Tribeca: 'Madagascar' Director Unveils Virtual Reality Short 'Invasion!'

Invasion! VR Teaser Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Baobab

Invasion! VR Teaser Still - H 2015

Invasion!, a narrative virtual reality short written and directed by Eric Darnell, helmer of the Madagascar films, will have its world premiere April 18 during the Tribeca Film Festival. Soon after that, it will be released for VR systems including Oculus Rift, HTC and Valve’s Vive and Samsung VR Gear. 

In the six-minute short — Ethan Hawke provides narration, based on the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds — the viewer meets a meek, white bunny hopping around on a frozen lake as an oval spaceship lands. The viewer takes on the role of a second bunny in this first-person experience as a pair of blue aliens emerge from the spacecraft with plans to take over the world with their advanced technology. But first, the aliens have to match wits with those bunnies. 

“Our emphasis is on creating characters you can really engage with,” Darnell told The Hollywood Reporter. “We want to create characters that get the nuance and empathy they would in a feature, but that’s more difficult to achieve in VR.”

The bunny is designed to be super cute and gentle. And Darnell likens the aliens — named Cheze and Mac — to Laurel and Hardy, with their sharp comic timing. "They are kind of bumblers, but they try to do a good job. And ultimately they are friends." 

Invasion! was created at the startup virtual reality production company Baobab Studios, which was formed in 2015 by Darnell, who comes from DreamWorks Animation and serves as Baobab's chief creative officer, and Maureen Fan, a prior vp of games at Zynga, who serves as CEO.

Baobab has assembled a team of engineers working on both rendering and character animation tools "to get the subtle facial animation that you don't currently get in games. It's the wild West, nobody knows how to do [some of the] things in VR that you can do in CG [for features]."

The company has not determined if it will charge for Invasion! once it becomes available for the VR systems just hitting the market, but Darnell said if it does, the charge would be a nominal amount. “We’re less interested in selling it and more interested in making sure people see it. There’s not going to be a huge market for VR at first.” he said. “We don’t know where the market and technology will be in 18 months, but when there’s a more robust market, we’ll be standing on quality content and a meaningful brand. Then we can take advantage of monetization."

He further explained, "Our [current] plan is to do shorts — great narrative experiences — and if we get traction, we can bring [those characters] back." While Darnell declined to comment on upcoming projects, he said he hopes to bring the aliens and bunnies back.

At Tribeca, Invasion! is being presented as part of the Virtual Reality Arcade, offering more than 20 new VR experiences, at the Festival Hub at Spring Studios, located at 50 Varick Street in Manhattan.

In late 2015, Baobab Studios raised $6 million in Series A funding through investors including Comcast Ventures with participation from HTC and Samsung Ventures. Investors also include Advancit Capital, Chernin Group and Freelands Ventures, along with Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Watch the Invasion! trailer below.