Baobab Studio CEO Maureen Fan Discusses ‘Crow: The Legend’ and the Power of VR

Baobab Studio has made quite an impression on the VR and animation scene since it was founded in 2015 by Maureen Fan, DreamWorks veteran Eric Darnell (Antz, Madagascar movies) and vfx visionary Larry Cutler. With highly acclaimed projects such as Asteroids, Invasion, and the beautifully animated Crow the Legend (formerly titled Rainbow Crow), which received an Annie Award nomination for Best VR project last week, the studio continues to push the envelope both in terms of VR capabilities and artistic achievement. We were pleased to have the studio’s brilliant CEO Maureen Fan answer a few of our questions:

Animag: Why do you think the animation community has been so receptive of Baobab’s projects?

Maureen Fan: The animation community understands how difficult it is to do something new in an industry that hasn’t been defined yet, especially with a team of only 15 full-time people as with Baobab. Our advisors Glen Keane, Alvy Ray Smith (Pixar co-founder), and Glenn Entis (PDI co-founder) say that the reason they want to advise our little indie studio is because immersive animation feels the same way it did when they started in CG.  Passionate artists and engineers bravely come together, trying to solve meaty problems and create a new medium.  Eric Darnell, my co-founder, co-directed Antz! and the 4 Madagascar films. He and our co-founder and VFX supervisor Larry Cutler (Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc) talk about how in the early days of CG they had to wrestle with poly count and rendering limitations. That’s why the early shorts had so many metallic or plastic characters and sets! We are tackling even more than that now — not only rendering a frame in 11 milliseconds, but twice (one for each eye)!

Crow: The Legend

For Crow, Eric wanted a storybook feel with dithered soft edges that entice you to reach out and touch the characters and flora. You can imagine how difficult this is in a real time game engine!  In traditional animation, you can cheat the edges but in VR the edges need to retain their fuzziness even when you walk around those objects from all angles. The artists and engineers collaborated to achieve our storybook look and we’ve been told people are surprised that we were able to do this in a game engine (Unity).  We used Unity for both the 2D and the VR.  We innovate with each project we start, trying to figure out to direct the viewer’s gaze, how interactivity melds with narrative, and what the view of the audience is. Ultimately, we’ve been given feedback that the animation community appreciates our focus on a good story. New technology is sexy and but it’s there to support a good story. Story is still first.

Despite it being difficult, we and our advisors love this frenetic energy of not knowing all the answers and diving in head-first. What we lack in resources, we make up with passion, amazing talent, grit, and appetite for the highest quality artistry. We are so grateful of the support from the animation community for our adventure.

Tell us a little about the beginnings of the studio.
Our mission is to inspire the world to dream by bringing out your sense of wonder. We LOVE animation. Remember when you were five and you thought you could do anything. Something happens when you grow older and society pressures you to conform to values of fame, money, beauty. Maybe you give up some of your dreams. But we believe there’s still a dreamer inside everyone and that’s why people go to the movies or play games: it’s to experience worlds and meet characters they couldn’t otherwise. Animation does this even more-so, because it’s boundless. When I experience animation, I am brought back to that five-year-old again and feel invincible, that I can achieve all my dreams. We want that for the world. Animation is about taking you to different worlds and making you feel they’re so real that you can reach out and touch it. That’s also the definition of VR. Animation and VR were made for each other.

Larry, Eric and I all wanted the same things.  Eric has directed five very successful feature films — no small feat — and wanted to capture the unyielding passion he felt in the beginning days of CG. Larry, who previously was global head of character tech for Dreamworks, was excited about the new technical challenges of creating stories in a medium where even the tools haven’t been defined yet. We found each other in one month! I asked my mentor Glenn Entis if he could advise us and he introduced us to Alvy.  Alvy first warned that he didn’t believe in VR and didn’t like games, but as soon as we put him in a headset and showed him our first demo, he was convinced. Then Alvy introduced us to Glen Keane whose life mission is the same as our studio’s: to bring out one’s sense of wonder. That’s how it all started. We went about recruiting like-minded, big-hearted, adventurous people and grew to 15 people.

