World Builder

Maureen Fan may have sneaked into the animated film game using VR—but with her studio’s stories, she intends to conquer a whole lot more.

March 18, 2024

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Cartoon of two aliens by a spaceship

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Baobab Studios landed in the world of VR with “Invasion!” Image: Baobab Studios

Maureen Fan used to spend a lot of time clicking refresh buttons. In 2012, she managed the FarmVille gaming franchise, leading the 120 artists and engineers behind a top game on Facebook, with 8.4 million daily active users. She refreshed the game on her phone and computer incessantly, hoping to catch any issues before users did. If a server went down or a glitch appeared at 3 a.m., her phone would ping, and she’d bolt awake to fix the problem.

She rose through the ranks of FarmVille’s parent company, Zynga, eventually serving as VP of games, responsible for $200 million in revenue. Then, at the top of her game, she saw the chance to shoot for her dream. So she quit.

Fan, ’02, has loved animation since she was a kid. She describes herself as unpopular and insecure as a child, and says she was happiest when she was absorbed in movies and video games, like The Little Mermaid and Final Fantasy. “To be able to live in a world where those fantastical, magical things can actually happen is every child’s dream,” she says, “and is still my dream as an adult.” Fan co-founded Baobab Studios in 2015, on the cusp of an anticipated virtual reality boom. The company began, strategically, as an interactive animation studio, churning out some of the best VR short films in the industry. Those films featured Oprah Winfrey and John Legend in the voice casts, among others, and earned the studio a pile of Emmys. Still, most people don’t recognize the name, and most have yet to buy VR equipment. But Fan, Baobabs CEO, is just fine with that—she never intended to keep the studio trapped in goggles. “That was always my Trojan horse,” she says.

Few people are sure how to pronounce Baobab when they first say it. “I loved it first because it’s in The Little Prince,” Fan says, referring to the trees in the French novella. “I thought it was ‘Bau-bob.’ Eric, my co-founder, says ‘BAY-oh-bab.’ So, it’s whatever you want.”

The impulse to give the company a name steeped in story was shared by Fan’s co-founders: Eric Darnell, co-writer and co-director of the Madagascar films, and Larry Cutler, ’94, MS ’96, the former global head of character development at DreamWorks Animation. The true value of Baobab, they agreed, would be in the narratives they created—the intellectual property—with the studio guided by a pure and techless principle: Storytelling comes first. “We don’t just build technology for technology’s sake,” says Cutler. “The technology and the art are there to service the story.” If they could get people to fall in love with plots and characters, they could tell stories on any platform.

Cartoon of a crow and a squirrelLEGEND HAS IT: John Legend plays the title character in Crow: The Legend. (Image: Baobab Studios) 

They didn’t make it easy on themselves. Their first adventure in storytelling would be through virtual reality. Fan’s intuition to start there stemmed from more than her experience in gaming. Always with an eye toward animation, she had earned an MBA at Harvard (“Everything is a business at the end of the day,” she says) and interned at Pixar Animation Studios. She knew that no indie animation studio could compete with the established giants unless it had an advantage. When VR goggles were thrust into the public consciousness in 2014, the entertainment industry scrambled to determine how the new technology could work in film. For a brief moment, experts at every major studio were reduced to novices, giving Baobab the chance to produce VR content as well as or better than anyone else. Once established, they’d be positioned to burst into other mediums—traditional 2D animation, gaming, books—wherever audiences wanted them.

Baobab’s first short film, Invasion!, was written by Darnell, narrated by Ethan Hawke, and based loosely on War of the Worlds, but with bumbling aliens matching wits with a small, friendly bunny. Fan assembled a brigade that broke the narrow mold of what it meant to be an indie animation studio. Baobab crew members are a sort of blended family—half from film, half from gaming. “I’ve never seen that sort of combination. It’s a true hybrid,” says Kane Lee, ’00, MA ’01, Baobab’s head of content.

‘We weren’t creating a game, we weren’t creating a film—we were creating an interactive narrative.’

When it came to creating the film’s 360-degree interactive world, Cutler, Baobab’s chief technical officer, had to reinvent the art of moviemaking. “All of our intuitions were just way off,” he says. In VR, users had the freedom to look anywhere at any time. This eliminated the concept of a camera angle and, with it, many of the conventional filmmaking techniques they had planned to rely on. Rather than perfecting a single frame, the team needed to render every angle of a landscape in case users looked away from the action—much like in a video game. They also had to account for the interactivity between the viewer and the characters in the film. It, too, mirrored the responsive environment of a video game, where the player is not a passive observer but an active participant in the entertainment. “We weren’t creating a game, we weren’t creating a film—we were creating an interactive narrative,” says Cutler. To succeed in the new medium, they needed techniques from both industries. “It took a long time for us to get those teams to really understand each other.”

They tested Invasion! with more than 1,000 people and analyzed reactions to early versions of the tech and the story, problem-solving as they went. The film earned Baobab its first Emmy, for Outstanding Interactive.

Over the next several years, Baobab put out seven more short VR films and won nine more Emmys. “I think their list of awards says a lot about how the industry sees them,” says Robert Kondo, president and co-founder of Tonko House animation studio, who met Fan at Pixar. Kondo points to Baobab’s multiformat approach as one of the hallmarks that sets it apart. As the Baobab team developed VR films, they began adapting many of their projects to traditional 2D animation to reach more people. Invasion! and Crow: The Legend can be viewed on YouTube. Namoo, a narrative poem turned VR experience, can be streamed on Max. “Just to make a VR experience: tough. Just to make a short film: tough,” Kondo says. Succeeding at both is rare. Until recently, “only the biggest of the big studios, like Disney, have found ways to push their characters and worlds to different mediums.”

Portrait of Maureen FanPhoto: Baobab Studios

Baobab now has two 2D animated series in production for Disney+. The first, Intercats, is a workplace comedy about the cats who produce and star in viral cat videos (Baobab is publishing a graphic novel series in the same fictional universe with Macmillan). The second, The Witchverse, is based on Baobab’s VR short film Baba Yaga, a reimagined tale from Slavic folklore in which a girl confronts a forest witch to save her mother. Last year, Baobab launched a Roblox game, Momoguro, which quickly became a suite of games and is now in development as a TV series. And it’ll publish its first book, The Magic Paintbrush, with Penguin Random House in May. “I think calling it an animation studio is limiting,” says Kondo. Their early VR short films “aren’t just shorts. Those are franchises. Those are worlds.”

“Maureen doesn’t think small,” Darnell says, recalling his first meetings with her, in 2015. In those meetings, she explained her Trojan horse idea and laid out a plan to become the biggest and best animation studio, taking over the world. She’s made strides in the past year, gaining further influence in the industry with her induction to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

She laughs now when she talks about her original plan for animation domination. But she still feels that childlike desire to disappear into stories. “Really,” she says, revising her plan, “it’s ‘inspire the world to dream, bring out your sense of wonder, and make you matter.’” It’s the studio’s slogan, and probably a better fit for Baobab than world domination. Why take over the world when you can create your own?

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at

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