VR Visionaries #7: Maureen Fan, CEO, Baobab Studios

Maureen is the co-founder and CEO of Baobab Studios, a VR animation company that creates story and character driven cinematic experiences. Their recent projects, Invasion and Rainbow Crow have garnered accolades including a Daytime Emmy, and Official Selection of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

As CEO of an acclaimed VR studio what does an average work day look like for you?

In the morning I do the normal business upkeep; answering emails, taking meetings, everything needed to help run a startup. Throughout the day we review VR experiences, have discussions on how to make the stories work better, and address feedback. We are always optimizing our content. In the afternoon, we look at new VR storyboards and characters for our upcoming projects as a group. VR is a new medium, so we are constantly collaborating and experimenting.

Baobab only produces animated VR experiences – why is this? And which other film genres do you think provide the best opportunities for VR filmmakers?

We make animated experiences for Virtual Reality. We love animation because it’s not constrained by reality, only by the creativity within the director’s head. Remember when you were a kid and you thought anything was possible? As we grow older, society often pressures us to conform to values of fame, fortune, power, beauty. Yet, when we watch animation, it brings out our child-like wonder. It reminds us that there’s still a dreamer inside us and that we have so much more potential than we think. That is the power of animation. Now think about how much more VR can bring out your sense of wonder. You believe those characters are real. You truly believe you’re there.That’s why our mission is to inspire you to dream. We bring out your sense of wonder by immersing you in worlds never imagined, introducing you to characters to fall in love with, and enabling you to interact with these characters.

There is a lot of traction already and investment in this space. We believe VR is going to revolutionize every industry, not just entertainment. Imagine walking among dinosaurs in class instead of reading about them. How will we browse and organize information in 3D? Think about all the implications for fields like medicine and travel.

How long will flatscreens continue to dominate the film and media landscape?

Flatscreens will be with us for a long time to come. VR will not completely replace flatscreens, but rather augment your viewing experience. Rather than relaxing at the end of a long day in your home theater, you might spend an hour in VR to completely escape before getting back on the phone to browse or check social media.

Do you see a future where VR could supplant the current movie-going experience?

We look at VR as its own medium that would live side-by-side with movie-going experiences. It would be like describing TV by comparing it to the big screen, or describing games by comparing them to movies. It doesn’t do it justice and constrains us from dreaming bigger. Each medium has its own toolbox for telling stories. By thinking about VR as its own medium, we can approach it in a fresh way, which I think it deserves.

Baobab’s renowned for putting stories at the heart of your VR experiences – what are the fundamental differences in storytelling in VR versus traditional film?

Baobab is about creating experiences that are bigger than life. Imagine a crying girl on a bench. In a movie, you would just feel sorry for her but wouldn't expect to do anything about it. In a game, you'd talk to her to fulfill a quest or get some information from her to get to the next level. In real life, you'd talk to her, because you care about her and you want to help her. Baobab’s vision is to create experiences with the empathy of film, the agency of games, and ultimately the motivation of real life. You the audience act because you care about the characters, not to win.

What are the biggest challenges for VR in film today? And where do you see the greatest opportunities?

Creators need funding to make experiences. We all need to experiment to innovate. That requires people and equipment. To get to a healthy ecosystem – where creators can make money from their creations – we need a market for more people to consume VR content. Consumers need killer content to justify their headset purchase and a constant stream of new content to repeatedly put on that headset. It all starts with funding. I’m confident the industry will get there, but we are still at the beginning. We need to break all the rules, and stop trying to create rules: experiment instead. Doing that requires money. Also, focus on the fundamentals of interactivity; of storytelling. Don’t get seduced by the tech novelty. Create steak, not the sizzle.