The actresses appeared in avatar form for a virtual premiere of the new "Baba Yaga." experience. Here's what it means for VR's future.
Jennifer Hudson and Daisy Ridley at the "Baba Yaga." VR Premiere
The avatars of Daisy Ridley and Jennifer Hudson stood before a captive audience on stage. "I've been holed up for a year, so it's like the first party I went to and it's just awesome," Ridley said, smiling as her animated self looked out at the room. 'I'm in awe,' added Hudson.
In reality, with Ridley outside London and Hudson in Chicago, they were concealed behind headsets. An attendee snarked, "You've got to wonder how many of these people are wearing pants right now," in the VR crowd milling about before the conversation began.
The event was a celebration of "Baba Yaga." Baobab Studios' latest family-friendly project, a five-year-old Silicon Valley business that has produced seven VR experiences to date (including the upcoming "Namoo," which will premiere in the New Frontier section of Sundance in 2021). The event was a celebration. Although "Baba Yaga." reached its first audience last fall as part of the VR section of the Venice International Film Festival, this week it arrives at the Oculus store, making it available to the growing VR consumer market worldwide.
The story, which features an all-female voice cast, adapts the titular forest witch's Eastern European legend against the backdrop of two children in a fairytale kingdom who track down "Baba Yaga." in a quest to find the flower of the fabled witch that can heal their ailing mother. The young, free-spirited Magda is voiced by Ridley, while Glenn Close plays the bedridden mother, and the viewer takes a view of Magda's older sister, Sacha. Hudson, who served as an executive producer, voices the tree spirits who tease the two kids on their ominous quest as they venture into the rainforest.
Much of "Baba Yaga.", driven by bright, storybook colors and vivid character designs, unfolds as a big-budget 360 video, but Darnell, who wrote the piece, included several key moments in which the viewer (as Sacha) must make critical choices that affect the outcome, giving the experience a crucial select-your-own-adventure aspect.
""Baba Yaga."" is hardly a video game; the drama that the studio introduced as a means of getting the viewer to more fully relate to the stakes at hand affects only a handful of moments. "We wanted to make you the main character and let you make various choices that ultimately have enormous consequences," said Maureen Fan, CEO of Baobab, onstage with Darnell and the cast. "We choose something that's really difficult but also more creative for every film project."
An extension of that ambition was the "Baba Yaga" media event. The gathering was hailed as history, like many virtual reality developments: the first bonafide red carpet premiere, replete with stars, a step-and-repeat, and a giant room filled with industry tastemakers making the rounds. Baobab built a large, multicolored rainforest to house them all, which mirrors one explored in the piece. Before moving into the space for the main event, mirroring a real-life premiere, participants entered a cavernous lobby adjacent to the red carpet.
The gathering was built on the Microsoft-owned Altspace social platform, which last summer also hosted the impressive VR-based Burning Man that found thousands of avatars roaming a Black Rock City-based virtual desert arena. (BRCvr, which created that room, was hired to run the event by Baobab.) The studio spent weeks tinkering with the forest space, last month even hosting its holiday party there.
At the VR premiere, Daisy Ridley poses with her character from "Baba Yaga"
Co-hosted by the event, Tribeca Interactive also showcased the studio's inaugural 2015 project, "Invaders!" "After Roth/Kirschenbaum Films acquired the feature film rights, that piece, a cartoonish short that takes the perspective of a bunny during an alien encounter, helped Baobab gain a foothold in Hollywood. After Fan shared a headset with him some time after he had completed work on DreamWorks Animation's 2014 "Penguins of Madagascar" and sought new approaches to animated storytelling, Darnell got involved with the medium.
"You can describe it all day long, but until you put a headset on, you really don't know what it's like," he said. "Once I did that, I knew that we had to try to find a way to tell this story, find characters to fall in love with, and get people to engage in a way that makes them feel that they really matter."
That sort of revelation is becoming more widespread. In 2020, the VR industry generated about $18.8 billion, and Statista recently reported that by 2023, VR/AR devices shipped worldwide are expected to increase to 68.6 million. Headsets from Oculus to Playstation offer a broad range of entertainment for general consumers, from gaming to interactive media, while their application to other fields covers everything from medical research to military defense.
VR also offers an opportunity to host mass gatherings anywhere on this pandemic-infected planet that would otherwise be unthinkable. Before the press event began, wandering around the world of "Baba Yaga," I ran into Oscar-winning director Glen Keane, whose most recent animated feature credit is "Over the Moon" from Netflix. Keane, who consulted on "Baba Yaga" and moderated the conversation at the event, hovered over a giant mushroom and took the scene, wearing an unassuming virtual baseball cap.
After leaving Disney in 2014, Keane first became interested in VR and directed a 360 version of his short film romance, Duet, for Google, which left him excited about the potential of the Tilt Brush 3D animation software. In VR, you can draw, and I still think of animation as sculptural," Keane said." It allows you to understand how much drawing creates an illusion of movement and how you have to draw in space. It was quite satisfying, too.
A few minutes later, in order to introduce the crowd, Fan took the stage. "While our industry has been updated by COVID, the nature of VR has forced us to innovate a new way of doing a premiere," she said. The actress addressed the whiplash of the past year when it was Ridley's turn to speak, in which she came out of her promotional tour of "Star Wars" and found a world devoid of traditional interactivity. As long as it went on, it just got crueler," she said." An antidote was provided by the "Baba Yaga" experience. She said, "It was quite emotional." "I went to record first, and the animation was next, and it was all these amazing building blocks to where we are now."
Some things never change: After the discussion, the avatars were led to a VIP area, but I chatted briefly at the foot of the stage with Hudson. It feels like we are doing something very special and rare," she told me, before she was whisked away by a virtual publicist."
The primary area of the premiere event of "Baba Yaga"
In a pre-scheduled Zoom interview a few hours later, Hudson chuckled as I reintroduced myself and she realized that my avatar had been checked out, a short man with black hair and glasses. You look similar to yourself! "She's been saying. "It was really cool to see real-life people come through in that way. Now I'm like, wow, we actually met in a real way, but in a different world! ”
Hudson first tried VR with her son during a playdate, when another parent brought in a headset. Some of the children were like, 'Play us with this!' "Then I really enjoyed it, fell in love with it, and it became a playdate for adults." That led to discussions about how she could support projects in a medium-term position to continue to evolve as her son grew up. "She said, "I like being a pioneer, doing something completely different from what I usually do as a performer, actor and producer."
Of course, her last acting credit had many special effects, "Cats," but Hudson said she had little exposure to the CGI side of that production. "She said, "I was an actress, so I didn't deal with technology. "I'm being introduced to it with this. I wanted to find out more about animation, about VR, about this whole world. Having skimmed the surface of VR production, she added, "I would love to do more." I feel like I'm growing into it.
For his part, Darnell did not see his pivot to VR as a repudiation of storytelling that was more conventional. "VR and traditional filmmaking are experiences that are very different and it's not like one is going to take over the other," he said. But for future projects, he was keen to push for more interactive possibilities. "We want to give choices to the viewer that are not about right and wrong or the mechanics of getting from point A to point B, but choices that force the viewer to dig into who they are," he said. "All of these things add up to the experience and make them feel like their choices matter, with a lot of complexity and subtlety."
Written and edited by Larry Singol for Virtual Reality Israel 2013