Inside the Making of Baobab’s Latest Animated VR Film ‘Crow: The Legend’, Starring Oprah Winfrey and John Legend

CREDIT: COURTESY OF BAOBAB STUDIOS

Oprah Winfrey. John Legend. Constance Wu. Diego Luna. Baobab Studios’ latest animated VR film “Crow: The Legend” has an almost outrageous lineup of A-list talent attached to it. Even Eric Darnell, Baobab’s chief creative officer and writer-director of the film, still has to pinch himself sometimes. “For a tiny little startup, how the heck did this happen,” he asked himself during a recent interview.

But “Crow: The Legend,” which has its North America premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this Friday, doesn’t just feature big names. It’s also an ambitious 22-minute VR pic that combines a story based on a Native American folk tale with a unique and charming illustration style that differs from any other VR experience to date. Recently, the Baobab team invited Variety to their office in Redwood City, Calif., for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at how the piece came together.

Baobab Studios began working on “Crow: The Legend” in earnest in March of 2017. But for Darnell, who directed the “Madagascar” franchise before entering the world of VR with Baobab, the story behind it had been a much longer time coming. Ever since his father discovered during some amateur genealogy research that the family had a member of the Cherokee tribe in its ancestry, father and son had been fascinated with Native American myths and stories.

That’s how Darnell also discovered the story of “Crow and Fire,” a native American tale about selflessness and sacrifice. “It’s about how the crow became the crow we know of today,” he explained. And when Darnell co-founded Baobab in 2015, he pitched an adaptation of the story as one of the studio’s many potential projects. “It just has all the components of a great story,” he said.

“This was the story we all loved the most,” remembered Baobab Studios CEO Maureen Fan. “However, it’s incredibly ambitious with many characters, environments, and theme complexity. We experimented with other projects before embarking on this one, the one we always wanted to do.”

From the start, Darnell was acutely aware that his family’s ancestry didn’t give him much authority on subjects of Native American culture. “Basically, I’m this white guy from Kansas,” he admitted. That’s why Baobab partnered with Native Americans in Philanthropy and their CEO Sarah Eagle Heart early on. Heart not only became the voice of one of the characters in “Crow: The Legend,” but also provided key input on the story.

The same is true for Randy Edmonds, an elder of the Kiowa-Caddo tribe and founder of the National Urban Indian Council. Edmonds also provided Baobab with guidance, and became the voice of the narrator that guides viewers through the world of “Crow: The Legend.”

When Oprah becomes your divine being
“Crow: The Legend” is the story of a group of animals tested by the forces of nature when the spirit of the seasons introduces the first-ever winter to their idyllic habitat. Unsure whether they can brave the cold any longer, they eventually come up with a plan to appeal to a divine being dubbed The One Who Creates Everything by Thinking to bring back warmer weather.

Crow (Legend), a bird with an ego as big as his voice, would much rather star in a concert than help the other animals. But as his friends appeal to his vanity, he ultimately decides to embark on the perilous journey to meet The One Who Creates Everything by Thinking (Winfrey) — a journey that ultimately changes him and his relationship with his friends forever.

The story of the journey is very much based on the original folk tale, but Baobab’s take on it adds another component by bringing together Crow and Skunk (Wu), a shy admirer of the bird who eventually learns that the two aren’t that different after all. “Inclusion is a really important part of this piece,” said Fan.

That message resonated with Legend, who not only lent his voice to the piece, but also signed on as executive producer — something that ultimately opened the door for some of the other famous collaborators. In addition to Winfrey, Wu, and Luna, the cast of voice actors also include actress and YouTube star Liza Koshy and “Ready Player One” star Tye Sheridan. “It’s not a strategy for us to get stars,” Fan said. Instead, the studio got lucky finding a story that appealed to A-list talent.

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SOURCE: Variety, Janko Roettgers