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March 02nd, 2021 | by Mathieu Gayet

"Our stories are always an experimental adventure!" - Eric Darnell, Larry Cutler (Baobab Studios)

For 5 years (happy anniversary!) Baobab Studios has been exploring virtual reality animation for young and old through a series of films that are as engaging as they are visually successful. Going through a year marked by a global health crisis, they have recently presented in festivals less than 3 new projects: BABA YAGA and PAPER BIRDS in Venice in September, and NAMOO in Sundance in early 2021.

A look back at the end of this landmark year with Eric Darnell, Chief Creative Officer (but also director of many of the studio's films), and Larry Cutler, Chief Technical Officer.

About Baobab Studios

Catch up on our interview about NAMOO with Erick Oh (director) and Kane Lee (Head of Content, Baobab Studios) by Agnese Pietrobon

Going through 2020 as an independent (and productive) studio

Larry Cutler - 2020 will have been a complicated year but we were lucky: several of our projects were already well advanced in production (BABA YAGA notably with Mathias Chelebourg and his team in Paris, collaborators in the Philippines, Poland...) - with international collaborations we were used to working remotely. Our production tools were already adapted, by chance. Obviously the situation is very difficult, and we had to manage our personal situations first. In this context, finalizing each film was a challenge but also a relief for our team.

L. C. - The impact of Covid-19 will have been mainly on the distribution side. Seeing the public, even for their first VR experience, discover our works live... we miss it ! For BABA YAGA, we organized our red carpet in virtual reality to give meaning to our release, with our cast (Daisy Ridley, Jennifer Hudson ...) and the press. The fallout allowed us to create a real moment for everyone. Also PAPER BIRDS (See our interview) has just been released on Quest, NAMOO (See our interview) has just been presented at Sundance. We have not been idle! Obviously the return to a certain normality of festivals and events is not for tomorrow. Nevertheless, seeing hybrid events emerge remains interesting for our industry.

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Eric Darnell - However, the possibility of offering the festivals online has allowed a wider audience to discover our films in virtual reality. We can enjoy it at home, even if it doesn't replace the joy of sharing it physically. It's frustrating, but we try to take advantage of the few benefits.

Where do we start?

E. D. - We are constantly looking for new ideas, which can come from an artistic encounter, but also from a story that can be proposed to us. Even a simple sentence can embark us in a new universe and incite us to develop it! This was the case with Erick Oh on NAMOO. We must keep our eyes open!

L. C. - Internally we are constantly exchanging ideas and potential projects. In reality we are much more limited by our production capacity than by our desires! With Eric, we never run out of creative ideas. We are currently working on PAPER BIRDS, the second chapter, which should come out this year. And many other surprises, in virtual reality and elsewhere.

NAMOO and the future of Baobab

L. C. - NAMOO's presentation at Sundance New Frontier, online this year, allowed us to have many positive feedbacks, even without really being able to discuss it with the audience. We are very happy with our collaboration with Erick Oh (director), who has worked with Pixar and other companies on several short films - the last one being selected this year at the Academy. With NAMOO he wanted to tell his story via Quill, the illustration tool of Oculus. He was familiar with the tools of virtual reality, but we brought him something to produce his film for the medium.

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E. D. - It feels good to have the feedback of an audience - even virtual - after these months of production! We were very curious to see the result of this production in Quill, the emotion it could bring. Baobab was created to bring together several artists, talents, and visions. Each time it is an opportunity to create something unique around artistic collaborations. We accompany them at every stage of the production process with this idea in mind.

E. D. - In the end, we want to tell stories - whether interactive or not, in empathy or playfulness... And it's always experimental! We can't pretend to know everything about this new medium that is virtual reality, so we explore. With each new production we try to push back our own limits, our production or writing processes, the medium of creation. To better pursue our adventure at the heart of creation! The medium doesn't matter; today we are working on the cinematographic adaptation of several of our VR films, book or comic book adaptations? We are not going to stick to one format in particular. We're also lucky here, as the need for content is becoming more and more important.

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L. C. - When the Oculus Quest came out, it was a defining moment. This helmet gave more freedom, more opportunities. We had been waiting for it for a long time, and Quest 2 accelerated that (even in a confined context)! The VR market is still a niche, although growing. Now that we no longer have to be surrounded by over-powered computers to discover new immersive projects, I hope to see the market quickly reach a maturity we've been waiting for a long time - a real audience for us, and now more and more qualitative content. There's still a long way to go, but it's all very positive!

VR and music

E. D. - Music is a vital part of our narratives. When we started producing RV films, we had to reinvent everything. We thought we had to illustrate what we were seeing, so we were able to do much better than just setting the story to music. In virtual reality, it created too many distractions around the story. We worked with Scot Stafford (see his interview) on the sound design, the music, and came up with complete soundtracks - around specially thought-out mixes for immersive worlds. We had to respect the path of the spectator in the environments we create.

L. C. - On our first productions we saw the effect of music which often reinforced the story. Like on a feature film, it's an essential element. And in a virtual reality headset, you have to think about your 3D sound so you don't miss your effects.

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E. D. - The aim is to offer a sound experience that does not limit the possibilities of the spectator. You can detach yourself from the reality of the story to increase the narrative layers, and thus be able to guide the spectator and attract his attention. Often we try to imagine each sequence, each emotion before the music is even placed on the images. And like any talented collaborator, the composer will come back with a proposal consistent with the scene. It's the same thing with an animator, it's not about illustrating images, but about bringing the story to life. I'm thinking here of the film THE THIRD MAN (1948) by Carol Reed, whose music was composed entirely with a zither - and that changes everything. I hope to do the same someday!

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