How Jon Favreau Crafted an Immersive Virtual Reality World for 'Gnomes & Goblins'

Gnomes & Goblins and inset of Jon Favreau - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Wevr

The 'Jungle Book' director talks about his new VR experience, out Sept. 8, with Wevr and Reality One.

Jon Favreau used computer-generated pixels to create the astonishingly realistic setting of Disney’s The Jungle Book. But that was only the beginning for the filmmaker, who crafted an immersive world out of thin air for the soon-to-be-released virtual reality project Gnomes & Goblins

A preview of the project is being released Sept. 8 for free for the HTC Vive VR headset in the culmination of more than a year of work from Favreau and Venice Beach-based virtual reality studio Wevr. If the experience draws enough interest from audiences, they — along with co-producer and co-publisher Reality One, the immersive media firm from Gigi Pritzker — plan to release a more built-out version of Gnomes & Goblins.  

In the preview, viewers are transported into a forest setting, where miniature homes have been made in the trees and fireflies flit about the twilight sky. The experience blends cinema storytelling and gaming mechanics. As viewers move about the scene — an area of about 5 feet by 6 feet — subtle hints prompt them to interact with the space by picking up a candle or an acorn using one of the Vive controllers. Eventually noises indicate that there is something approaching from behind, but it takes a few turns in the space until the creature, a goblin, is revealed. The character, the first of several planned for the project, interacts with the viewer, changing its behavior depending on how it is approached and how the viewer relates to it.

The idea for Gnomes & Goblins came to Favreau in one feverish night last summer after he visited the Wevr offices to view its immersive ocean experience, theBlu. He was still in the middle of working on Jungle Book, but he went home and wrote down what he describes as pages of an idea for a fantasy world that expanded the longer a person explored. “I was very impressed by how far the technology had come and what later was explained to me as something called ‘presence,’ which is where your brain is fooled into thinking it's experiencing something real, even though intuitively it’s not,” Favreau says, munching on tacos created by friend Roy Choi’s Kogi truck during a preview of Gnomes & Goblins at Wevr’s headquarters.

Wevr quickly got behind the project, with theBlu director Jake Rowell signing up as creative director for Gnomes & Goblins. Andy Jones, animation effects supervisor on Jungle Book and the person who first introduced Favreau to Wevr, joined as animation director. It started with Favreau’s sketch of the goblin and his notes about a world made up of communities of gnomes and goblins. “I kind of worked out a set of rules and magical ability you could acquire, but all of it hinging on a very organic relationship between you and these creatures,” he explains, adding that from early on he was concerned with “how you would be able to move through it without feeling like you’re in a game using controllers.”

For Wevr, the project presented an opportunity to capture attention in a still burgeoning space. The six-year-old company, which has produced a meditation simulation with Deepak Chopra as well as several live-action projects, has received funding from HTC, Samsung Ventures and others to produce original VR projects and build up distribution platform Transport.

“As a studio, we’re committed to figuring out how we can push the boundaries of this medium to discover and learn and accelerate our exploration of what storytelling means — what’s possible, what isn’t,” says co-founder and CEO Neville Spiteri. He points to the goblin character in the preview and the challenge of making it interactive. He says the goal of the project was to ask and, hopefully, answer questions such as, “How do we tease out emotion from this character? How do we create a digital character that can almost perform like an actor?”

Favreau notes that Gnomes & Goblins is meant to combine elements of both gaming and filmmaking. “There’s people who come from a gaming background who see the gaming potential [of VR], and there’s people who come from a cinema background that see how they can expand it,” he says. “But to me everything in between is the Oklahoma land grab. You can stake out a little piece of land in the middle of this that’s unique.”

Initially, Gnomes & Goblins will be available only for the Vive, an $800 product that creates what's called a “room scale” experience because it turns a physical space into a VR tableau using sensors. But it is expected to reach other platforms later in the year. And Favreau indicates he wouldn’t mind taking the project on tour, showcasing it around the country to people who don’t own the Vive. “It’s a lot to ask people to dive in at this point,” he concedes, adding that he only expects the market to grow.

The preview for Gnomes & Goblins takes about 10 minutes to play, but eventually the idea is what Favreau describes as “like Disneyland, where you build more and more out.” He explains that the world will be customizable, meaning that changes that a viewer makes while playing will remain constant and things will change while the viewer is away from the world. “There’s a fun aspect to a world that you can keep revisiting where you have friends you get to know and things you change within the world,” he adds. “To me that’s the promise of the simulation aspect of VR, where you’re not just seeing the same movie play over and over again but you’re affecting the world. That, I think, is a missing puzzle piece for me.”