Why do you think The Crow has struck a chord with audiences?
Audiences have been thirsty for new perspectives — it’s been a banner year for films that brazenly lean into that like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. Inspired by a Native American legend, Crow: The Legend represents Indigenous worldview, which is a mode of storytelling focused more on community in contrast to Western worldview which tends to focus on the individual. The idea of sacrifice for the greater good particularly resonates today — this story is literally about bringing light back to a world gone dark — and it has struck a chord with the animation community. I think many agree that the lessons from Crow are especially timely today. This is why John Legend, Oprah, Constance Wu, Diego Luna, Liza Koshy, Tye Sheridan, Sarah Eagle Heart, and Randy Edmonds joined this project: they were passionate about these themes and felt they needed to be shared.

We learned the little-known history from our producing partner Native Americans in Philanthropy that, for many years, Native American youth were forced into re-education camps where they were forbidden to tell stories like this because they were too indigenous or considered pagan. Yet, these stories are a vital part of the fabric of American storytelling and so we felt more strongly than ever that we needed to shine a light not just on Crow but on the Native American storytelling telling tradition.

Thematically there was also this underlying arc to the narrative of the characters growing to realize that we need to accept ourselves — our differences, our diversity — before we can accept, empathize with and ultimately help others.  That the differences that we think are our flaws are what make us unique and beautiful.

In terms of artistic and technical advancements, many have reacted positively to the storybook look and are surprised that we created the entire project in a real-time game engine (Unity).  In a game engine you seldom can have more than one light and so audiences also appreciate how we used light effectively.  We built a lot of new technology to achieve this look with 11 milliseconds to render each frame twice.

Finally, audiences also appreciate the ability to choose how they want to experience it.  In VR, you play the Spirit of the Seasons.  With the wave of your arms, you make the flowers grow or you can throw snow around you to bring upon winter.  You help Crow along his journey through space while conducting the music of the stars, constellations, and planets.  You feel a sense of a delight as you engage with the character and the world.  We spent a lot of effort trying out different interaction models, how to get you to move your arms in certain ways, and how to give each audience member a unique soundtrack based on their movements.  Yet, others may choose to experience the classic animation, where you allow the story to wash over you as a moviegoer.  We believe this is the future of animation, where audiences can decide how they experience the animation.

Crow: The Legend
Crow: The Legend

How did you go about securing such top-notch talent to the project?
We were so honored that this amazing talent — led by John Legend — wanted to collaborate because they felt strongly about the messages of community and sacrifice, especially in these times.  They also felt that this Native American story deserved to be shared with the world, which is one of the reasons we all collectively made the decision to release this movie for free.

Many are surprised at how small we are, but we have a fraction of the budget of the tech giants and movie studios, so we were thrilled by our talent’s passionate support.  John not only voiced the lead character — he came aboard as an EP and wrote and performed an original song for Crow with the amazing support of his label and publisher.  We sought John first because Crow was a gifted artist who sacrificed himself for the greater good.  When John is not busy winning EGOTs, he devotes his time to social causes, so he was perfect for the role — not to mention his beautiful singing voice.  The rest of the cast are also advocates of their own minority, underrepresented groups, and given the underlying narrative through line about inclusivity and acceptance of self and others, we sought to cast a wider and deeper net with talent than we’ve typically seen in animation.

Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the voice of Luna, and Randy Edmonds, 84-year-old Kiowa-Caddo tribal elder and the voice of Narrator, were excited that talent cared about shining a light on Native American stories. From the outset of the project they both spoke to how much healing there is to be had between Native Americans and America, and now they both believe that animation — with its magic to transport you into these worlds and into lives of these characters — can help with the healing process.

What is your take on the future of animated VR arena?
For us we are most excited about how you can develop a relationship with characters.  How you can matter to them and they matter to you, because you can respond to each other and impact each other.  Eric uses this analogy: Imagine you come across a little girl crying on a park bench and she’s too young to be by herself. If you see this play out in a cinema theater, you feel bad for her but you won’t get out of your seat to help her. If in a game, you could perhaps talk to her but your motivation might be to get information for a quest, to be a hero, to get to the next level. But in real life, you’d talk to her and try to help because you care. With VR, we can have the empathy of film, the agency of games, and the motivation of real life — where you can act on your empathy but you do it because you genuinely care, not because you’re trying to win. This is the power of immersive animation.

