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VR Film Lets Viewers Discover the Riches and Ruins in Amazonia

“‘Under the Canopy’ gives those who may never visit the Amazon rainforest an opportunity to repel down a 200-foot tree, see its wildlife up close, and understand what is at risk."

Conservation International (CI) and Jaunt’s production team have released “Under the Canopy,” a virtual reality (VR) film that allows you to explore the extraordinary landscape of Amazonia guided by the indigenous people who inhabit the forest and are essential to its protection.

After descending a 200-foot Ceiba tree, you set off on a journey through the rainforest with Kamanja Panashekung, whose family has lived in the region for generations. As you paddle down a river past three-toed sloths and a 15-foot anaconda, you experience the intimate relationship between people and nature. Panashekung shows you how the forest supplies food, income and more, while he and his community draw on their collective knowledge in protecting its trees, waters and wildlife.

As Panashekung navigates, you ultimately find yourself surrounded by the results of rampant deforestation. Each year Amazonia loses an area of forest more than 1.5 times greater than the size of Yellowstone National Park.

“Kamanja’s community is one of over 350 indigenous communities throughout Amazonia that depend on the rainforest, as we all do — for the air we breathe and the water we drink,” said Dr. M. Sanjayan, Conservation International executive vice president and senior scientist. “‘Under the Canopy’ gives those who may never visit the Amazon rainforest an opportunity to repel down a 200-foot tree, see its wildlife up close, and understand what is at risk. Sustaining the Amazon is not an option, it is a necessity.”

Orange-cheeked parrot at clay lick in Napo Wildlife Center inside the Ecuadorian Amazon during VR shoot of Under the Canopy. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

The consequences of the deforestation shown in “Under the Canopy” reach far beyond Amazonia and its 30 million inhabitants. The film has special relevance given the Amazon’s role in building resilience to the impacts of climate change and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Amazonia contains 40 percent of the carbon stocks of tropical forests globally, provides 20 percent of the world’s breathable oxygen, holds a similar percentage of the world’s fresh water, and supports more species of plants and animals than anywhere else on the planet. It is also a spiritual wellspring for its people and all humanity. A vanishing Amazon not only threatens us physically, it diminishes the human spirit.

The co-producers celebrated “Under the Canopy” during the 17th Annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The event featured a limited private screening, reception and discussion with film director Patrick Meegan about the unique aspects of the “Under the Canopy” shoot and how virtual reality can be a critical agent for conservation.

“In approaching this project we wanted to not only illustrate the importance of conserving the rainforest in relation to climate change, but to create a thrilling experience for audiences far and wide,” said Meegan, creative director at Jaunt. “To do this, we married the experience of veteran nature filmmakers with up-and-coming technologists to develop new techniques and achieve VR shots — such as the vertical moves from canopy to forest floor — that are the first of their kind. We also took the Jaunt ONE camera to new heights — achieving impressive VR encounters with tropical birds, butterflies, sloths and more.”

JauntVR crew from left to right: drone operator Davis DiLillo, assistant camera Cael Liakos and director Patrick Meegan observe drone taking off to film VR over Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon in September 2016. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

The film was shot at two locations 1,400 miles apart in Suriname and in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park. Filmmakers used drones and cable-mounted cameras, including the Jaunt ONE camera, to move through the canopy and across the forest floor and capture the feel of being in the Amazon. In the film’s 3-D audio track, Panashekung’s storytelling in native Trio is punctuated by birdsong and alternates with that of actor and conservation activist Lee Pace, who voices the English translation.

“Under the Canopy” can be viewed in fully immersive VR on the Jaunt VR App available on iOS, Android, Gear VR, PlayStation VR, Google Daydream, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive — as well as in 360-degree format at Viewers can help protect the Amazon by sharing the film with their social networks and supporting CI’s Protect an Acre program.

Check out two behind-the-scenes videos on the making of the film below.