Jon Favreau on Gnomes & Goblins and Virtual Reality

In the Woody Allen comedy “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a character in a film steps off the movie screen and becomes a part of real life, changing his fate. Now, with virtual reality tools, the film director Jon Favreau wants to give viewers the opposite experience, taking them inside the movie and having their actions dictate what comes next.

“Gnomes & Goblins” is Mr. Favreau’s experiment with virtual reality, or VR. Hovering somewhere between a movie and a game, the preview version of the project makes you the protagonist and sets you in the middle of an enchanted forest, where you can build a relationship with a timid, tiny goblin living there. How you choose to interact with him determines where the story goes.

The environment has the tactile nature of the jungle in Disney’s new version of “The Jungle Book,” which Mr. Favreau directed. But in this project, it’s as if instead of watching Mowgli, you are Mowgli, free to wander and explore at your own pace.

The preview will be available free starting on Sept. 8 on the Steam, Viveport and Wevr Transport entertainment platforms, initially for the HTC Vive VR headset, which comes with a hand controller so you can (virtually) pick up objects, like fruit on a tree. (It will be available on Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR later in the year.)

For some time, filmmakers have been working with VR companies to make extras for their movies. “Interstellar,” “Wild” and “The Jungle Book” all offered such material. But “Gnomes & Goblins” is meant to be a stand-alone entertainment with future updates that will reveal more of the story and more adventures.

Mr. Favreau developed the project with a team that included Jake Rowell, who directed a VR project called “TheBlu,” which put viewers undersea on a shipwreck. A whale swims up to the ship and viewers get a face-to-face encounter.

Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, Mr. Favreau discussed his intense reaction to that project, why the Turing test is a factor in VR, and how he had to become used to the idea that viewers have more control with VR than with a traditional film. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What made you interested in this VR project?

When we were in postproduction on “The Jungle Book,” Andy Jones, my head of animation, was going to bring people from the crew over to Wevr [the company producing the project along with Reality One] to show them the new Vive. I tagged along. They walked me through “TheBlu,” and it was overwhelming. The scale of the whale and being at the bottom of the ocean felt very powerful. I felt presence for the first time in VR.

What did you want to focus on, based on what you experienced?

For me, I liked the sense of immersion and the idea of doing something somewhere between a game and a movie. It felt closest to lucid dreaming.

What was it like as a film director to work on a project where you have less control over the narrative outcome?

You’re still directing, but a whole new language has to be developed to help maneuver the focus of viewers to see what you want them to see while giving them the ability to make their own decisions. You can send clues.

How did you determine the kind of world?

What was in my mind was something that felt like fantasy, with a scale you didn’t feel overwhelmed by. Because you’re large in this world, you felt a certain sense of security. And we wanted there to be enough detail to make it inviting and make you want to continue to search and discover things.

What was the biggest challenge?

We put most of our horsepower into making the little goblin react to you depending on the way you were acting toward him. It’s not a checklist of what you have to accomplish, but the way you approach him, how close you are. We talked about the Turing test [developed by the scientist Alan Turing to evaluate a machine’s ability to behave in human ways] and how do you create the illusion that you’re actually dealing with something that’s alive and organic.

We don’t meet the gnomes in this preview, but I expect we will in the future. Where do you see the project headed?

This preview is to give people a taste of what the world would feel like. You have a society of these goblins and through your relationship with them, you’re able to accomplish certain goals. And then, on the other side of the hill, there are the gnomes with their own society you can explore. The world will extend out like layers of an onion. A narrative will emerge as you accomplish more. So part of this is testing where that point is where you want to have enough story and plot to make it interesting.

What has been your biggest takeaway from working on a project like this?

Storytelling is a common through line to a lot of hats that I wear. There are lessons you could take from one medium to the next. I’m interested in technology, but the kind that fades to the background as the experience becomes more emotional and immersive. Part of the challenge of “Jungle Book” was to make the technology disappear. With this new technology, it’s very attractive to look at all of the bells and whistles, but the idea of creating something that feels organic is the challenge I find the most interesting. I want to find the humanity in the technology.

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