Meet a menagerie of curious critters in Micro Monsters, a new VR documentary from Alchemy Immersive and living legend David Attenborough. The five-part series is a continuation of Attenborough’s original production of Micro Monsters, which aired in 2013 and pioneered macroscopic filming to give audiences a never-before-seen view of Earth’s mightiest insects. Micro Monsters in VR explores the real-life superpowers of arthropods from a perspective only immersive media can deliver.
Alchemy Immersive, in partnership with Oculus from Facebook, produced Micro Monsters using specially developed 3D stereoscopic camera rigs, 180° live-action capture, and newly developed VFX compositing techniques. Audiences will see all of our tiny neighbors’ minutia and alien-like detail through an incredibly high frame rate (60fps) and spatial sound design.
Over five episodes, viewers will explore a near-invisible world of conflict and community that’s both mesmerizing and monstrous. Watch a scorpion and a centipede fight to the death, an aphid cloning itself, and an army of green ants building incredible structures. Avoid the ambush of a Trapdoor spider and experience the Portia spider’s deadly lullaby. With the aid of live-action close-ups and computer graphics, audiences can even watch a caterpillar’s transformation from inside its cocoon and discover a beetle’s secret chemical weapon.
We spoke with Director of Micro Monsters and Creative Lead at Alchemy Immersive Elliot Graves and Oculus Immersive Media Lead Eric Cheng to hear more.
How would you describe Micro Monsters to someone new to VR and immersive films?
Elliot Graves: Well, Micro Monsters reveals the natural world in a way you’ve never seen before. Through VR, you’ll have access to an awe-inspiring world of bugs at their scale, as you come face to face with the intricate and fantastical micro kingdom in unparalleled detail. Through five awesome little stories, you’ll experience the conflicts, courtships, and communities of the alien arthropods. Narrated by natural history legend David Attenborough, Micro Monsters ultimately lets you experience something that is just impossible in real life. You have to see it to believe it.
Eric Cheng:Micro Monsters tells amazing stories of bugs by shrinking viewers down to the scale of bugs. Traditional nature documentaries about tiny worlds are fascinating, but it’s new to feel like you’re getting a view from the inside, with everything blown up to human scale. Micro Monsters is like having a 3D dome theater experience, but from the comfort of your VR headset, at home.
Can you tell us about the post-production work involved in bringing this project to VR?
EG: What makes Micro Monsters unique is that we used traditional stereoscopic cinematic techniques, but made that footage available inside VR. This means that you get the chance to see these incredible bug environments in immense macro detail — something not possible with 180° and 360° cameras.
We created a custom toolset within our post pipeline that would allow us to extend, project, and manipulate the image intelligently, all while simultaneously ensuring 3D depth and the disparity was correct. This process also accommodated vector-based stabilization and camera solving across the 100+ shots of the project. Stabilizing and camera locking the footage was key to ensuring smooth HMD playback with no motion sickness for viewers. We were super fortunate to support ZOO VFX, working alongside very talented artists inside Nuke 12.0 to ensure that even at 8K, the image looked perfect.
We faced the other challenge creating 3D 180° renders of the earth and underground tunnel introduction sequences. At 8K 60fps, every angle and detail is visible, especially because the screen is only inches from your face! This meant ensuring our designs, textures, and compositing pipeline were sufficient to produce such detailed imagery that would stand up into the future. A lot of attention was devoted to the finer details within each scene, which were then rendered and comped offline instead of real-time.
What’s it like working with an 8K video for VR? How has the process evolved over the years?
EG: Working with 8K immersive VR media wasn’t as challenging as we’d planned for. Many aspects of working at 3D 8K were carried over or upgraded from 4K and 6K pipelines, such as ProRes proxies within the edit or 3D 180° post-processing. Within the edit, our biggest challenge was the frame rate and building a workstation that would give us smooth playback of at least 4K 60 frames per second in the suite. With playback at 8K in Quest 2, every single pixel of resolution is perceivable at a greater quality than what our edit monitors could show. This meant we spent almost each edit session in the headset, rather than relying on the monitors.
Another challenge of the delivery spec was producing the CGI content used in our virtual scenes. Despite our tunnel scene taking two weeks to render on the farm, processing the render jobs wasn’t too challenging - the real fun started with QA and ensuring there were no errors! With time being of the essence, we decided to opt for rendering multiple passes from each Max scene, compositing them in additional steps via Nuke, allowing a greater margin for error and additional creative flexibility. As Alchemy has been using real-time engines on other projects, we were keen to explore the feasibility of producing these scenes in real-time; however, with the lockdown and reduced interaction between the team, a proven method with guaranteed results came out on top.
