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Choose Your Own Adventure: Inside Google’s National Parks Project

“We realized choosing parks that would let us into hard-to-access locations and that were not very well-traveled was a good combination," says DP Adam Newport-Berra.

Aug. 25, 2016, marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service, which manages 417 sites in the United States covering more than 84 million acres. The bureau’s most prominent duty is maintaining the 59 designated national parks across the United States, in addition to scores of historical sites, national monuments, battlefields, and recreation areas, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” according to the act signed by President Woodrow Wilson that created the NPS in 1916.

To commemorate the NPS’ centennial, Google creative director Nick Carbonaro envisioned the creation of an interactive web site. Executive creative director Ben Hughes of Stink Studios developed the project, landing producer Matt O’Connor and cinematographer/director Adam Newport-Berra from Brooklyn-based Ghost Robot. The site The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks combines 360° video with high-res 2D imagery in a tour de force that provides viewers with what plays like their own private tour of five national parks. 

Newport-Berra, who often works as a director of photography, had less than a month, starting around July of last year, to complete all necessary shooting. “This was only the second project of this type Google had undertaken, which made our choices about how we would capture these environments very experimental as well as experiential. Piecing these things together was, therefore, a pretty big deal for producers and the agency,” he recounts.

The matter of location selection revolved around access and familiarity. “Yellowstone would have been too crowded,” Newport-Berra says. “We realized choosing parks that would let us into hard-to-access locations and that were not very well-traveled was a good combination. Another conversation we had with Stink and Google was about realizing the potential with any given park. We decided to put limits on how extreme we would go and intentionally did not apply for special access. We wanted people to see us doing things that they could in turn do themselves—or in the case of the ice crevasse sequence, things they could do while accompanied by a licensed guide to the park.”

Shooting 360° video at Kenai Fjords National Park

The crevasse was captured in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska; the other four featured parks are Florida’s Dry Tortugas, Utah’s Bryce Canyon, New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Each video begins with a graphic that locates the park on a map, and an introductory flyover sequence. The flyovers were shot by helicopter; at present, drones are not approved for use in national parks. Newport-Berra filmed the aerials with a Cineflex in Hawaii and on camera operator Soren Nielsen’s custom MoVI in the other parks. Non-360° footage was shot with ARRI Alexa Mini cameras outfitted with Zeiss Ultra Prime and Canon zoom lenses. The 360° video was shot with multicamera GoPro rigs and stitched together by Omega Darling creative director Zach Shukan.

Production acquired more than 11 TB of imagery. “When shooting digital, I shoot ‘flat,’” the cinematographer explains. “I view with a LUT on set but always record raw on Alexa so we can color later, which gives us the most latitude. We also shot the VR stuff as neutral as possible, reducing the contrast and saturation so those could be bumped up as needed later on. If we had baked in a look, it would have complicated the stitching as well.” Ghost Robot worked with colorist Mikey Rossiter of The Mill, who finessed the GoPro imagery to ensure it cut well with the Alexa-captured footage.

Adam Newport-Berra wears a VR rig on his helmet while descending into a crevasse in Kenai Fjords.

The filmmakers had considered employing an Alexa or RED 360° system to shoot the VR segment but ran into trouble with the size of the rig. Newport-Berra explains, “The whole idea of 360° for us is ‘you are there’—but large rigs make it difficult to really achieve the human perspective you get with a head on a pair of shoulders as you look around. Add to that the fact we’d be in some pretty difficult shooting locations. So we researched camera rigs to see what could work in the most extreme situations—something that was nimble enough rig-wise to attach to a kayak or a helmet while still having the resolution and color space to deliver these vistas. GoPro was the answer.”

The team used several different 360° GoPro rigs on the project, including a Kolor Abyss rig for underwater shots. Camera stabilization tools included a gyro-stabilizer from Kenyon Laboratories and a Travel Pole from Nodal Ninja.

Soren Nielsen shoots MoVI-stabilized footage at Dry Tortugas National Park.

“Our GoPros were set into three-, six- and 12-camera rigs,” notes Newport-Berra. “The latter was preferable, since you’d have a higher resolution when the images were stitched together. The smaller rigs came into play on helmet-mounted shots and other shooting situations where we couldn’t accommodate the weight of the larger system. For horseback riding shots on the canyon, a Steadicam-type harness would have been visible when the user looked ‘down’ in VR. Smaller footprints are easier to paint out, which influenced our rig selection.”

Locations for 360° capture were carefully chosen for compositional aesthetics. “360° for me has to do with depth, so we set up for views that included objects both close to camera and far away from it. It became a kind of balancing act. We found that if the camera is too close to an object, it is difficult to seam the image together. As a result, we needed to maintain a certain level of distance. That made the shot within the crevasse very tough, since I was pretty much squeezed down inside the glacier itself.”

Preparing the MoVI rig

Another factor that guided their shooting style was the potential for viewer nausea. “360° shots can become very disorienting, especially when the viewer is wearing VR goggles, so it is very important to maintain equilibrium,” Newport-Berra reports. “That is pretty difficult when you’re in a kayak rocking back and forth or up on a horse, since the horizon is bouncing around. Zach, our 360° stitcher, worked as we went, giving us notes on what we could do better, and he stabilized the images as well. But you can only stabilize so much—if you zoom in too far, you don’t get the same overlap among the 12 cameras and image quality suffers.

“This project is about celebrating the parks and the inspiration they provide our citizens and other visitors, but more than that, it is also about making people aware of just how important the parks are and how important their continued stewardship remains,” Newport-Berra says. “Getting people excited about exploring the national park system means that we at Google and Stink and Ghost Robot have really done our job.”