When we think about virtual reality, the most obvious use case is gaming. But what about film? What if instead of watching documentaries on a screen, we could don a headset that takes us to the bottom of the ocean or into a different culture? Spoiler alert: This will all be possible soon.
Atlantic Productions, a U.K.-based TV production company, recently launched Alchemy VR, a branch of its business dedicated to producing virtual reality material for Sony’s Project Morpheus and Facebook’s Oculus VR. In doing so, the Emmy and BAFTA-award winning Atlantic hopes to break ground in virtual reality.
To achieve this, it has roped in the help of its Emmy-winning visual effects and animation studio ZOO, and teamed up with renowned natural history filmmaker Sir David Attenborough, the man (and, perhaps most recognizably for many viewers, the voice) behind such nature documentary masterpieces as Frozen Planet and Planet Earth.
The first of Alchemy’s projects—set to debut later this year—will plunge users into the depths of the Cambrian ocean, circa 550 million years ago. In doing so it will trace key moment of early life on planet Earth— narrated by Sir Attenborough, naturally.
"Virtual reality is the next great technological advance," says Sir Attenborough. "You don’t have a television set there at all, you actually really are there—inside a rainforest, diving in the ocean or exploring a pyramid, wherever you want to go."
But can VR really change the face of documentary film as we know it, or is this a novelty like IMAX?
"At Atlantic we’ve been aware of the possibilities of virtual reality for about 15 years," says Anthony Geffen, CEO of Atlantic and Alchemy VR. In the late 1990s, Geffen worked alongside VR pioneer Michael Deering at Sun Microsystems to build a prototype virtual reality experience.
"It was a virtual chariot ride," he says. "You would go round the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome, with five of you in real time. It blew us away!"
As exciting as the technology was, however, Geffen realized that there was a major hitch: What he had worked on had been a one-off, and there was absolutely no way to translate the experience to a mass audience. "We realized was that while it was on the way, there were still a whole lot of technical problems with bringing it to users," he continues. "It was only recently when we started finally seeing the potential for headgear that could provide seamless VR in the way we had envisioned."
Most readers will be well aware of the VR revolution that’s currently underway. In 2012, the Oculus Rift project arrived on Kickstarter. Its founder, Palmer Luckey, hoped to raise $250,000. Instead the pledges added up to almost ten times this—eventually coming in at $2.4 million. In March this year, Oculus VR was acquired by Facebook for a sum of $2 billion. Not long after, Sony revealed its own prototype VR headset—called Project Morpheus—at a session on the "future of innovation at Sony Computer Entertainment."
There has also been interest in VR from other companies, such as Samsung—and even Google’s intriguing Google Cardboard project.
While Alchemy is currently focused predominantly on Oculus and Project Morpheus its team is exploring all available avenues.
"What we’re doing at this stage is just to try everything," says Geffen. "The only consistent demand we have is that it needs to be at the high end. Like the early days of 3-D, it’s important that whatever we do blows people away. Our documentaries have been right at the top end of what’s possible in the medium, so we want to translate that same idea to VR."
One thing working in Alchemy’s favor when it comes to the speed that it’s able to jump on the VR bandwagon is the fact that, as Alchemy and ZOO studio head James Prosser points out, it’s not necessarily as big a departure as it may seem.
"With the kind of 3-D graphics we do on a regular basis we’re constantly building virtual worlds of sorts," he says.
For one previous series, the team used advanced laser scanning technology to render astonishing structures, such as the pyramids in Egypt and the ancient desert city of Petra in Jordan. Using this data they were able to create what is known as a "point cloud," made up of billions of measurements which would allow them to re-create the objects in a 3-D environment. Adding the VR component that lets a user explore these models for themselves, Prosser says, is just the next logical step in the process.
There are, of course, challenges in taking a medium like documentary which has played out on two-dimensional screens since its inception, and moving it into immersive three-dimensional VR. For example, while Alchemy’s current projects revolve around entirely artificial CGI worlds, how about the possibility of virtual reality versions of real-life filmed documentaries like the groundbreaking David Attenborough series Planet Earth and Frozen Planet? Re-creating an accurate version of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London may be one thing, but how about an environment like the Antarctic or the African plains?
While the technology is not quite there yet, Prosser is convinced it’s not far off. "That would require 360-degree filming," he says. "360 2-D cameras have been around for a number of years, and it’s absolutely achievable to film using that method and then to stitch the images together afterwards. The challenge everyone is trying to crack at the moment, however, is 360 degree 3-D material. We’ve seen some excellent systems prototyped, which suggest that this will be possible. They still have a few limitations in terms of how much you can move the camera around, but they’re moving forward at an incredible pace. The question is how you use it to tell the stories you want to."
This sums up the attitude of the Atlantic team, which focuses less on working within the boundaries of what is now considered possible, and more on working out what is needed to tell a particular story—and then reverse-engineering the technology to achieve it. The reason? Good stories remain good stories, while technology is constantly in transition.
"When we originally started shooting in 3-D we were told that pretty much everything was impossible," says Geffen. "Five years later we’re flying camera drones shooting 3-D in 4K resolution. If there’s a demand for something it will be pulled off eventually."
A bigger challenge is thinking about what a documentary will look like in a virtual reality world. Many of our preconceptions are firmly in the 2-D age, and re-imagining the medium is a bit like the conceptual leap that came with the advent of the graphical user interface. As with the birth of cinema, what is needed is a whole new cinematic language that will dictate what a documentary can look like in a world where the user is in an immersive 3-D experience.
"You see great examples of VR in action where it’s a person standing on the corner of a road in Tokyo," says Prosser. "That’s all well and good—but it won’t keep people around for long. Gaming is a bit different, but when it comes to edutainment we’ve really got to think hard to come up with stories that people will want to come back to."
"There are a lot of great demos out there, but where VR often falls down is extending that into a story," says Geffen. "We’re focused on that: creating great journeys, rather than just moments in time."
For their debut into virtual reality documentaries, Alchemy is sticking to an on-rails model that will guide the user through an environment, while giving them space to look around and interact with certain elements. (Imagine a safari truck being driven by a tour guide.)
"This on-rails approach allows us to produce the images that will match up to TV and film photo-real quality," says Geffen. "Don’t get me wrong, though: We’re also working to create experiences where you can go everywhere and anywhere. This medium is so new that we’re still working out the best way to make the technology as effective as it can be. This is something that will evolve over time."
Interestingly, both men say that 88-year-old David Attenborough was key in making them test the limits of virtual reality.
"David is very interested in technology," Geffen says. "When we’ve worked with him we’ve always pushed whatever medium we’re working in as far as we can—whether that’s time-lapse photography, macro photography, aerial photography, or now virtual reality."
One example of this, Geffen says, is what happened the first time Sir Attenborough imagined how he would record his narration for the project. "One of the first things he realized was that the traditional idea of television narration needed to evolve," he says. "When David put on the headset and started doing a trial recording, he pointed this out to us. As a result, the finished product will feature branching commentary depending on which routes you choose to explore."
The biggest question, of course, is what this all means for documentary in its present form. If virtual reality docs like Alchemy’s turn out to be successful, does this signal the end for the great wildlife documentaries we’ve seen on television and movie screens?
"For quite a long time I think that virtual reality and TV documentaries can happen in parallel," Geffen says. "VR gives a very different experience, and in some ways fills a completely different role for those who are using them. Over time, who knows? But I think that they’re going to exist as complementary things for the foreseeable future. Television still has a long way to go in its current iteration—with 3-D and 4K both coming into their own."
"There’s absolutely something about virtual reality, which makes it uniquely exciting."