is the first episode of what is envisioned to be a multi-part series based on a Lenape Indian folktale about a colorful crow crooner, voiced by John Legend, who undertakes a heroic journey to save his tribe from the predations of winter. In this first-five-minutes introductory episode, we meet a skunk who is secretly in love with the Rainbow Crow, who is only heard in the distance, tantalisingly out of sight.
Founded less than two years ago, Baobab has already received over $31 million in financing from an all-star list of strategic Hollywood and Silicon Valley investors, including Twentieth Century Fox, HTC, Samsung, Shari Redstone, Peter Chernin and Peter Theil, among many others. Their advisers include senior executives and creatives from Dreamworks, Disney and Pixar. Even so, $31 million is a surprisingly large raise for a VR content company. Scale — and profits — are years away.
“You can’t compete with Disney, except during periods of unusually large disruption,” CEO Maureen Fan told me, suggesting the company is following a strategy similar to the one Steve Jobs’ fearlessly and presciently followed with Pixar. Jobs got in early, found an animation genius in John Lassiter (now Disney’s Chief Creative Officer), gave him resources, and created a multi-billion dollar company in less than 10 years.
For HTC and Samsung, the investment makes strategic sense, because Baobab creates a pipeline of high-end made-for-VR animated experiences that demonstrate the potential of their platforms to deliver Hollywood quality immersive experiences. Baobab is developing strategies to make their productions more interactive. In the experience they debuted at Tribeca in 2016, Asteroids, the user is cast as a low-level worker robot who has to perform menial tasks for unforgiving alien bosses.
With Invasion and Asteroids, Baobab racked up two early success, which earned them a coveted spot on the demo disc included with every headset. Former Disney Pictures Chairman and CEO Joe Roth is developing Invasion as a feature film. A movie based on a VR experience would be a first.
With the premiere of Rainbow Crow, Baobab returns to the Tribeca Film Festival’s Arcade the second year in a row. I found the experience to be pleasant, if passive. The skunk and her butterfly companion are adorable and amusing, downright Disney-esque. But other than the introduction of these two characters, nothing much else happens. I’m in the forest. It’s stylized, 3D, immersive, but it’s over in five minutes (it felt like less, which is a good thing). I was disappointed we didn’t get to actually see the hero. Darnell explained the coming chapters of the story using development art to illustrate the story of Rainbow Crow’s heroic journey, in which he saves the world, but turns into a regular crow, allowing his relationship with the skunk to go forward and all that endearing, life-affirming, animation ending stuff that Darnell mastered at Dreamworks, for whom he directed Madagascar and four other feature films.
Darnell was early in computer animation, working with the pioneering digital animation company Pacific Data Images before joining Baobab. “This feels a lot like those exciting early days of computer animation,” Darnell told me, “we were breaking new ground. After a 20-year run of innovation and discovery, I felt computer animation lost the dynamism that excited me for so long. I rediscovered it with VR.”
The Bay Area company has about 20 employees, a mix of artists and programmers about which Darnell says “the animation and technology team works so closely together you can’t tell who does what. Everyone is part of one creative team.”
Baobab recently added former Pixar/Dreamworks exec Larry Cutler as CTO, continuing to build on Darnell’s roots as a Hollywood director specializing in animation and technology.
Fan has her own impressive pedigree. A Havard MBA by way of Stanford, she ran Farmville for Zynga during its most explosive years. Fan is an insider’s insider, with the kind of connections that will assure Baobab’s products will go wherever VR goes.
To be honest, the executives and the company’s story impressed me much more than Rainbow Crow, which runs at The Tribeca Film Festival’s Arcade through April 30. It is worth seeing, as is the entire collection of the most compelling VR works from all over the world, but Rainbow Crow, Chapter One, is not yet the complete thought represented by the company’s first two VR experiences.
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