What is the toughest part of your job?
Balancing our lofty artistic goals with being a small indie studio in an industry that is still defining itself. Crow was the first project we wanted to embark on, but we realized it was too ambitious to create in a game engine with all its characters and sets when we first started.  After getting two other movies out the door and winning Emmys for both of them, we felt it was finally time to tackle the project we always wanted to do.  Yet — we don’t have the production budgets a movie studio or tech giant can afford, we can count our team on in 3 hands, and we don’t have the marketing dollars that a lot of others have.  We joked that we should start using bunk desks or having two people at one desk because we don’t have enough room in our tiny space (Bay Area rent is expensive!).

But we leaned into our weaknesses to turn them into strengths — being small means we can be nimble.  We can change our minds, make expeditious decisions, quickly learn from our mistakes and move on.  We are forced to be humble and scrappy and our small crew worked incredibly hard to complete Crow in under a year — all the while figuring out how to do this in a game engine, what the best way to interact with the story in service of the narrative, how to direct our audience’s gaze and attention and sense of wonderment in VR, and so forth.  We did this all without sacrificing quality because you can only create something extraordinary if you believe in the extraordinary.  I’m so proud of our little engine that could for the team’s dedication to quality, their ability to dream and push boundaries, and their dogged pursuit of their ideals.

What kind of advice would you give up and coming animators who would like to get into the VR field?
Look beyond what is already known about animation and all the different mediums you come from. Break all the rules because that’s what it’s going to take to figure out what works in the wild, wild west. We were told many “rules” about VR when we first set out, like you can’t be a character within the narrative, comedy doesn’t work in VR because you can’t control timing, cuts aren’t allowed, etc. We are defining the rules and you can only do that by being brave!

What are you proudest of?
How much our team dreams seemingly impossible dreams and then goes out to reach them. I have to pinch myself every time I realize Oprah is starring in our piece. I pinch myself when I see the back-to-back Emmys our team has won. At how the team wouldn’t give up on the space sequence of Crow — how audience member after audience member kept whipping the controller instead of doing what Eric envisioned: for them to gracefully conduct.  How the team pursued Eric’s vision for many months insistent that they could compel the audience to move that way.  Then one day, it happened and all their hard work paid off.  It’s as though they ignore our limitations as an indie studio and just assume they can do it.

Crow: The Legend
Crow: The Legend

What are some of the exciting new projects you are working on next (that you can share with us)?
We are pursuing our mission, which means experimenting with different ways to make you matter in the story. As an immersive animation studio, we are doing both VR and AR.  More recently, we world premiered Jack: Part One at Tribeca Film Festival, directed by visionary director Mathias Chelebourg and inspired by the classic fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk. We combined live theater with animation and VR to create a new type of experience, and the result is a full multi-sensory narrative experience where you can touch, smell and interact with every object you see in VR — you even feel the rushing wind and the ground shake when your house gets lifted up by the beanstalk.  Every audience member feels complete freedom yet as with all of our work to date, there is an underlying story crafted around the experience.  At the same time, each audience member has a different experience because the live actresses responds differently to you based on what you do and how you take on the character of Jack.  We were surprised and honored by the critical reception — it was so well received that Lupita Nyong’o signed on to voice the Giantess immediately after seeing Part One at Tribeca.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned during these past few years of growing the studio?
As an indie studio of 15 people, it’s easy to just run harder to get things done — not sleeping, skipping meals, etc. to hit a milestone. Sometimes this adrenaline rush is helpful. However, when you do it constantly, it drains you. This is especially difficult for creatives who need to recharge to be creative. You need to build play into your week for those creative synapses to fire so you can make connections between things that you wouldn’t normally. Eric always comes back from vacations with new story ideas or solutions to problems. We build that time into our productions now and always for the director. Creatives include engineers, since they’re solving problems that have never been solved before in this new medium.

You can watch a behind-the-scenes clip about Crow The Legend here:

Here’s the trailer for the short:

You can learn more about Baobab Studios here:

From left, Baobab Studios’ co-founders Larry Cutler, Eric Darnell and Maureen Fan
From left, Baobab Studios’ co-founders Larry Cutler, Eric Darnell and Maureen Fan



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