"I think 'seeing' is sort of what you get from a traditional documentary," This Is Climate Change co-director Danfung Dennis tells Devindra Hardawar. "What's different about VR is that you're experiencing it.
"The screen melts away, and you're in these worlds, you're in these environments. And you feel it in a very different way. Your body reacts to it as if you're actually there. And so it can leave a really indelible mark on your memory and psyche of... 'I remember being there,' instead of just, 'I watched a film.'" To read the full interview, click here.
A four-part virtual reality docuseries, This Is Climate Change offers an immersive look into a new reality of catastrophic weather events that are displacing communities and transforming landscapes with alarming speed. Using 3D, 360 stereoscopic video to take audiences into worlds of extreme contrast, co-directors Dennis and Eric Strauss captured images of severe environmental transformations, and turned them into moving viewer experiences.
Audiences experience four unique stories of cause and effect. In one experience, Melting Ice, Al Gore visits a diminishing ice sheet, where glaciers collapse and melting ice becomes rivers. Another experience, Fire, tracks last year's California blazes with firefighters' work seen in close up. Feast drops viewers into Brazil's rainforests where cattle ranches threaten the ecosystem, while Famine depicts once-fertile Somalian lands turned arid, marked by growing displacement camps.
"Climate change isn't a new problem, and certainly not a new documentary subject, but we think it may require a new medium to make this vital, headline-deficient topic powerfully real for audiences," explain Dennis and Strauss. "That was the impetus behind This Is Climate Change: to use the unprecedented sensorial richness of virtual reality to show the very tangible effects of rising temperatures on a wide variety of ecosystems.
"We hit upon the notion that with four short documentaries, we could suggest a pair of contrasting effects. If Melting Ice was calm and meditative as ice is lost all around you, it's natural contrast would be the raging blazes consuming an increasingly dry California and the breathless response of its intrepid firefighting teams. So, from Melting Ice, we were inspired to create Fire.
"Likewise, when we ventured into the lawless parts of Brazil's most severe rainforest destruction and witnessed felled trees being replaced by large-scale cattle operations that feed global demand, we again wanted to find a complementary subject. That necessitated a trip to drought-ravaged East Africa, where so many families have no choice but to squeeze into overcrowded refugee camps just to sustain themselves. Feast, meet Famine.
"The interconnectedness of impact—the sheer breadth of climate change's assault on those most vulnerable everywhere—is what we hope audiences take away from these VR experiences. We believe these kinds of comparisons and juxtapositions make for a much more holistic, compassionate, and motivating view of climate change, especially when seen on a planetary scale and viewed through the immersive intensity of VR.
"One of the greatest strengths of VR is that it can cultivate an awareness of oneself, and we hope This Is Climate Change shakes viewers from indifference towards this subject by giving them something more immediate than just 2D information. The immersive, 'you-are-there' effect of this groundbreaking medium is a powerful tool that brings us all closer to this ongoing tragedy.
"With this series, we want to provide an experience that hits home about how the climate has, in effect, already changed, but that the possibility for us to change is what's needed—now."
Shooting a VR film from any location is a developing form of production, but This Is Climate Change posed additional challenges—from the cold, slippery, landscape-shifting terrain of Greenland and the chaotic atmosphere of firefighting to the intimacy required of capturing life and death in inhospitable environments.
Melting Ice was filmed on stationary tripods using Dennis's own self-designed Condition One proprietary rig that combines an array of more than a dozen cameras, each shooting at different angles. Unlike conventional framing, VR directors must think with circular, 360-degree vision and in terms of where the viewing eye might roam in open space. That's difficult enough on stable ground—but on fluctuating ice, the filmmakers had to think fast.
"It was a learning process to react to such an unstable landscape," Dennis notes. "This world's transforming from moment to moment. When you're in the ice fields, you learn that the path you took in can quickly be closed behind you!"
