360 FILM FESTIVAL #5 – Focus on the Winners!
The 360 Film Festival invites you each month with an interview of one of the winners.
My Identity is this expanse!
This month, we invite you to discover the interview with the creators ofMy Identity is this expanse! : Karolina Markiewicz and Pascal Piron.
This month, we invite you to discover the interview of the HETEROTOPIA creators: Léon Denise, Samuel Lepoil et Dorian Rigal.
This month, we invite you to discover the interview with the creators of Baba Yaga : Eric Darnell, Mathias Chelebourg and Baobab Studios Team.
360 Film Festival : Can you tell us about the genesis of the project?
Eric Darnell : Like most folks, I learned about the evil “witch in the woods” in childhood. This witch rides a broom, lives in a gingerbread house and tries to lure unsuspecting children into her kitchen so she can cook them up.
I was surprised when, as an adult, I came across the slavic witch, Baba Yaga. She is similar to the witches I grew up with, but instead of a broom, she rides a mortar and uses a pestle sort of like an oar. And instead of a house made of gingerbread, her house is perched atop a pair of stomping chicken legs.
I was curious and so I started reading the fairy tales that she inhabits. Sure, most of the time she is still the evil witch in the woods, but, I discovered that sometimes she is willing to compromise. She might cut a deal — “you do this for me and I’ll do this for you.” And sometimes, she is actually a good witch who will help a lost traveller.
his gave me an idea: what if Baba Yaga is not a person, but is a title? What if the quality of Baba’s character is a function of the quality of whoever is occupying the role at the time?
This became the catalyst for our VR piece, wherein two children, in an effort to save their dying mother’s life, must enter the dark forest and face the dreaded witch. They triumph over the witch, but the price they pay for their success is that one of them must take over the witch’s role and become the new Baba Yaga.
360FF : Animated works are very successful in immersive works. In your opinion, why such a success?
Eric Darnell : The primary reason that Baobab’s animated VR works are successful is because they are not created earlier, put in the can, and then just replayed in the headset. Instead, each new frame is created on the fly 60-90 times a second in real time. What this means is that the viewer can interact with their world and the world can respond to the viewer’s actions.
Sure, you can look wherever you want, but more critically, you can reach out and touch things, pick things up, and use them. You can have a very real impact on your surroundings.
But, perhaps most importantly, you can interact with characters in these VR worlds in meaningful ways. The other characters can communicate with you. They can look you in the eye, which is one of the most primary ways we all communicate with each other — even with our pets. And these same characters are able to look you in the eye no matter where you choose to be in the world. The other characters can turn their head, or their entire bodies if necessary, they can seek you out, find you wherever you happen to be, and make eye contact. Then, once they make that connection, they can act in a way that lets you know how they feel. Maybe they speak to you, or maybe they tell you what you need to know by the look on their face. And if the communication is successful they might even inspire you to take some kind of action. And when you take action, the other characters can respond to your actions — just like it works in real life.
In short, other characters recognize that you are in their universe and act in ways that tell you that you matter to them. Maybe this means that they see you as someone who can help them with a problem they are having, or maybe it means that they are terrified of you, or maybe they want to eat you! But whatever character reaction the narrative might demand, the bottom line is that the viewer recognizes that they matter to the other character.
This is our goal — to make the viewer matter. And because VR’s superpower is IMMERSION, when we do it right it is far easier for the audience to suspend their disbelief and simply “get into it”. Some of the immersion you get in VR is practically for free because part of your brain, I call it the “reptile brain”, already believes it is all real anyway. (That’s why I find it next to impossible to stand on the edge of a cliff in VR). But when other characters are in the world with you, responding to your actions, and treating you like you are real, it’s not that hard to take the next step, just go with it, and believe in those characters, too.
Of course, to do this successfully requires a combination of nuanced animation and a robust AI system that can account for the essentially infinite possibilities that come with being immersed in a world with other “living” characters.
360FF : Baobab Studios is world-renowned for its high-quality immersive animated works. What was the starting point for the visual style used in Baba Yaga?
Mathias Chelebourg : While exploring the unique language of VR we discovered immersive storytelling has a lot more in common with Theater than it has with traditional Cinema. In a headset, narration unfolds almost the way dreams do, without any clear cuts or transitions among space and time. We got excited about the idea to develop this visual concept further in Baba, and design environments and lighting the way you would for stage theater.
