Only a lucky few people ever get to witness the great wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara national reserve in Kenya. Even fewer have been in the heart of that migration, surrounded by thousands of the animals.
Now, the producers of a ground breaking new documentary hope to bring people into the midst of the experience, at least virtually.
Exodus: The Great Migration is the world’s first virtual reality (VR) documentary of what has been described as one of the greatest natural phenomena on Earth. And a small studio in suburban Johannesburg, Deep VR, beat some of the best funded international film-makers to this landmark.
Their achievement goes further: they also claim the world’s first narrated VR wildlife documentary.
“We decided that we couldn’t just wait for the future to happen, we have to become co-creators of it,” said Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, CEO of Deep VR. “We asked ourselves, how can we use this technology to foster appreciation, education and conservation for Mother Nature in a way no technology has ever allowed before? In a crazed leap of faith, we set out on the ultimate creative challenge for our first original piece: film the greatest mammal migration on the plains of the Maasai Mara, in VR.”
Grech-Cumbo has been a VR evangelist since long before commercial headsets were available to consumers He founded Deep VR in 2014, along with Telmo dos Reis, head of post-production. It specialises in producing high-end 360 degree video in 2D, known as monoscopic for the fact that both eyes see the same image, meaning there is no sense of depth, and in 3D, referred to as stereoscopic, meaning it gives a perception of depth. The first gives the sense of merely viewing a virtual world, while the second gives the sense of being inside that world. It has made commercial VR in 10 countries using its own self-designed camera systems. The Msasai Mara was the company’s biggest challenge yet.
“Having to self-fund this passion project was a humbling experience,” says Grech-Cumbo. “We went to the US to pitch Exodus to a well-known wildlife broadcaster, but got turned down. We experimented with a crowdfunding campaign and managed to raise enough capital for a few plane tickets to Kenya. That was just enough for us to decide, to heck with it, let’s commit.”
What followed was a case study in all that can go wrong on a film shoot. From authorities that wouldn’t cooperate to equipment that wouldn’t perform as expected to animals that did not conform to a timetable, it was a production that should never have been pulled off.
But, last week at the Circa gallery in Rosebank, the documentary finally saw its local premiere. The gallery was converted into a pop-up cinema for the screening of a documentary-about-a-documentary, which took viewers behind the scenes of the production – in regular 2D cinema. The short film, Made in the Mara, was directed by American film-maker Amy Montalvo, who journeyed with the Deep VR crew into the Maasai Mara.
During the making of Exodus, 360-degree cameras were placed at strategic points on the migration route, supported by flying drones equipped with high-definition cameras. Together, they captured the frenzy and the fascination of the migration, almost eliciting the smell of the dust thrown up by the wildebeest.
The audience at Circa was fitted with Samsung Gear VR headsets, to experience the VR documentary. Public screenings were due to be held at the same venue.
This will be the first in a series of wildlife documentaries by Deep VR. The experience and success of Exodus has led to the establishment of a wildlife division at the company, aimed at “telling original, self-funded stories about natural history, wildlife and the environment”.
To start with, it will film mass migrations of mammals, birds, invertebrates and insects across the globe. The most challenging of these is likely to be the story of the Amur falcon, a small raptor that breeds in Siberia, Mongolia and northern China. It then migrates in flocks across India and over the sea to South Africa.
The episode, to be called Exodus: Amur Falcons, will not only trace this 6 000km journey, but also introduce South Africans to a little-known aspect of their widlflife heritage.
* Further information about public screenings, as well as the VR documentary, Exodus: The Great Migration, and the Made in the Mara short film, can be viewed online at www.deepvr.co.za/exodus.