Jon Favreau may be best known for directing big-screen epics like “The Jungle Book” and “Iron Man 2,” but his latest passion project can only be seen through virtual reality goggles.
On Wednesday night, Favreau debuted his new enchanted forest VR experience, “Gnomes & Goblins,” which he developed in partnership with Wevr and RealityOne and officially comes out on Sept. 8.
TheWrap was among the first to try out a preview of the new experience on the HTC Vive headset. After putting on the gear, the user is dropped in an 3D forest with gnome apartments visible in hollowed out tree trunks.
After a short time to get acclimated and look around, a friendly little goblin pops out for you to interact with, but he gets scared and retreats into the forest unless you approach him slowly and at his level. The trees bear acorns and fruit, which the user can grab with the Vive’s hand controls and use to entice the goblin to come out and play.
TheWrap tossed a fruit to the goblin and was presented with a bell that could be used to teleport inside the tree trunks and even to shrink the player down to the size of the goblin and explore the world from that perspective.
Many early VR experiences look cool and are technically impressive, but once the initial “wow” factor wears off, they can get repetitive. Building a piece of technology and telling a story in a compelling way are two very different skills, and the VR space to date has been heavy with the first type of expertise but not the latter. Enter Favreau.
“As a storyteller, this is a whole new set of tools to use,” Favreau told TheWrap.
Favreau’s interest in VR happened almost by accident — Andy Jones, the supervising art director on “Jungle Book,” and longtime colleague Jake Rowell were working on a different VR experience with Wevr called “theBlu: Season 1.” Favreau asked to tag along to a meeting one day, which was a pleasant surprise to Wevr founder Neville Spiteri.
“When Jon came down and tried VR, there was an instant connection,” Spiteri told TheWrap. “To me, this was ‘oh my God,’ exactly what we had hoped for.”
Jones told TheWrap that by the next morning, Favreau had created the “Gnomes” characters and had pages of notes drafted. Spiteri and the Wevr tech team had to tailor Favreau’s vision to what was technically possible, but what emerged is a true story-driven VR experience. Favreau was clearly focused on a cohesive narrative — his first question to TheWrap was if all the character interactions made logical sense.
Favreau said the choose-your-own-adventure nature of VR — looking in different directions and interacting with different objects creates a fundamentally unique experience for each user — reminded him of the hours he spent playing “Dungeons & Dragons” as a kid.
“The simulation experience of VR is what’s compelling to me,” Favreau said. “You have to find a way to interact, not just looking.”
And the “room scale” capabilities of the HTC Vive headset “Gnomes” was built for — external sensors turn a physical room into a 3D canvas upon which the virtual world can be built — was also a big draw for him.
Jones, who won an Oscar for his work on “Avatar,” is the animation director on “Gnomes.” Rowell, the art lead for Activision Blizzard’s “Call of Duty: Ghosts” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” is the creative director.
Jones has worked on some of the biggest and most complex animated films of all time, but he said that’s nothing compared to animating in VR.
“In filmmaking, you have shots,” he said. “You know where people are looking. In VR, the perspective changes. It’s really a combination of animation and engineering.”