Maureen Fan discusses how Crow: The Legend beautifully gives voice to a suppressed Native American origin story
In the stunning animated short film Crow: The Legend, John Legend lends his voice to nature’s celebrity songbird, Crow. He is colorful, majestic and adored by all. He’s also a little egotistical. When the first frost puts everyone’s lives in danger, Crow is the only creature who can safely journey far into the universe to ask The One Who Creates Everything By Thinking (Oprah Winfrey) for help. On this adventure, we learn how he is willing to sacrifice for his friends.
Baobab Studios teamed up with Native American Philanthropy to tell this enlightening and magical story of how the crow, as we know it, came to be. After watching this enchanting film, I had the pleasure of chatting with Maureen Fan, the Co-Founder and CEO of Baobab Studios. We discussed the importance of telling this story, how this diverse cast came together, and Fan described the imaginative VR adaptation of the film.
I just watched Crow: The Legend. It is so beautiful. Why did you want to tell this story and make a virtual reality version? What is the main message you want to convey?
In partnership with Made with Unity, we created both a 2-D and a VR version because we wanted to reach as many people as possible. It’s based on the Native American legend on how the crow became the crow you know today. But we learned from our two advisors, Sarah Eagle Heart [from Native American Philanthropy, executive producer on the film] and Randy Edmonds [a well-known public speaker on Native American culture] about how Native American youth were forced into re-education camps and taught they couldn’t tell stories like this because they were considered pagan.
Oh wow. That’s terrible.
Yeah. It was an effort to erase the Indian from them. They relied on oral tradition to share these stories and passed on from the elders. When the youth was told they couldn’t share these stories, they were worried there would be this break and no one would know their stories. It’s gotten to the point, many people don’t even believe that Native Americans exist today because they’re not in the media and their stories don’t get told. But this rich tradition of storytelling is vital to their culture. This is how they teach their children about why the world is the way it is.
Why is it that Crow doesn’t migrate south for the winter? It’s because he made this sacrifice for us. Why is the crow black? Because in Native American culture, you are related to the animals. Just as you are related to the sun and moon and earth and father sky. So learning that this story hasn’t been told and that stories like this have been suppressed, we wanted to make sure that we did a good job of sharing it with as many people as possible.
“Crow is the only creature who can safely journey far into the universe…”
Absolutely. How did you assemble this incredible cast? Did they hear about the project or did you reach out to them?
The reason they joined is that they were so excited about the theme. It was super important to John Legend. He wrote the original song and is executive producer. Oprah Winfrey, Constance Wu (Skunk), Diego Luna (Moth)…it was important to all of them that this is shared with as many people as possible. We are a tiny little indie studio, we don’t have the money to pay this amazing talent what they normally get.
Indigenous Worldview, which is Native American Worldview, is very different from Western Worldview. There are very few Indigenous Worldview stories out there. Western Worldview tends to focus on the individual and the individual’s journey, whereas Indigenous Worldview tends to be more about community, how you help others and more about sacrifice.
They thought these themes, especially the ones about diversity – which we added in ourself by bringing on a diverse cast. This cast in particular, are advocates of their own underrepresented communities. For example, Diego speaks Spanish in the piece, we wanted it to be authentic to who he is. He’s championing Latinx communities within the film. Oprah and John Legend spend their free time helping social causes.
For me personally, Constance was someone I always wanted to cast. When I watched Fresh Off the Boat for the first time, I found myself becoming emotional. It’s not until you see a character that looks like you in media and on-screen that you realize how powerful it is. As an Asian-American, it made me feel like we made it. We matter to America. So we hand-picked specifically who we wanted to be a part of it.
John Legend was a no-brainer because of his advocacy of social causes, and also it’s about a celebrity. Crow uses his celebrity and makes sacrifices for the greater good, which is what John does. He also has experience being an executive producer.
Oprah is The One Who Creates Everything By Thinking. She is a healing force for the world. When she started her talk show, she wanted to show people how normal people in the world can go through struggles and come out with something positive on the other end. Any person can make a difference in the world.
Oprah was Sarah Eagle Heart’s role model growing up. Her job is to evangelize and bring awareness to Native American plight and bring more philanthropic efforts to Native Americans because it is on the decline.
And now she had the chance to work with her role model. This film must be so special to her.
