Jon Favreau On His Groundbreaking VR Narrative Project ‘Gnomes & Goblins’

by Ian Hamilton • September 1st, 2016
We interviewed the director of "Iron Man" and "The Jungle Book" as he dives deep into the new virtual world he created in partnership with Wevr and Reality One.

The forest is a bit dark and I know I’m not alone. I get the sense there’s nothing to be scared of though. I’m tall and whatever creatures inhabit these woods have cozy little homes in the trees. I don’t want to spoil too much about Jon Favreau’s Gnomes & Goblins, but that feeling of safety I experienced near the beginning of my time visiting the world is by design. In fact, if I put my 5-year-old kid in the HTC Vive headset, the world will resize to fit her stature. She will still be big in a forest of little creatures.

“Nothin’ is going to come out and try to eat ya,” Favreau answers when I ask him what I should tell my kids about Gnomes & Goblins. “Don’t worry, nothing scary is gonna happen.”

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To my eyes, the Gnomes & Goblins Preview, which is just a small sliver of Favreau’s vision, is the successor to Henry from Oculus Story Studio. Henry premiered last year and released with the Oculus Rift this year as a sweet little story that ever so slightly acknowledges your existence as a visitor to the world. The moment comes when its titular character makes eye contact with you. In fact, Oculus launched its Story Studio to explore that sort of thing — just how much agency do designers give to someone who feels like they are actually in a virtual world? In Henry, I can do little more than make eye contact with a character. In Gnomes and Goblins, I get the sense my actions will affect those creatures of the forest. If I really wanted to, I feel like I could be the scary one in this world Favreau created with Wevr and Reality One.

Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying VR is dangerous because “it gives the viewer a lot of latitude not to take direction from the storytellers.” I don’t know if this is what Spielberg meant, but it’s what Favreau’s project makes me wonder about; Is the danger inherent to creating VR experiences that you might bring out someone’s worst behavior rather than their best?

“Part of what is unique about VR is the idea that you can connect with the character and what you do should affect and impact things because you exist in that world,” Favreau said. “You’re not just a voyeur and it’s incredibly challenging to make a creature that will react to anything you do in an organic and believable way.”

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Note: Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. The controls only make use of the Vive’s triggers to grab things in the room-scale virtual environment. When a wide-eyed goblin appears through the grass my whole purpose in this world changes. The thing is a bit skittish when I move toward it and the goblin disappears back into the forest. On some level I recognize it as more intelligent than the robot dog in Valve’s The Lab. That dog will roll over so you can pet it, which is cute. This creature, however, walks on two legs and watches me curiously — returning after a time to investigate me again. It’s not exactly willing to endanger itself though. Does it want something? I grab what looks to be an acorn off the ground and toss it to the goblin’s feet. It picks the acorn up and disappears into one of the trees. I’m so happy I could help.

“Don’t be afraid to explore and look and try different things and look everywhere,” Favreau said. “Even if you do it through once, do it again. There’s even a nighttime build and a daytime build where you can see things differently.”

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In the interest of not spoiling the experience more than I already have, I’ll transition to an edited Q&A for the remainder of this post. The Gnomes & Goblins Preview launches Sept. 8 on Steam, Viveport and Wevr Transport for free. Full credits are at the bottom of the post.

Upload: How did the project start?

Favreau: A lot of VR is very overwhelming for me, I get kinda scared, I’m not a roller coaster guy. When I saw theBlu I was really impressed by it but it took me two times to get through it because I was a little overwhelmed. And then after I saw that, Andy Jones brought me over [to Wevr] because he was working with me on Jungle Book and showing some of the Mocap people the new Vive. That night I was full of ideas and they were about what would I want and I would want something that felt more like lucid dreaming. We have a certain degree of agency, we have interactivity, we have emotional connections — but a world you didn’t want to leave.”

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Upload: For someone that’s on the cutting edge of filmmaking, how challenging is this comparatively?