EC: It’s important to understand why 8K/60fps was the resolution and framerate target. Quest 2’s display is about 20 pixels-per-degree (PPD), which means that 180-degree content requires video at 3600 pixels (7200 pixels for 360, and stereoscopic 180 content requires 2 x 3600 pixels). 8K is the resolution that saturates Quest 2, and obviously, it can also be scaled down a bit for Quest, where it still looks great.
We’re also constantly chasing 60fps for immersive media. Hollywood films are generally shot and produced at 24fps, which gives content that “film” look. In VR headsets, motion at 24fps and 30fps both exhibit distracting artifacts, while motion at 60fps is smooth. Unfortunately, very few cameras suitable for immersive videos are high resolution and high framerate, so it’s a hard standard to achieve.
Can you tell us a few things you learned about VR filmmaking while involved in the project?
EG: I think one of the biggest things Micro Monsters has taught me is that you don’t need to use specific 180°/360° capture processes to produce great content for VR. Since 2015 and earlier, I feel our industry has been bound to ZCAM, Obsidian, InstaPro, and others, awaiting evolutions in resolution and sensors. Learning to adapt and use existing content has undoubtedly changed my opinion about what is possible in this space when using existing content creatively and thoughtfully. There are challenges with this approach, but starting with arguably more substantial and more impressive assets will only result in a more refined product, which is likely to encourage a wider audience into VR. Start with an amazing story, and the tech will fall into place.
I’ve also learned that while immersive projects are easily understood inside the headset, outside of VR, they are still tricky to convey. With Micro Monsters, we invested a lot of time into crafting powerful imagery for use as marketing and social assets. These visuals showed hyper macro imagery of each episode’s hero insect, from the scary Portia spider to the beautiful Monarch butterfly. We wanted to create a mood online that conveyed the stories and power of the immersive experience, without having to rely on in-experience recordings or screenshots. We hoped to generate enough curiosity through the highly detailed insect cinemagraphs and David’s voice that people would organically seek out content via Oculus TV from channels like Instagram, TikTok, and immersive news blogs.
What’s something about VR and immersive filmmaking that still surprises you?
EG: VR and immersive filmmaking still catch me by surprise. Each time I think our team has solved a problem or created a solution, another creative or technical challenge pops up. While creative processes, pipelines, and working methods are slowly becoming standardized, I believe the constant strive to improve our projects leaves us exposed (even if it’s what we secretly love about the industry). I have to admit though, working on such an ambitious project in the middle of the global pandemic is not something I’ll be wishing for anytime soon! The biggest surprise in producing Micro Monsters was how my faith in live-action immersive media over 6DOF real time experience was restored.
With the boom of UE4, real-time production, and gaming inside VR, storytellers often go down this road too. In the past 12 months, I feel there has been a stigma attached to live-action VR; perhaps this has been because of image quality or narrative shortcomings. When we experienced the first offline edits of Micro Monsters, I was blown away by how I just fell into the story, without desiring to interact, move or complete an objective in 6DOF. The series truly transports you into an inaccessible world in real life, something I believe is key to immersive content. When you have a praying mantis the size of a car, inches from your eyes, there’s an awe-inspiring emotion that kicks in and holds your absolute attention.
EC: For me, there is continuous reinforcement that spending as much time as possible in headset leads to better-quality content. With Micro Monsters, we were fortunate because Elliot, Vianney, and the extended team at Atlantic Productions were in headset constantly during the production process (and they also have incredible attention to detail). We were able to refine the episodes until the production's technical aspects faded away; the story is all that is left, which is the goal!
VR is all about new perspectives. What do you hope people take away from Micro Monsters?
EG: I hope people experience Micro Monsters and come to appreciate the vast but fragile world that exists under our feet, hidden from view. The beauty and intricacy of our environment can’t always be seen, but I hope this experience allows people to visit it and appreciate it first hand through a truly epic new perspective. Secondly, I hope creators see the potential of working with and adapting non-native immersive content inside VR, and that it encourages people to focus on powerful stories before technology and cameras.
Check out Micro Monsters on Oculus TV today!