The Making of the VR Short 'Crow: The Legend'
Karen Moltenbrey
November 29, 2018

The Making of the VR Short 'Crow: The Legend'

Baobab Studios has released an indie-animated CG short film online in mid-November: “Crow: The Legend,” as well as an experiential virtual-reality version that is the first VR movie to incorporate an indigenous worldview.

Directed, written and produced by veteran animator Eric Darnell ( Antz , the Madagascar franchise) and  executive produced by John Legend,  " Crow" is based on the moving Native American story about the bird’s cultural genesis.

Crow, once the most revered and beautifully rainbow-colored and melodic animal in all the forest, must choose between himself and his fellow animals when tasked with saving them from a destructive endless winter. Realizing he is their only hope, Crow ventures in seek of help but the arduous trek irrevocably damages his voice and stunning colors. Embarrassed by his physical transformation, Crow ultimately learns that his self-sacrifice is far more beautiful and important than his appearance. 

The decision to offer the movie in two formats is both borne from a desire to bring awareness to a culturally important story that has for so long lacked a platform, and to celebrate the evolution of animation by offering this story in all available formats. Darnell and Legend’s commitment abounds – from the comical and poignant scripts, to the creation of multiple formats to ensure exposure of this important tale, to Legend’s recording of an original song, to the holistic style of animated filmmaking.

Here, CGW discusses this project with Darnell and Larry Cutler, CTO of Baobab Studios and former Pixar technical director (Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc.), global head of character technology at DreamWorks, co-founder of DigiPro and a judge for the Oscars Technical Achievement Award (Sci-Tech Committee).

What made you decide to tackle this project?

Darnell: My Grandfather, a cattle rancher from Kansas, was always very interested in Native American culture, especially after he researched our family history and discovered that we have Native American ancestry. He passed this interest down to his children and grandchildren. Native Americana has always been something I have paid attention to.

So when I came across the legend about Crow (sometimes called Raven), I was struck by what a great story it was and surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Its themes of sacrifice and community are timeless but somehow particularly relevant today. It was one of the first stories that Baobab wanted to take on, but it was simply too ambitious in its scope at the time. 

Finally, in mid-2017, we decided we were ready to embrace the challenge. We brought on Native American advisors to make sure we remained true to the story’s roots. Randy Edmonds, the narrator, is an 84-year-old Kiowa-Caddo tribal elder who is a crusader for Native American rights and founder of the National Urban Indian Council. Sarah Eagle Heart, who plays Luna, is the CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy. In addition, Baobab partnered with Sarah to create a Native American Indigenous Youth Fellowship to shine a light on indigenous storytellers.

We learned from Randy and Sarah that in the 19th  and early 20 th  centuries, Native American children were forced into re-education camps, taught that their culture was ‘pagan’ and were even punished for telling their stories. This made us feel even stronger about bringing the story of Crow to light.   

How long have you worked on the film? Starting when?  

Darnell: One year starting last spring.   

How many people have been working on it?  

Darnell: We are an indie studio of 15.

Why did you decided to do two versions of the film, the animated short and a VR-interactive application based on the film?

Darnell: When talking to Randy and Sarah, we learned that Native Americans who were forced into re-education camps were told not to tell these stories. We felt it was even more important to bring these wonderful stories to light. We also felt it was important to tell this story in both 2D and in VR. In virtual reality, we could make you a character in the experience, making you feel even more connected to ‘the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged, the Sun and the Moon,’ as Sarah Eagle Heart described her experience. 

We also recognized that its mythic scope, scale and universal themes were a perfect fit for classic cinema, and that by simultaneously animating this project in both mediums, audiences would have more opportunities to experience this timeless Native American tale. Audiences can choose how they want to experience ‘Crow: The Legend’ – as an active participant in VR or as a filmgoer, where they can simply sit back and let the story wash over them .  

Describe the VR offering.

Darnell: Crow: The Legend’ is an experience about the sacrifices we can all make to help those around us. Inspired by the classic Native American tale about the origins of the bird, ‘Crow: The Legend’ movingly illustrates the sacrifices of the bird, once the most beautiful animal of the forest, who must risk everything to save the Earth and his friends. ‘Crow’ is a fully immersive journey exploring themes of community, sacrifice and diversity, wherein the viewer plays a key role in the story of Crow, voiced by John Legend. It’s about the unique value that each of us brings to the world, and about recognizing that once we have accepted ourselves, warts and all, we are in a better position to accept others – even those who may be different than us. These are timeless and universal themes, but ones that have particular resonance today.  

Where will the films be shown?  

Darnell: Crow’  showed at the Gathering of Nations earlier this year. It was also an official selection at Annecy, Cannes, Venice, Busan, SIGGRAPH, LA, Animation is Film, CTN and Spark Animation film festivals. ‘Crow’ released widely on November 15 on YouTube and Facebook. The interactive VR version became available that same day on the Oculus store.  

Has Baobab done anything like this before?  

Darnell: ‘Crow: The Legend’ is Baobab’s most ambitious project to date in terms of length, number of characters and sets, and interactivity. We had three significant creative challenges. The first and most important challenge for us was to make sure we gave the story the care and respect it deserves. The second was that we transport the viewer to a magical dreamlike universe that is fitting for the timeless nature of the story. The third was that we immerse viewers into the story in a way that makes them part of it, that gives them a powerful role to play and makes them feel like they truly matter.    

How does this project differ from others you have done?

