Maureen Fan on short VR film Invasion! and why 'story comes first'

We speak with Baobab's CEO about VR storytelling
Maureen Fan on why 'story comes first'

Whether you have an Oculus Rift, Gear VR or an HTC Vive, the possibilities for entertainment are slowly but surely gaining traction. One short VR film that's been covered extensively is Invasion! which is seeing a longer release complete with voiceover from actor Ethan Hawke.

It's not hard to figure out why the short has garnered so much attention - its main attraction is an adorable bunny and two endearing, bumbling aliens set in a beautiful snowy landscape. You simply get drawn in even though you're in the headset for six minutes.

For Baobab Studios, the team behind the film, success was a shock - but a welcome one. CEO and co-founder Maureen Fan, previously VP of games at Zynga, told us there are three main reasons why she thinks the experience has been a hit, with the main one being story, a core foundation of the studio.

"We really focus on story first. A lot of people, especially in VR like to write about tech, and tech definitely leads but we feel like oftentimes a lot of VR out there are tech demos - like where things come out at you in 3D, or things are big and you're little walking around.

"But at the end of the day, we think that story comes first. Story and characters and how the technology can help tell that story rather than tech first and you drag the story along with it."

Caring about characters

She explains that Invasion! director and Baobab Studios co-founder Eric Darnell, who directed Antz and all the Madagascar movies, went through a process of figuring out the best way to approach the VR medium by questioning what it was really like to be the character.

"Eric wanted to explore whether you, the audience should be a floating head or should you be a character. He wanted to see what that would be like in the film. What's it like to be Jasmine, Aladdin, Beauty or the beast - that's something you can really only do in VR.

"The whole purpose of storytelling is getting the audience to feel something, especially getting them to like the character, feel excited, build up anticipation. Either the character lets us down or does what we want them to do. And so he's like, 'Can I get the audience to still feel that way when they're a character?'"

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Being someone else on the screen should be familiar for gamers though - it's basically what's happening when playing first person video games. But for a VR film, it's different. Fan even uses comparisons to fourth wall breaking films saying it's still an entirely unique experience in VR.

"One thing Eric was trying to understand is the difference between a film and a game, and ours is in between a film and a game because you're a character.

"Film is amazing because you get to feel all of these emotions and you're in a black theater - all you have to do is think about what these other characters are feeling. But when it's a game and you have an avatar, oftentimes, your tension is split between yourself and the other characters.

"He did it in a way so that you don't feel as much pressure and made you a character for several reasons. One is that if you're just a floating head, why would the bunny come and sniff me - if I'm an actual character it would make sense. Also the sense of scale, why I'm so small is that it makes the aliens more threatening.

You are acting the way you normally would - if you were a bunny with another bunny. Something in your animal brain believes that something is real.

"In a way that's different from film - like in Deadpool, it breaks the fourth wall sometimes and he acknowledges you. But it's not the same as a game because you don't really think you are that character. In this case, there's no keyboard, no mouse, no controller. You are acting the way you normally would - if you were a bunny with another bunny. Something in your animal brain believes that something is real."

Fan says the technique for Invasion! worked well. Before widely releasing it, the film was shown to 2,000 people and the most captivating parts were when the bunny sniffed at faces and when she does her dog-like dance. "People actually got on the ground and started playing with her because they felt like they were truly interacting with the bunny."

Beyond the interaction, people also felt protective of her and wanted to keep shielding her when she hid behind them as the aliens arrived. That was when Fan and Darnell knew they were onto something big.

VR for all

An animated bunny and two aliens may sound like it's purely for kids or families but Fan says its universal appeal is another reason for its popularity.

"All ages like it. There's a lot of content out there in VR that's more very serious, like a lot of films on Syria or more niche and targeted towards early adopters like horror or games. It's not something that necessarily appeals to all generations."

This idea fits with her vision of VR being in the hands of the public. Because VR is such an eye opening experience, Fan thinks hardware should be readily available to go along with content anyone can enjoy. "I'm really passionate about getting VR to the masses. I believe it's magic. When I'm in there, it feels awesome. So I want everyone to feel that way."

Right now, you can watch the short film on Oculus Rift, Gear VR and HTC Vive, but in the future, she hopes the technology will allow mobile devices to display more interactive content Baobab is planning on releasing.

"We're trying to figure out which devices are really going to get VR out there and we really think the mobile phone is the most accessible. I'm excited about the phone getting more powerful to the point where it can have those types of experiences (more interactive)."

Fan says Google's Daydream platform is particularly exciting since it encompasses the whole Android lineup allowing more people to use VR.

Once the hardware is set, the software will be pretty much ready to go and of course story will still be the priority. For Fan and Baobab, that's what matters the most. "Our thesis for the company is that ultimately when the tech novelty wears away, the thing that is still going to matter - as it has for every single entertainment medium - is still the story and characters."

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