Baobab Studios’ Crow: The Legend isn’t the first effort to break the games-only reputation of virtual reality wide open, targeting mainstream viewers’ hearts and minds to embrace VR’s potential as a go-to way to experience movies. But so far, it’s definitely among the most ambitious.
Loaded with a voice cast of A-list celebrities and specifically tailored — not adapted — to play to the format’s unique immersive strengths, the soon-debuting short film isn’t just aiming for its own success; it’s also aiming to sell more people than ever on the idea that VR isn’t just a medium for gamers.
The 22-minute film interprets a Native American folk story paired with a VR illustration style that, as Variety recently put it, “looks less like traditional animation, and more like something made out of felt, with warm, soft, and fuzzy outlines everywhere.” It’s a style, the report adds, that gives the movie a look “that differs from any other VR experience to date.”
Perhaps more important that big-name voice talent or distinctive animation is figuring out how to tap VR’s power of immersion — already its key selling point as a vehicle for gaming content. That means making a VR film experience that finds the right balance between passive storytelling and active viewer input.
The approach Baobab took was to allow viewers some basic and easy agency in helping move the story along — but to make nothing in the story contingent on whether a viewer participates or just sits back and watches. “The interaction is not a game, a quest. It’s narration,” Baobab’s Scott Peterson told Variety.
But what VR gains in immersion, it loses to solipsism, and it’s a tradeoff that’s so far limited the format’s accessibility to mass audiences. What works so effectively to accomplish one person’s immersion doesn’t necessarily work — at least not efficiently — for large groups, as Sea World all but admitted when it ended the VR component of its Kraken Unleashed roller coaster ride in Orlando last week. One of the chief reasons VR didn’t work out there? Inflated wait times.
As if in acknowledgement of VR’s still-limited exposure, Crow: The Legend isn’t just coming to the headsets it was designed for; it’s also reportedly releasing as a 360-degree YouTube feature, as well as in plain, vanilla 2D for distribution to conventional movie screens. Baobab hasn’t revealed a release schedule, other than to indicate all this will happen sometime within the next year.
Directed by Eric Darnell (Madagascar) and starring a heavyweight celebrity voice cast led by John Legend (who also executive produced), Oprah Winfrey, Diego Luna, Tye Sheridan, Constance Wu, and YouTube star Liza Koshy, Crow: The Legend just premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and reportedly is in the running for next year’s Oscars in the animated short films category.