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Pushing VR’s Boundaries to Save a Threatened Planet

By Kelly Turner

For Conservation International, an environmental nonprofit with a presence in more than 30 countries, the phrase “show, don’t tell” is more than just good storytelling advice: It’s a manifesto for creating change.

Take the oceans, for example. You’ve likely read news stories about massive trash islands bobbing at the water’s surface or once-pristine beaches now littered with toothbrushes, straws, and bottles. Still, for many of us, especially those living far from the water’s edge, truly grasping what that means for ocean life—and ourselves—can be a challenge.

The new VR film Drop in the Ocean lets viewers get up close to marine life—and the plastic that threatens it.

But what if you could be transported right into the thick of it to see for yourself? Even better, what if you could bring friends?

It’s a question that Conservation International is looking to answer with Drop in the Ocean, a new “social” virtual-reality (VR) experience that places you and three companions in the middle of an ecological disaster in the making. The immersive film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is the group’s latest effort to push the boundaries of visual storytelling, in hopes of reaching new audiences and fostering a deeper empathy with today’s pressing environmental issues.

A SHARED EXPERIENCE

Based on the stunning microphotography work of Peter Parks and narrated by real-life explorers Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau, Drop in the Ocean tells the story of life under the waves, from the perspective of its smallest inhabitants.

Put on your VR headset, and you find yourself in a 360-degree world teeming with turtles, jellyfish, plankton, and more—all larger than life now that you’ve been shrunken down to a mere 2 inches. There’s beauty, but there’s also trash. Lots of trash. It floats on the surface above, blocking out precious light, and dances in the water around you, endangering hungry turtles and other life.

To create the sea creatures in the Drop in the Ocean, Vision3 animated photos taken by Academy Award–winning photographer Peter Parks.

The film, which was created by London-based Vision3, is designed to be an immersive—and social—experience. Unlike with traditional VR, you’re not alone in Drop in the Ocean. Instead, the film is a group experience for four participants at a time. Body-tracking technology lets you see not only your own figure within the VR headset, but also avatars of your three companions. When a small creature lands on your neighbor’s arm, you can watch as they instinctively move to brush it away.

Drop in the Ocean is a social VR experience.

Melina Formisano, vice president of marketing at Conservation International, says the social element of the film is a response to criticism that VR, while deeply engaging, can also feel isolating. Alone in your headset, you’re often an invisible bystander to the action around you.

“The response was amazing,” she says of film’s the Tribeca debut. “People were taking off their headsets and immediately wanting to talk with each other about what they saw together. It was sparking conversations. People came out saying, ‘What can I do?’”

That’s music to the ears of Formisano and her team. In many ways, the technology is intended to function as a stealth campaign for Conservation International’s larger mission. “I think VR puts us ahead of the game in reaching audiences we maybe wouldn’t reach in other ways: people who don’t think they’re interested in conservation work but are interested in being on the cutting edge of this new technology. They come to us for that reason, but they leave converted and wanting to do something about it.”

The film’s VR technology makes it possible to see not only yourself, but also avatars of the other participants as you move freely through the theater space interacting with the film.

In particular, she says, VR is a way to get in front of younger audiences. For this group, the goal isn’t about getting them to donate, but about education. “We want to bring them along and teach them about the issue—especially with young audiences increasingly rising up to encourage the rest of us to take action against climate change.”

Unfortunately, the cutting-edge nature of the technology also means new audiences will have to wait until the show—and its custom-built theater—comes to a town near them. Following its festival run in New York, Drop in the Ocean plays at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco through July 14, 2019.

ON THE FRONTLINE OF STORYTELLING

While Drop in the Ocean is Conservation International’s latest—and most technically ambitious—foray into VR, it’s by no means its first.

Over the years, the organization’s media team has built a catalog of innovative films highlighting conservation work around the world. The lineup includes traditional documentaries as well as the popular Nature Is Speaking series, which features the voice talents of celebrities like Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts, as the earth’s beleaguered natural elements, and the tag line “Nature doesn’t need people; people need nature.” First launched in 2014, the series has since been translated into ten languages and has received more than 100 million views.

Watch Nature Is Speaking on YouTube. The series features famous actors in the roles of threatened natural elements. 

“We are an organization with a social mission, so storytelling is essential to what we do,” says Formisano. “It’s really important for us the be able to find ways to reach the audiences we need to reach, to get them to care, and to be able to pull those important conservation stories from the field and bring them forward.”

Beyond the world of clicks and fundraising, the films play a vital role in the organization’s efforts to educate business leaders about sustainable practices and lobby local governments to create protected areas or to invest in the management of existing protected areas. Conservation International works not only on issues of global warming, but also takes on problems such as overfishing, sustainable land management, and pollution.

