For a few years now, there’s been a concerted push to make vr experiences more than just experiences, and instead bring more narrative storytelling into the mix.

When Cartoon Brew experienced Baobab StudiosCrow: The Legend at the recent VIEW Conference in Turin, one thing was clear: the studio has made a major play for the narrative side of vr. (The project launched today for both Oculus Rift and Oculus Go, as well as a short film , which can be seen above.)

A Baobab employee tries out “Crow: The Legend.”

Many immersive experiences see viewers have to wear vr goggles for only a short time, but Crow: The Legend, directed by Baobab co-founder Eric Darnell (co-director of Dreamworks’ Antz and Madagascar franchise), is 22 minutes long. In the full vr setup, viewers can look 360 degrees. At times there are interactive actions for the viewer to perform, while at other moments the action plays out just like a traditional narrative piece. The big difference, perhaps, is that the viewer feels like a key part of the storytelling.

How so? Well, in this story, which is based on a Native American folk tale, the user is the ‘spirit of the seasons’ who introduces winter to the homeland of a group of carefree animals. By donning the vr goggles and holding controllers, the user actually ‘sprinkles’ wintery snow into the forest of the animals, leaving one – Crow (voiced by John Legend) – to seek out a solution.

Baobab artwork for “Crow: The Legend.”

Crow’s journey, which you follow, takes him to The One Who Creates Everything by Thinking (Oprah Winfrey) and then into the stars and near the sun. At certain points, the viewer is encouraged to participate directly, either by sprinkling snow and flowers via the controllers, or even conducting a symphony while gliding through an asteroid shower.

These interactive events still happen regardless of what the user does with the controllers, but there’s no doubt it feels as if you’re participating while the story of Crow: The Legend unfolds.

Which is precisely the point, noted Kane Lee, head of content of Baobab Studios, who spoke with Cartoon Brew at last month’s VIEW Conference in Italy. “The one thing that we’ve most leaned into in vr is making you a part of the narrative, making you have a role in the story, but making sure that it’s a story at the end of the day.”

A scene from the immersive experience featuring Skunk, Owl, and Crow.
Kane Lee, head of content at Baobab Studios.

Baobab has been refining its approach to immersive storytelling since launching in 2015 and delivering vr projects such as Invasion! and Asteroids! With Crow: The Legend, they not only tried to balance story and experience, but also utilize the current capabilities of game engines (in this case, Unity) to make the world feel as vibrant as possible.

The game engine advancements are clearly evident in the rendering of interactive effects particles during Crow, and also for things such as trees and animal fur, such as Skunk’s (Constance Wu) tail. But the technological leaps and bounds feel most abundant in the moments when the central character flies through an asteroid shower amidst a chorus of music. It’s here that the viewer, by waving their hands while holding the controllers, helps to ‘orchestrate’ the music and clear a path for Crow via blue ‘whiffs’ through space.

“When those whiffs interacts with certain elements like stars or planets or the asteroids, it either highlights the way for Crow, or makes them go out of his way so he can have a more free journey on his path,” explained Lee. “But what also happens is they unlock a musical element. Every time you activate a star or an asteroid, a different element of music comes out.”

Crow takes a journey away from his forest homeland through the sky and stars.

From a technical point of view, Baobab devised a way for a number of different choruses uniquely conducted by the viewer to still match an underlying score. The result is the most interactive part of Crow: The Legend, and one the studio was very conscious of during production.

“That sequence was designed completely for the vr aspect of Crow,” said Lee. “This was the moment where we told everyone who works in interactivity in our company, ‘Here’s your moment to shine.’”

Interestingly, that whole asteroid symphony is absent from the linear viewing version of Crow: The Legend that Baobab released today as an animated short. “[The asteroid part] wouldn’t support the story in the 2d [referring to the viewing format, as opposed to the 360 vr version],” said Lee. “But 2d has its own advantages. We can go back into it and put in extra animation and lights, do close-ups, and use other tools. Everything is not dependent on the game engine environment.”

In Baobab’s short existence, a lot has already happened in the vr filmmaking space, and the studio is hoping to continue to explore what it means to make vr experiences.

“In a way,” said Lee, “Crow is a piece that we’ve always wanted to do from the beginning of our studio. When we first started out, we weren’t ready for this. But we have some of the smartest people in interactivity and gaming at our studio. And here we are.”

Ian Failes

Ian Failes

Ian Failes is a writer covering visual effects and tech for Cartoon Brew.

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