Darnell: I love how animation in VR can take audiences to realities that can only begin in the mind of an artist, yet, when realized, feel every bit as tangible as the real world. This led to a design for ‘Crow’ that was like a child’s storybook. The visual development artists and engineers worked side by side to come up with a soft, organic and illustrative look that invites you into the story.  

Another significant challenge came with how to integrate the viewer into the story. Just what sort of interactive approach would be best? We’d already had some experience wrestling with the complexities of interactivity on our previous projects. 

Baobab’s first VR story, ‘Invasion!,’ was created when VR hardware was only a headset. There were no hand controllers. So we focused on what we could do without hand controllers. You begin on a frozen lake. Another bunny spots you from the shoreline, hops over to you and looks you right in the eye. Because everything you see is calculated in real time – just milliseconds per frame – if you move, the bunny will follow you and maintain eye contact. Something as basic as eye contact had a powerful impact on our audience. Many viewers spoke to the bunny. Others tried to reach out and touch her. Some viewers even mimicked the bunny’s playful hops. This is not the usual way an audience reacts to a character on a movie screen.  

We realized that there was something unique and powerful in VR that comes from being able to communicate naturally with virtual characters and interact with them and their worlds. 

With our next project, ‘Asteroids!,’ hand controllers had arrived, and we eagerly integrated them into the experience. You can move around inside a spaceship, using your hand controllers to activate the ship’s components or even to toss a ball for the ship’s robot mascot. Most importantly, the choices you make regarding how and when to interact matter. Your actions may not necessarily change the arc of the story, but they do change the way the other characters feel about you and how you feel about the other characters and yourself. 

We thought of our approach not in terms of the interactivity triggering branching narratives, but in terms of triggering branching emotions.

Interaction that involves pressing buttons and activating gadgets makes sense for ‘Asteroids!,’ but ‘Crow: The Legend’ was going to need a different approach. I didn’t want the viewer to be concerned about button-pushing mechanics that have the potential to distract the viewer from the story and characters , so our team came up with a gestural approach – no buttons needed.

In ‘Crow,’ the viewer plays the role of The Spirit of the Seasons who has come to Earth for the first time. The other characters cannot see The Spirit of the Seasons, but they can see what the spirit does. With a simple wave of your hands, you can make the flowers grow, the snow fall, and the winds blow. You can even play the ‘music of the universe’ in much the same way that a conductor conducts an orchestra. This helps you focus on what really matters – the story, the characters and the fact that what you do really matters to the animals’ lives.  

What software did you use for the content creation?   

Cutler: Unity, Autodesk’s Maya, and our own proprietary technology.

Which was the most technically challenging character?  

Cutler :It took a lot of hardcore engineering to give the world its dithered, organic feel, and this was particularly difficult with Skunk because of her soft, fuzzy tail. We went through several different approaches that all had artifacts before coming up with a solution that looked great and was highly optimized for VR.  

The textures have a spray-painted feel to them. How were they generated?  

Cutler :We created a storybook feel that literally makes you want to touch the trees, grass and characters. Everything in the world of ‘Crow’ is soft, with almost no hard edges. In an animated feature film, this type of look could be easily achieved by rendering millions of fur hairs, but in VR, that is prohibitively expensive (at least on today’s hardware). We were also not interested in realism, and instead gravitated towards a more illustrative feel. Our chief scientist, Michael Hutchinson, developed a complex dithered shader where all the objects have a nice, soft fall-off at the edges. The shader generates a soft stippled pattern that adapts automatically to always be visible and consistent, regardless of where the user moves within the environment.  

Were there any other particular challenges in creating the characters?

Darnell: We have a lot of experience creating characters from our past work on animated feature films. The challenge was to create complex characters that look and animate like what we are used to seeing in animated films, but that are rendered in real time – 11 milliseconds per frame, twice: once for each eye. With ‘Crow,’ we pushed the boundaries of what is possible in VR to capture the broad range of acting required, from broadly comic acting moments to the subtle and heartfelt performance from Crow.  

How did you create the cold-breath effect of the animals?

Cutler : Scott Peterson, our VFX art director, delivered breathtaking real-time effects that are integral to both the look and the storytelling in ‘Crow,’ especially during the interactive musical montage and in the palace of The One Who Creates Everything by Thinking. We also added a wide range of subtle yet important effects, from the animals’ cold breath, to adding footprints in the snow, to being able to blow the moth around by waving your hands. All these elements contribute to you feeling connected with the characters and the environment.

Are there a lot of matte-painted backgrounds?     

Darnell: There’s only one matte painting for the distant stars in the space sequence.  

Is the snow painted or a 3D effect?

Darnell: It’s a 3D effect.  

Which was the trickiest environment to create?

Darnell: The forest environments were the most challenging from a technical standpoint because we had to suggest the organic complexity of a forest, but at the same time, keep the detail low enough to allow us to render the imagery in real time. 

Did you have to devise any new technique to achieve any elements in the film?  

Cutler : Yes, to create the soft fuzzy storybook feel, tools to create in VR, tech to create both 2D and VR, tech to creating the lighting that runs in a real-time game engine, and character technology that allows us to have feature-film quality animation run in Unity.  

Overall, what was the most challenging aspect of the project?  

Darnell: Getting the illustrative look of the world and the characters was probably the most technically challenging aspect of the production. But, overall it doesn't matter how pretty the images are if the story or the characters don't work. First and foremost, we are storytellers. Telling a great story well, with characters that audiences are truly invested in, is always the most important and challenging aspect of what we do.