A second key statement of our style was to transcend, from the start, the performance constraints of mobile platforms by adopting a mid-century inspired approach to animation and visual details : Strong and simple expressive shapes, limited oneiric color palet etc… Everything in Baba is hand-painted by artists with illustration in mind and that makes the viewer feels like he is wandering inside the adventurous world of an epic animated pop-up book !
360FF : Interactivity is very important. Several endings are possible and more and more VR works offer spectators the opportunity to create their own narrative. What led you to propose several stories?
David Kahn : Part of the goal for all of our projects is to make the viewer matter, in Baba Yaga we wanted to make sure that your choices affected the outcome of the story. In both Asteroids! and Bonfire we saw the impact that choice had on viewers’ reaction to the story and we wanted to take it to the next level with Baba Yaga.
Throughout the journey in Baba Yaga you play the role of the older sibling, protector to your younger sister Magda. The bonds you form with Magda add weight to the decisions about what path to take and what type of witch you should become. With the power of Baba Yaga dependent on who wields the mask, players will be able choose and experience the consequences of their actions.
360FF : The emotions of the actresses are really “touchable” in the animation. How did you go about capturing them?
Kane Lee : Our team believes that, at its core, animation is about capturing what’s going on inside the mind and hearts of these characters. So we’ve built an amazing proprietary pipeline focused first and foremost on achieving the most complex and nuanced character performances we can in a real time game engine.
The subtleties in their facial expressions, the handcrafted feeling of their animation, the emergent behavior as they respond to the viewer’s movements and motions — all of that in Baba Yaga is the culmination of 5 years of our artists, animators, engineers and storytellers collaborating together. It also helped to have the most talented all-female cast lending their voices to these characters: Academy Award winning actors Kate Winslet and Jennifer Hudson, Star Wars lead actor Daisy Ridley, and the legendary Glenn Close. There was great motivation there for our team to match their character performances with their incredible voice acting.
360FF : Baba Yaga‘s atmosphere and visual ambience make you want to be immersed in it beyond a VR headset. Has an installation been considered to go with the immersive work?
Kane Lee : Over half of the production phase of Baba Yaga was accomplished remotely during the COVID lockdown so while we have considered physical installations for the piece, and had been approached by some amazing exhibition spaces, we anticipated early on that location based entertainment for VR would be a challenge in the near term. In fact, we had been invited to have a physical presence to preview the work at the most prestigious film festivals in the world before the lockdown.
However, we adjusted our expectations and fully embraced the idea of a virtual installation, so we actually created an indoor gala exhibition space in VR (with AltSpace) leading into an outdoor reimagined enchanted forest inspired by Baba Yaga so that we could have the 1st-ever red carpet VR premiere in VR to celebrate the launch of Baba Yaga on the Oculus Quest in January.
Jennifer Hudson co-hosted with Baobab Studios, Daisy Ridley, Jane Rosenthal and the Tribeca Film Festival, and Disney animating legend and Oscar winning director Glen Keane (Dear Basketball, Over the Moon) presented our team on stage in front of a huge screen in which we could show the piece in 2D. It was the first time a VR premiere like this was covered on the same night by mainstream television and news media like ABC, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Extra, and much more!
360FF : What are the next projects?
Kane Lee : At Sundance, we world premiered Namoo, directed by Erick Oh who is currently nominated for an Academy Award. It’s a moody, lyrical, narrative poem come to life through animation about the life of an artist, from beginning till end, and the level of animation our team could accomplish using only Quill completely surpassed our expectations. That it deals head-on with one’s mortality and was produced and finished during the pandemic is perhaps an inextricable part of its fabric, yet we want the audience to feel a sense of hope, and even acceptance, upon experiencing it. We are also working with 3DAR presently on Part 2 of the Paper Birds, which world premiered at Venice, and like Baba Yaga, uses the latest hand tracking technology to strengthen the immersion of our stories while allowing the technology (in this case, hand controllers) disappear so the story, and your part in it, feel more seamless.
Finally, Baobab Studios is evolving as an animation studio where XR is one of its most powerful tools to tell stories, but not restricted to it. We believe the best stories, if done right and with the best partners, can travel across mediums and are working closely with the biggest Hollywood studios and streamers, as well as traditional publishers, in the world right now to develop our characters and universities into movies, series, interactive games, comic books and novels.