"A big part of the process in VR is choosing where to place the camera by imagining the viewer in that exact position. For Melting Ice, I felt the position had to be as close to the action as we could risk it. I was always pushing to get closer. At Russell Glacier, where we captured these spectacular ice calving events, we even placed the camera underneath the ice. This required precise timing: we'd place the camera fast as we could and then try to run out of there before any ice fell."
After Melting Ice, the filmmaking team decided for the subsequent three experiences—based on the dynamic quality of the stories they sought—that they should be more mobile. To that end, Dennis's company Condition One developed technology that reduced the weight of their customized camera to just a few pounds so it could be mounted on a handheld gimbal.
"This ability to film handheld, yet still get very stable shots, opened up a lot more possibility to get closer to the action and move with the story," says Dennis. "We could move with the events unfolding in front of us. It's something we take for granted in 2D movies, all sorts of Steadicam, crane and tracking shots, but we're just beginning to crack that open in VR."
Strauss says the learning curve for him in working with VR for the first time was about training his brain to think differently in terms of how each film's story would be most effective for the viewer.
"Traditional storytelling is informational and observational," says Strauss. "And VR is much more experiential, that's when it works best. So how do you walk the line between delivering an audience the information they need to hook into a narrative, but getting out of the way enough that they can live in these shots and these experiences?"
Strauss uses Feast as an example, citing its steady progression of environment-rich situations—the forest, the logging, the cattle ranches, and lastly, a cow entering a slaughtering—as a VR-intensive way of understanding the consequences of beef demand. He adds, "Very quickly, I feel like the audience gets what's happening, that you're on this march forward toward the end result of this supply chain."
For Dennis, there is a unique mindset to directing VR films—where the director serves as a kind of creative tour guide. "There is an art to directing VR," he says. "Even though the viewer has the freedom to look anywhere, you realize as a director you have a distinct ability to subtly guide them, using sound, framing and editing. We use the traditional storytelling tools, but in very different ways."
"There is a learning curve and adjustment process that's necessary to evaluate VR works-in-progress since you can't view dailies or easily see various cuts," the project's executive producer Elise Pearlstein admits. "Because each rig has multiple cameras, and the crew had multiple rigs, the amount of footage coming in ensured that postproduction would be rigorous task. "
"The number of streams of video coming in is immense—a lot of drive, a lot of storage, and a lot of data management," recalls Dennis. "It becomes the dragon you have to slay in postproduction."
Dennis continues: "We're really proud of our stitching technology, and Condition One's proprietary workflow, that creates these high-quality videos. And with everything in stereoscopic 3D, which makes post ten times harder, but you can really feel you're in these spaces, that people are there with you.
"VR is such a spatial medium, and you can only do that if you're shooting in stereoscopic, which really gets it to pop. You encode the experience as a memory, so it lingers, stays with you. And that's what we're able to gain through some of these special technologies we've developed."
The visual experience of This Is Climate Change is matched by the series' soundscape. Sound design is always a major component of VR storytelling, and in keeping with the multiple camera approach to the visuals, sound is recorded with an array of ambisonic microphones that are later integrated into binaural tracks that simulate how sound resonates in real space.
"Hearing is our overriding sensory input in new environments," Dennis explains. "Our ears extend our vision and help subconsciously guide us to the most important places to look. In a VR film, if the audio is done well and is very spatialized, your mind starts to believe it. That's part of how you create 'presence.'"
"This technology, to be able to bring you there, to be able to put you in these spaces, as if you opened your front door, it changes the nature of how close and devastating these impacts are," says Dennis. "Traditional storytelling is important, but we need new innovative approaches. We need these new abilities to distill the complexity of climate change into experiences that stay with you, and hopefully change you so that you make your own impact in life."
Strauss agrees, emphasizing that the goal for This Is Climate Change was to take the reality of the problem away from an abstract, in-the-future concept and stress what's already happening globally: "The mission wasn't to worry about the things that might happen," says Strauss, "but to really experience the things that are happening today as a cause-and-effect of what we're doing to the planet—to truly feel it in 360 degrees."