When I sat down with Maureen Fan and Eric Darnell, CEO and CCO of Baobab Studios, at Sundance this past weekend, the snowy vista outside their cottage window looked like it was pulled straight from their 2016 breakout hit, INVASION!, the story of a little white bunny who dupes a pair of invading aliens. ASTEROIDS!, the second part of a five-episode series, follows those same two aliens, Mac and Cheez (voiced by Darnell and actress Elizabeth Banks), as they complete their daily tasks in their ship. Where INVASION! was a passive cinematic experience, ASTEROIDS! is interactive—you play a “Class-C Menial Task Robot” with wonky tube arms, and it’s your job to assist your alien bosses…even when they lose their temper. (You can also play fetch with a jigglypuff-looking robotic dog named Peas).
But ASTEROIDS! isn’t just interactive for the fun of it (though it is fun), it’s grounded in its aim to generate compassion. There’s been plenty of discussion about VR as an “empathy machine,” but Darnell and Fan explained that Baobab’s goal is to elicit compassion through participation.
“Evolving from INVASION! to ASTEROIDS!, seeing how much people loved the bunny, we wanted to let people actually do something about their loving her,” said Fan. “We wanted to give people the ability to act on that empathy—which becomes compassion.”
Darnell, who wrote and directed ASTEROIDS!, transitioned to VR from Hollywood, where he directed movies like Antz and the Madagascar franchise. He cites influences like Carol Reed, Orson Welles, and Hitchcock—all filmmakers with a profound sense of symbolism and architecture of dramatic moments. In fact, INVASION! was inspired by Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds, in which an alien race with superior technology is brought down by an oversight regarding bacteria.
“Invasion turned out to be all about Chloe, the little white bunny, even though I originally thought it was a story about these aliens that come to earth and learn a lesson,” said Darnell. “But Chloe stole the show. We realized the second episode needed to be something about Mac and Cheez, the two aliens. These aren’t just these conquerors or bumblers, they actually have some depth.”
ASTEROIDS! toys with a unique blend of traditional notions of cinema and audience participation. The experience is interactive, but there aren’t branching storylines based on your actions.
“Instead of branching narrative or branching plot, we do branching emotions instead,” said Darnell.
Both Fan and Darnell are intrigued by the science and psychology of this new medium, and its impact on storytelling mechanisms, and INVASION! made for more than one kind of crash course.
“We learned from the bunny; people would mimic her motions, thinking she was mimicking their motions,” said Fan.
This wasn’t the case, but it lit a lightbulb over Eric’s head to include “mirroring” in ASTEROIDS! It’s subtle, but, for example, when you cock your head to one side or the other, the dog Peas will do the same. There is scientific evidence that viewers become more invested in a story if the characters are mimicking them, even if they aren’t aware of it—and this is a case study in that potential.
“In life, if you don’t do anything, it’s not like the other characters will go into a walk cycle,” said Fan. “In real life, the story goes on, with or without you.”
Despite the kid-friendly animation, the story actually deals with the serious subject of losing someone close to you.
“A clean ship is nothing compared to the friends, and even the Class-C Menial Task Robot that actually helps save Cheez’s life.”
With such an emphasis on character, story, and compassion, ASTEROIDS! garnered quite an emotional response.
“Someone has already cried,” said Darnell.
Baobab is producing the kind of storytelling that helps mold a medium—not just in the stories themselves, but in how they are refining the production process. They are creating their own kind of VR storyboarding, for example, so as not to befall the typical hassles of shifting from flat (on-paper) animation into the 3D space. And with a franchise like this one (which became the first VR experience to get selected for a film adaption), there are all kinds of opportunities in store for innovation.
“The more we can be inside our medium doing what we do the better,” said Darnell.
Image Credit: Baobab Studios