In a first, a VR short will become a Hollywood movie

Over its short life, virtual-reality entertainment has often been spun out of traditional Hollywood productions, whether an episodic piece based on “The Martian” or a more participatory experience derived from “Ghostbusters.”

But the transom has rarely if ever gone the other way--an original VR piece has never been turned into a Hollywood movie.

The director of the “Madagascar” series of animated films, Eric Darnell, and the veteran Hollywood producer Joe Roth aim to change that.

“Invasion!,” a six-minute animated VR short created earlier this year by Darnell and his company Baobab Studios, will be developed as a traditional full-length animated feature by Roth's production company Roth Kirschenbaum, the parties are expected to announce Monday.

"We’re always looking at properties with rich characters and a cinematic universe in any form — whether it's a graphic novel or a short film or a book," said Zack Roth, Joe's son and an executive at Roth Kirschenbaum. "When we saw 'Invasion!' we realized VR was just another place to look for stories."

Roth Kirschenbaum will take the lead on developing the piece into a stand-alone feature, with Baobab offering creative input. No writer or director has yet been hired.

The idea might strike some as odd. With its ability to place viewers inside a world and allow them to control their experience, VR is fundamentally different than traditional film. What makes for a good VR piece would not necessarily make for a rewarding trip to the multiplex.

But principals say that it’s a sign of how  far VR, which has sometimes been criticized as devaluing narrative, has come in just a short time.

“Film and VR are very different media,” Darnell said in an interview. “But the idea that ‘Invasion!’ is seen as a strong enough story by a company like Roth Kirschenbaum speaks to how much progress is being made. VR can be about storytelling too.”

Certainly the parties mainstream bona fides are top-tier. As a Hollywood director,  Darnell was responsible for nearly $2.5 billion in global box office, thanks to "Antz" and four "Madagascar" films. Roth and his partner Jeffrey Kirschenbaum both are studio veterans, with the former focusing on fairy tale remakes such as "Maleficent" and the "Huntsman" series in recent years. Their company, which was formed last year, next has the sequel "xXx: Return of Xander Cage."

“Invasion!” bears the hallmarks of its creator. The piece, unveiled at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring and featuring a voice-over by Ethan Hawke, has a DreamWorks Animation-like feel as it examines an alien invasion that turns into something more unexpected and comedic. A bunny is central to the experience.

But the project also seeks to take advantage of the VR medium, with a 360-degree vastness to the cartoon landscape, a first-person point of view and a feeling that the creatures are right over your shoulder.

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Baobab, which also counts Silicon Valley executive Maureen Fan and film-producer veteran Kane Lee among its ranks, wasn’t seeking a Hollywood deal. The company was simply embarking on a round of explanatory meetings, as many VR firms have been in the past year. But when Roth Kirschenbaum executives saw “Invasion!,” they wondered whether a good movie lay within.

"How often can you make a call in town and say 'I've got a great idea for a movie — put on this headset?'" Roth said.

The parties will continue working on their respective “Invasion!” projects separately. Baobab is preparing a follow-up episode to its VR segment, which is available for free on Oculus and GearVR and will soon come to the HTC Vive and Playstation.

But they see these partnerships becoming more common — and even necessary.

“VR is interdisciplinary. For companies able to speak both languages, it really opens doors," said Lee, Baobab’s head of content. “Look at how Orson Welles’ brought the values of traditional theater and radio to ‘Citizen Kane.’ New things are created when you take areas that have not historically been aligned.”

How much VR will embrace traditional storytelling remains to be seen. Many animation types in particular see it as a tool that, like CG and other innovations before it, can push their medium forward — in a new way, sure, but not a fundamentally different one.

Some VR purists, on the other hand, think that cinema has little to say about VR and that heavy interactivity should rule the day..

The idea of two players with different backgrounds collaborating could offer a key test of the medium's best uses.

“It may well be a roller-coaster ride," Lee said. "But we're excited to be the first to try it and learn from our mistakes.”

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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