Maureen Fan is the former vice president of gaming at Zynga, but she’s always had a passion for animation. Maureen’s mind was blown open the first time she experienced VR because she saw that the future of animation was going to be within Virtual Reality. She left Zynga about six months ago, and within a couple of weeks met her Baobab Studios co-founder Eric Darnell who directed Antz as well as wrote and directed four Madagascar films. They quickly assembled a team of other animated film veterans and put together a 2-minute trailer that helped them to secure $6 million dollars led by Comcast Ventures with participation from HTC and Samsung Ventures as well as others.
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Baobab Studios co-founder Eric Darnell has written a number of animated feature films, and has already written a number of different scripts for animated shorts that take place within immersive virtual reality. The first production from Baobab Studios is Invasion! which features an alien and bunny as the main characters. They rendered out two-minute 360-degree video which can be found on Milk VR on the Gear VR, but Maureen says that they have also produced a more interactive version that can be run on the Oculus Rift.
HTC was also an investor into Baobab Studios, and Maureen says that do intend on creating animated shorts that are best suited to the VR medium implying that they are indeed also working on creating room-scale animated experiences.
One of the open challenges that Oculus Story Studio has talked about at Oculus Connect as well as written about on their blog, is the challenge of balancing cultivating a sense of presence with narrative. Maureen doesn’t think that they necessarily have to be in conflict with each other and says that they have some ideas for how they’re going to find a balance between these, but didn’t provide any concrete specific details as to how or what they plan on doing.
Another big open question that Baobab Studios will have to address is what the revenue stream is going to be for producing short animated 360-degree videos as well as some more interactive immersive stories. Maureen says that one thing that she will be bringing to the table from her experiences at Zynga is a dedication to testing and using objective behavioral data from the audience in order to find a sustainable business model. Zynga was a pioneer of causal gaming, and was driven by testing and finding a sustainable minimization strategy based upon a free-to-play model and different ways to either speed up gameplay or extend the experience in different ways. Baobab Studios has a number of different hypotheses for a viable business model that they will be testing as the ecosystem of distribution starts to get fleshed out.
Maureen says that the underlying motivation and mission statement of Baobab Studios is to bring out your sense of wonder and to inspire people to dream. They hope that their shorts can bring out that childlike sense of wonder and awe in people who watch their shorts, and they’ve been able to recruit an impressive team of creatives who are excited to translate their visions into actual virtual worlds, characters, and stories. They still have to discover and form the cinematic language of VR given the new constraints that the audience will be shaping a lot of the experience based upon what they’re looking at and where they’re looking.
For Maureen, she spent some time at Pixar, but wanted to have more control and freedom that a start-up would provide and decided to go to Zynga. She also spent some of her free time working with some friends on the animated short called The Dam Keeper, which ended up getting nominated for an Academy Award. But after seeing virtual reality, she knew that she wanted to start her own company to start to chase after her lifelong dream of bringing animated stories to life. They’re starting with short films, and the full Invasion! experience should be ready sometime in the first quarter of 2016.
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