To make sure those messages don’t get lost in the daily deluge of social media and video content, Formisano’s team is always looking for new ways to get their stories told. Increasingly, that has meant experimenting with 360-degree VR.

Long considered a novelty, dedicated VR headsets have made significant strides in recent years, and are finally gaining traction in the consumer market. Sony, for example, recently announced that it had sold more than 4.2 million of its PlayStationVR headsets as of March, and sales across the market are expect to grow significantly in the next year.

For Conservation International, the immersive nature of VR makes it a powerful tool to connect audiences with distant locations and people they will most likely never see in person. And that connection, says Formisano, is the key to creating empathy.

“In general, the best way to inspire someone, whether that’s a policy maker or business leader, would be to bring them to the actual site of the conservation. But we obviously can’t do that for everyone. VR, in our opinion, really helps to change that, even more so than a photograph or traditional video. People feel like they are there, but without the cost and time of travel. And once they see it, they want to save it.”

In the VR documentary My Africa, Academy Award–winning actress Lupita Nyong’o narrates the story of how a small Kenyan community comes together to create a refuge for injured and orphaned animals.

In 2016, Conservation International began releasing a series of VR films that follow indigenous people working on the frontline of conservation efforts. Each of the films, which can be viewed through a VR headset or as a rotating video within a browser window, showcase the natural beauty of the land—whether it’s the lush Amazonian rainforest, an elephant sanctuary in Kenya, or the kaleidoscope of the coral reefs off the coast of New Guinea—as well as the voices and stories of the people who live there and who have dedicated themselves to reversing the ecological disasters threatening their way of life.

Largely optimistic in tone, the films focus on hyperlocal success stories of small communities who have worked to reverse the damage they see around them.

“I think we are drawn to telling these local stories because you always want your stories to have a compelling character that you can relate to, even if they are across the world or very different circumstances,” says Formisano. “I think when you feel some kind of connection, it compels you to pay attention.”

PRODUCTION CHALLENGES

Working with new video technology inevitably means dealing with new a new set of production challenges, and VR is no different.

Because the VR camera is capturing footage from all directions, each shot requires far more planning. Film crews have to set up the shot in the middle of the action and then hide out of sight so they aren’t caught on film—anything left in the shot will have to be painted out in postproduction. Getting out of sight can be particularly challenging in the middle of the savannah where hiding spots are few and far between.

And then there’s the unpredictable nature of working with wild animals. At one point during the filming of My Africa, about a community-run animal refuge, a pride of lionesses made off with the VR camera, leading to a feverish chase in safari jeeps and excellent footage of the inside of a lion’s mouth.

For John Martin, director of production at Conservation International, the ambitious nature of their VR shoots—which can sometimes involve tracking shots over long distances—can also mean significantly more work in postproduction.

“In conventional VR, you just set the camera on a stand and walk away,” says Martin. “Then all you have to do is paint out the stand because there’s no other movement. But when you want to move the camera across the forest, or you put it on a drone to get aerials of the massive expense of the rainforest canopy, there’s a lot more involved in the postproduction to do all the stitching and making pixels match and paint things out.”

For that work, the production team relies on Adobe Premiere Pro. “It’s become such a powerful tool for editors and creators in the VR space, especially with the ability to wear VR headsets while you work so you can really see in 360 what’s happening,” says Martin. “We really couldn’t do our jobs without it. Adobe’s been very generous with their support over the years.”

KEEPING IT REAL

But regardless of the technology used, Martin emphasizes that the basics of good filmmaking remain the same: Tell a compelling story.

Although the immersive nature of VR can make an exotic landscape around you feel like its own character, Martin believes it’s important to always give the story a human face to connect with.

Working with Conservation International, villagers in West Papua have been able to reduce poaching and overfishing by 90 percent, helping restore some of the reef’s vanishing fish populations.

He says, “It’s one thing to be in the middle of the rainforest in the Amazon and see its beauty and magic, or in the waters of the coral reef and be surrounded my manta rays—that’s very cool. But when you connect with those people who are thriving off the ecosystem and depending on it, it compels you even more to know their story. Having that person walking next to you on that journey and learning from their personal story creates that emotional empathy with the viewer that is so important. Then when you take off that headset you want to share it or protect it or donate to it.”

Martin adds that he’s seen people remove their VR headsets halfway through a film in tears. “Those are those moments when you know you have really touched your audience. And hopefully opened their hearts to what we are trying to achieve with our mission.”

The second rule he tries to follow is to make sure the story being told is authentic. In the world of conversation, he says, it can be tempting to sensationalize the story issue to try to shock the viewer into an emotional response. But he believes it’s important to not fake anything.

“I think, especially when you are dealing with our natural world, you want to tell the story in its truest purest form,” Martin says. “If you tell a really good story and the visuals are really powerful, you’ll always be successful.”