Yeah. For Sarah, seeing Crow as an animation supported by such amazing talent means so much to their community because no one does this. She said, “Nobody cares about us and creates media for us.” The fact that it’s in animation makes it not so heavy that it is hurtful to watch and not so serious either. The fact that there is humor in it makes it easier for people to watch. Also, that Oprah and John Legend cared enough to participate will hopefully help bring Native American issues and awareness to the mainstream. I believe people will care about her community.
We’re really excited to help spread the word. We also created a fellowship with Native American Philanthropy, Long House Media, and Vision Maker Media to help shine a light on indigenous youth storytelling programs. We just announced the first winner. Her name is Raven Two Feathers – an amazing name – and she is doing an internship where she learns the art of storytelling at Baobab Studio.
“…Oprah and John Legend cared enough to participate will hopefully help bring Native American issues and awareness to the mainstream.”
Speaking of the art of storytelling. I was only able to watch the YouTube version of the film. What is the virtual reality version like?
It depends if you define VR as 360 degrees or interactive. You can click around or move your phone around and see the film in 360. Or you can use the interactive version which is available on Oculus right now.
On Oculus you play the spirit of the season. You turn the earth into Spring. You make the flowers and grass grow around you. You bring about winter too. You are the impetus for Crow needing to go on his journey. You realize at the end that change is necessary. In the beginning, it was a perpetual Eden. By bringing about change you are helping the characters develop and figure out who they are, including the things they are insecure about. For example, Skunk’s smell.
You also help Crow along with his journey to reach The One Who Creates Everything By Thinking. In the VR version, you are directing Crow and literally giving him the wind beneath his wings by creating music when you move your arms around. Depending on the motions you use, these magical whisps come out of your hands, and they paint a different planet or touch different stars, which then activate different notes and instruments, like the trumpets and percussion. So every person going through it has a different soundtrack based on how they interact with the piece. We wanted people to feel like they’re a conductor.
That is so cool! Obviously, it takes a lot of people to work on something like this. Can you describe what the whole process is like?
We have a small team of about 15 people. We’re indie, so we work super hard and hire the best. We worked with Made with Unity and created the VR and 2-D at the same time. We did a lot of experimentation with every single piece. You want to make sure there is a part that we super experiment with. Immersive entertainment is so new, that we had to make sure we were learning and pushing the medium as far as we could.
[For Crow] we wanted to capture – What if interacting with the story felt like a snowglobe? Where it’s delightful. We tested out so many different models of interactivity and wanted people to feel like a conductor. We found a solution to make people want to move their arms in a wave-like fashion. Accomplishing this comes by hiring talent in our company from both the film side and the game side. It is a merging of two disciplines.
“…we had to make sure we were learning and pushing the medium as far as we could.”
It sounds like VR and immersive entertainment can really change the way audiences respond to films. What inspired you to explore this medium?
Embodying a character, makes it feels more real. That’s what Oprah was excited about. In VR, you get to experience things. It’s not just showing it and watching passively.
For me personally, I love animation because when I watch it, I get taken back to that five-year-old sense of self when I thought I could do anything. I believe that people have so much more potential within them when they realize they can just access that five-year-old within them. They dare to dream and then go after their dreams. If people were more daring and believed in themselves more, what more could we accomplish as a society? Those are just several of the reasons why we love animation and immersive entertainment.
For sure! Now that you’ve gotten us all excited about being a part of Crow’s journey, how can people access this film?
It is available at the Oculus Store, Go, and Rift. Along with Samsung and other virtual reality platforms.
You can also watch the 360 version on Facebook 360 or YouTube 360.
Of course, as you saw, it is available in 2-D on Facebook and YouTube.
I learned a lot from our conversation, and we went into more detail about the future of immersive entertainment. Fan even invited me to check out their studios to get the full VR experience, which I am very excited to do. Baobab Studios aims to send a very hopeful and compassionate message through their work. I am blown away by all the possibilities and experiences VR can provide.
Stay tuned for more scoop on Baobab Studios’ ventures and my personal immersive entertainment experience.
Crow: The Legend (2018). Written and directed by Eric Darnell. Starring John Legend, Oprah Winfrey, Constance Wu, Diego Luna, Tye Sheridan, Liza Koshy, Sarah Eagle Heart, Randy Edmonds.