POV: Eric Darnell on the emerging language of VR storytelling – Part 1

By - - 3ds Max , Maya


"I don’t think that the only way to tell a story in VR is to invent a new kind of story that nobody has ever thought of before."


Eric Darnell, Director of Antz and the Madagascar franchise turned Chief Creative Officer at Baobab Studios, expounds on the language of storytelling – the ways it changes and stays the same – in this emerging era of virtual reality.

 




I was a Journalism major at the University of Colorado as an undergrad student. I started taking film classes just to learn how to cut a news story together and got really interested in film. Then in 1983, when I was flipping through the channels and saw a PBS documentary on computer animation, which I’d never seen before, I was blown away. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

It took me awhile to find my way and create enough content to get into grad school at California Institute of the Arts but I did do a Masters program there in the late 80s. That led to a job working at Pacific Data Images (PDI), which in 1991 was the oldest computer animation company in the world. There was a group of guys there that were really interesting in storytelling, although the bread and butter for PDI were television commercials. When DreamWorks partnered with, then went on to purchase PDI, and signed us up to create Antz, the first computer animated film that DreamWorks would release, it was a dream come true.

"I [directed] Antz…and I went on to be writer and director of the Madagascar films…I learned during this time, above all else, to be the caretaker of the story."


Because of some short films that I had made in my spare time, I was lucky enough to be asked to partner with Tim Johnson to direct, Antz. It came out in the late 90s and was the first animated film of any kind that DreamWorks Animation released. From there I went on to be writer and director of the Madagascar films, I did some storyboarding, and I even wrote a song for Shrek. That was basically the next 20 years of my life. I learned during this time, above all else, to be the caretaker of the story. All of these talented artists and specialists working on these films can do amazing stuff without me telling them what to do - but they may not know exactly which direction to go. The direction to go is dependent upon the story, so story was always my focus.


"When I put on a VR headset, I immediately reacted. I decided, 'Let’s do it. Let’s see if we can make this happen."


After directing and working on five or more feature films, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. Then Glenn Entis, a friend and one of the founders of Pacific Data Images, introduced me to Maureen Fan, who was then a VP at Zynga in charge of new IP. She had always wanted to start an animation company and felt strongly that this time of technological disruption – of virtual reality – was one where we could have an unfair advantage and be able to compete against some of the big players. When I put on a VR headset, I immediately reacted. I decided, 'Let’s do it. Let’s see if we can make this happen.' That was about a year and a half ago.

“I’ve always loved 3D. But when you add this immersive quality that’s unique to VR, it’s one of those things that you can’t describe.”


My grandfather had one of those old-timey 3D viewers where you put the cardboard slides in, and when I’d visit, I gravitated to that thing, so really, I’ve always been passionate about 3D. But when you add this immersive quality that’s unique to VR, it’s one of those things that you can’t describe. It’s something people have to do themselves to really understand. They can like it or not, of course, but until you actually put a VR headset on, you can’t know what it’s actually like.

The challenge and possibility of telling stories where the viewer could be a part of the world, not just this external observer, is fascinating. There’s the experience of a movie theatre, sitting in a chair in a dark room and looking at a rectangle window into a world you could never be a part of and then there’s VR, where you are in the world. When a character can run up to you, look at you and acknowledge that you are there with them without breaking the fourth wall – that offers so many possibilities and can become really emotionally profound for people when it’s done correctly.


"I don’t think that the only way to tell a story in VR is to invent a new kind of story that nobody has ever thought of before."

 

Mac and Cheeze, INVASION.



There are certain preconceptions I have about what works and doesn’t work in Film that I bring with me when I go into VR. Sometimes those things work and sometimes they don’t. In INVASION, the first piece that we made, we have a spaceship fly up and emerge from behind a grove of aspen trees. I thought it was a great opportunity to build suspense and some dramatic tension by delaying the ship coming over the treetops above our heads. I figured we’d build the music and build the sound of the spaceship getting louder and louder - but after just three or four seconds of this, audiences started looking away. They started doubting their own senses and 90 percent of them were looking 180 degrees off axis by the time the spaceship appeared. I realized that if you give the viewer the chance to look around, they will. I wanted to give them dramatic tension, and all I did was motivate them to start looking around for what they were missing. It actually created some anxiety and took them away from the story I was trying to tell them.

 

 

"So, how do you know this stuff? You don’t. Nobody really does. The only way to learn about the language of storytelling in VR is by doing it."



So, how do you know this stuff? You don’t. Nobody really does. The only way to learn about the language of storytelling in VR is by doing it, showing it to people, then watching how they watch the piece. We tested INVASION with over a thousand people and then made changes based upon where their attention was going on average. Recognizing that you don’t know everything and that you don’t always have the answer is the most important thing. It’s humbling. You have to approach it with humility.




Read Part 2 of Eric's story here.

For more on Baobab Studios and INVASION, read our interview with CEO and Co-Founder, Maureen Fan, in Customer Stories: Baobab Studios invades VR.

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| 1 year ago
nice