Invasion!, a six-minute animated comedy created by Eric Darnell, the director of Madagascar, experiments with using virtual reality technology as both a storytelling method and a means of creating empathy. Featuring the voice of Ethan Hawke and the talents of numerous animation and film industry veterans, Invasion! provides a first-look at the potential impact VR brings to entertainment. While it is funny story about a pair of aliens with the desire to conquer the Earth, but not the skill to overcome two cute bunnies, it is also a means for audiences to engage with a viewing experience like never before.
As Eric Darnell explains at the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, virtual reality can really be regarded as empathy machines. Audiences are transported to another world when they put on their VR headsets, and the film goes a step further than just letting audiences look around in a 360-degree world. The characters, like your bunny friend, are programmed to take head-tracking into account, and that means little touches with a big impact—like the bunny’s eyes following your movements as you look around at your environment.
Invasion! can be seen now at the Tribeca Film Festival VR Arcade, and will release for the public later this spring.
Maureen Fan, CEO of Baobab Studios, the VR animation studio (co-founded by Eric Darnell) that created Invasion!, speaks to [a]listdaily from the film’s Tribeca premiere about bringing the short film to life and preparing audiences for a new era of entertainment.
What is Invasion! about?
Invasion is about these two menacing aliens that come from outer space to invade Earth. They have superior technology, so you think they’re going to win, but they’re thwarted by Earth’s citizens—citizens who are, instead of being human, two adorable little white, fluffy bunnies—and you are one of them.
So, when you look down, you’ll see that you have a little bunny body that moves around with you. You and your bunny friend defeat these aliens who don’t seem to have their act together enough to invade the Earth like they want to.
By the way, Ethan Hawke stars in the film, and he plays the voice of the cosmos.
What inspired the creation of Invasion!?
Eric Darnell is our co-founder, and he was the director and writer for Madagascar and all its sequels. He was also the director of Ants, Dreamworks’ first full-length animated film. He originally had this thought of having aliens invade Earth, but wanted to do a different take on it. Instead of Earth being spread with a virus or having underground bunkers full of people scheming to overthrow aliens, he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if, instead of being thwarted by humans, they’re thwarted by the most innocent of creatures?”
And the humans wouldn’t even know that these little woodland creatures are saving their planet. He thought that would be a fun twist.
How have you been promoting this VR experience?
The entire experience is made for VR. On March 11, Samsung launched its Galaxy S7 smartphone and gave away a free Gear VR with each purchase, and our Invasion! trailer was a top promoted piece. Also, with the Oculus Rift that just launched a few weeks ago, there are only three non-gaming titles on the homepage, and our trailer is one of them. So, we were very honored to be a part of that.
Invasion! can be viewed across a number of different VR headsets. Our premiere is being shown on the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift. So, we are platform agnostic.
How will audiences be able to experience Invasion! after the premiere?
We will be releasing it at some point after the Tribeca Film Festival premiere. We don’t have an exact date yet, but we’re looking at sometime in May. It’s ready, but we want to be smart about when we actually put it out. It’ll be available for all the headsets I mentioned earlier and Sony’s PlayStation VR when it launches.
How do you think VR is impacting entertainment?
It’s completely changing it. I think it’s slow to do it, because a lot of Hollywood is still seeing it as a marketing opportunity, but we’re hoping that more people are willing to create original IP for VR and build the medium from the ground up.
The storytelling is completely different, because now instead of the director having complete control over the shot and forcing the audience to see exactly what they want, the audience can look wherever they want. They control composition. So, the director’s job is much more difficult in trying to inspire the audience to look where they want and compose the same shots they would have wanted to.
You give up some control, but with it, you get all this amazing stuff. For example, in our film, your bunny friend hides behind you when the aliens come to attack, and you feel like you’re responsible for saving this bunny. That’s something you wouldn’t have been able to get in a rectangular projection screen in a theater today.
Where do you think VR will take entertainment in the future?
I think it will change more than entertainment. I think it will also change healthcare and education, but entertainment is the easiest and most obvious industry right now. For you to be able to go to a completely different world and feel like you’re really there is very exciting for entertainment, because entertainment is about taking you to places you wouldn’t have imagined, or to meet people you wouldn’t have in real life. To make that feel real is very powerful, so I think it will change storytelling for all of entertainment.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that normal theaters are dead. Just because movies are available, it doesn’t mean nobody watches TV, or that nobody reads books anymore, or that people don’t watch plays anymore. I think there will still be other forms of entertainment, and this is yet another set of tools for a creative person who wants to tell a story to play inside and tell their stories in a different way.
With all these headsets, how quickly do you think we’ll see mass adoption of VR?
At earliest, I think the end of this year, but I feel like it will be more like mid-to-late next year. While there are a lot of headsets out there, there’s not enough content. People will purchase these headsets, but there needs to be enough content for them to keep coming back to watch more. So, I hope more people create that content.
What’s your favorite scene from Invasion!?
My favorite part is when the alien ship comes over you and your bunny friend. It’s awesome because it’s so loud, and you see your bunny friend cower. She’s afraid, but she’s just so adorable. I think our animators did such an amazing job of making her cute. Glen Keane is one of our advisors, and he was the main animator for Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and all the great Disney films. He supervised a lot of animation and helped us make the bunny as cute as can be.
It still makes me smile every time I see it and cry, “I want that bunny!”