Favreau: It’s a whole different instrument. Thankfully I have a great group to see me through it and Andy Jones was sort of a focal point because he did my animation for Jungle Book, we knew each other’s tastes and he’d worked on theBlu and he’d worked with Wevr before … Just like when you’re working with animation, that is a slow process and here it’s even slower.

Upload: Do you ever see yourself as a director spending the majority of your time in this medium?

Favreau:  I don’t know. Right now what’s so fun about it is that it is so new, there’s a small but avid audience. It was compelling to see what this medium has to offer in room size and a certain scale where you can move around and interact. I think as the audience grows and we learn more as each designer, director, film maker, storyteller adds to that puzzle, you can get to something that’s even more fun. It’s a whole different thing. It’s like playing Dungeons and Dragons, it’s like being a dungeon master where you’re building out a world and adventure for people to explore, whereas a movie is a much more narrated, curated, mythic journey and I love that too. But for this, this is like a big puzzle…All we did was something we thought we liked. I think this technology, it’s not going anywhere — it’s only getting better. So to be part of it is exciting. Its a whole different set of muscles…But, I do know that this has been a wonderful experience and sharing with people and having them see it and like it, that’s what we’re in it for. That’s the fun of being a storyteller. You get to affect people and see their reactions then adjust your strategy accordingly.

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Upload: How big is your vision for Gnomes & Goblins?

Favreau: It’s not necessarily a narrative movie where you just watch it through. It’s more like a game in many ways. The vision can expand to fit the size of the vessel. There’s a whole set of magical attributes you can accumulate, but everything has to be through the relationship with the goblins. To me that is what’s unique about this. Its through understanding that culture and creating an emotional connection … It’s not a puzzle-based game world, but there might be challenges to help bring the relationship with the goblin society to a new level. The big thing is to have the world change each time you do it so you don’t feel like you see it and then it pops back to where it began again. We want a customizable world that grows and changes in a way that Animal Crossing would or Minecraft would.

Upload: Was there any decision making process on deciding room-scale for this project?

Favreau: I would rather have a smaller audience, but an audience that is experiencing the cutting edge of this technology because I think that is going to expand out … a lot of times you try to reach the biggest audience and in this case we are trying to explore the limits of this technology and that involves the feeling of presence, that involves having hands and being able to interact/pick things up. And can you do that without feeling you need to be a gamer? Can you just throw someone in that’s never done it, tell them you can use the triggers to pick things up in the menu screen then take it from there?

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one-sheet-gnomes

Gnomes & Goblins Credits

Created by Jon Favreau
Creative Director ­ Jake Rowell
Animation Director ­ Andrew R. Jones
Executive Producer ­ Neville Spiteri
Executive Producer ­ Clint Kisker
Senior Producer ­ Max Geiger
Producer ­ Gigi Pritzker
Lead Designer ­ John Bernhelm
Lead Artist ­ Nghia Lam
Lead AI Engineer ­ Chris Christensen
Lead Animator ­ Mauricio Hoffman
Senior Engineer ­ Jeff Lander
Visual Engineer/Animator ­ Julian Kantor
Senior Designer ­ Scott Stephan
Senior Artist ­ Gennady Babichenko
Senior Artist ­ Eric Foos
Senior Artist ­ Bayard Baudoin
Senior Animator ­ Ana Maria Alvarado
Senior Animator ­ John Kim
Character TD ­ Carlo Sansonetti
Character TD ­ Alec Fredericks
Sound Designer ­ Brad Fotsch
Engineering Support ­ Eyal Erez
Production Support ­ Richard Robledo

Special Thanks:
Scott Yara, Anthony Batt, Doug Church

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  • DougP

    Really exciting that this is room-scale & supports motion control input.
    Seeing the most immersive VR can be, for these initial “interactive movie” type experiences will increase interest & adoption.

    Passive 360-degree seating+watching experiences won’t generate the interest/enthusiasm we need to get more studios/content creators on board with VR.

  • silky85

    When is the full version being released? Experienced the free demo and felt like I needed to do more…I’m curious……looks to be a great children’s game…something vr needs..

  • Allan

    Will this work on Oculus?