When Eric Darnell talks about what makes for good storytelling, he knows of what he speaks. The screenwriter and director of all four Madagascar films and the director of Antz, Darnell has been studying what works and doesn’t in stories for years.
But recently, he’s found the silver screen somewhat constraining because the audience can’t ever really interact with the story unfolding on it. That’s why he’s migrated to telling tales in virtual reality as the chief creative officer of Baobab Studios. Based in Redwood City, the startup has attracted a wealth of talent from throughout the film and games industries, and raised $31 million to pursue its goal of creating great VR stories.
Baobab’s first piece, Invasion, is a six-minute film about invading aliens and the white bunny that sends them racing back to their home planet. Released last year, the movie is narrated by Ethan Hawke, and it went to the top of the VR charts, surpassing one million downloads.
Now the aliens, known as Mac and Cheez, are back in Asteroids!, which Baobab is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week for HTC’s high-end Vive VR system. The second “episode” in a series, Asteroids is a 10-minute interactive buddy film that takes us into space with our two alien friends. We explore the nooks and crannies of their spaceship and delve into the nature of friendship as the two pals squabble before ultimately demonstrating their mutual affection. These two are Laurel and Hardy-like bumblers. Mac is the OCD one, always working to make sure everything on board is spotless. When we meet him, he’s cleaning a window, obsessively wiping the same spot again and again. Cheez, who is voiced by the actress Elizabeth Banks, is more of a slob. That conflict tends to result in Mac getting upset about the untidy state of the ship.
As the movie unfolds, we get a subtle lesson in how emotion and empathy impact story. And that’s why Darnell left Hollywood behind for Silicon Valley; to him, VR is the best storytelling medium for adequately reflecting the science of communication.
“Because of the immersiveness of VR, and feeling you’re really there, our goal is to have characters that are really compelling and invite you into their world and communicate directly with you,” he says. This, he believes, allows the audience to develop a deeper sense of empathy.
In real life, we do all kinds of things that subconsciously signal our feelings or emotions. For example, Darnell explains, if you’re having a good conversation with someone and you cross your arms, they likely will too. Similarly, if you watch two lovers having dinner together, they’ll likely be mirroring each other’s body position.
He mentions a study in which researchers found that if you’re doing a sales pitch and quietly match the body pose of your target, they’re 35% more likely to buy what you’re selling.
All of that goes to show that there are powerful ways of communicating that we use without even thinking. The storytellers at Baobab are eager to tap into that. That’s why, as you tour around Mac and Cheez’s spaceship, one of them will probably mirror your body motions, maybe tilting its head like you.
Although Baobab has plenty of in-house video game expertise—including CEO Maureen Fan, former vice president of games at Farmville maker Zynga—the action in the studio’s films isn’t built around winning or finishing a mission.
The trick is helping viewers have realistic expectations as they strap on their headset and take hold of their controllers. If people imagine it’s going to be like a game, they’ll be disappointed. If they think it’ll be like a movie, they won’t expect to have any agency.
“It’s not about solving puzzles or overcoming challenges,” Fan says. “It’s about you being part of [the story].”
The idea is to subtly encourage viewers to develop empathy for the characters, and then to turn that empathy into action. When Cheez is accidentally knocked out of the ship and into a nearby asteroid field, Mac realizes that all their petty differences matter little and that what’s important is their friendship. Then a rescue gets underway.
This is where things get interesting, at least from a filmmaking perspective. The viewer, who always plays the role of a small robot on board the ship, is asked to participate—if they want to. “If you care enough about the characters,” Darnell says, “you can step in and help [save Cheez].”
But you don’t have to. If you do nothing, Mac will frantically try to bring his friend back on board by himself. If you do choose to help, the story is enriched in a way that’s intended to suck you further in.
For example, Darnell explains, Mac will change his attitude from not taking you seriously to treating you like a member of the team. That’s especially true if you do enough to actually save Cheez. “You [can] bring Cheez back from the dead with your little robot powers,” Darnell says.
As the son of a doctor, Darnell spends a lot of time studying scientific research, and over the years, he’s come to believe in the idea that storytelling is in our DNA. One of the chemicals our brains release when we’re stressed is cortisol, which can be generated when we’re exposed to stories.
But that’s only true, Fan notes, if a story follows a certain structure, and that structure begins with creating empathy.
But Baobab can’t know for sure that viewers are, for example, going to help Mac rescue Cheez, so the story must go on either way “because that’s real life,” Fan says.
Still, Darnell and his crew try hard to instill the desire in their viewers to take action, as it’s simply more interesting and engaging. “A great piece of music depends on pacing and rhythm and structure, with everything building to [an] epiphany,” Darnell says. “The same is true of storytelling.”
Even, it seems, when the dialogue is in a foreign tongue. The Asteroids! characters communicate solely through alien-speak, which, according to Baobab, viewers should be able to follow without missing a beat. Darnell explains that he wrote an English version of Cheez’s lines, which Banks used to infuse a certain emotion into her performance. “Then she’d take the alien language and give it the same intonation,” Darnell explains. “The viewer will be able to understand by her intonation and the physical performance of the character.”
Emotion, it’s the universal language.