This World Oceans Day, we’re pleased to debut ecosphere, a new documentary series for Oculus Quest. Produced in partnership with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Silverback Films Ltd, and Oculus, ecosphere is a three-part journey across some of nature’s most fragile and diverse ecosystems. Narrated by Emmy Award-winning actress Anna Friel (Marcella), ecosphere is available now free on Oculus Quest and Oculus Go.
Filmmakers have often used VR to give audiences a fresh perspective on critical issues. With ecosphere, VR helps audiences explore the relationship between the people, wildlife, and ecological systems supporting life on Earth. Split into three distinct episodes — Borneo, Kenya, and Raja Ampat — the 180° experience takes you through rainforests, savannahs, and coral reefs, and introduces audiences to the people fighting to protect them from harm. Using the latest image capture technology and filmmaking technique, ecosphere is a profound adventure that both entertains and educates viewers.
To hear more, we spoke with ecosphere Director Joseph Purdam and Oculus Immersive Media Lead Eric Cheng.
What inspired you to take on a project like ecosphere? How did the project start?
Joseph Purdam: I believe the project started as a conversation between Eric and our CEO Trent. Trent was sharing our passion as a company to use these emerging technologies for positive social impact, which seemed to resonate with Eric. I’ve always loved nature and have found the global state of the human relationship with nature pretty troubling in recent years. I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to celebrate the beauty of the natural world and how to help it thrive through high-quality immersive content.
Eric Cheng: I spent a large percentage of my career in the ocean doing underwater natural history work, and the inspiration for that work was instilled in large part through watching 3D IMAX documentaries when I was younger. For a long time, I felt that high-quality immersive video in Oculus Quest would have the potential to push natural history and conservation experiences to the next level of immersion and impact. When PHORIA approached us, I found the initial discussions exciting: they are a thoughtful, creative team, and their AR work as part of “REWILD the Planet” was a good example of building an impactful experience for viewers, centered around nature and conservation ideas.
What’s it like filming in locations with varying climate conditions and challenges?
JP: Well, it’s important to note that the production was shot pretty much exclusively on pre-production prototype equipment with only a few sheets of best practice material, mainly from tests in studio environments. We faced considerable complications when we turned up in Kenya, where it was 40 degrees and had to mount pre-production cameras these prototypes, exposed, on a 13-foot scaffold on our camera car to get the camera into acceptable proximity with wild animals. Some of which could easily tip the car over if they felt like it.
Borneo then presented problems with humidity, shooting in these jungles at sunrise. We had issues with these cameras and lenses fogging on the inside, so we had to ensure they were in pelican cases with desiccant whenever they weren’t being shot to avoid this.
EC: I love being in the field, but I was supporting Joseph remotely, so I was only able to commiserate by sending my best wishes. :) But seriously, the cameras and workflows used in the project were on the bleeding edge, and the team was paving the way by working through a bunch of unknowns while on location in challenging conditions. Kudos to them!
JP: Then, the amazing folks at Blue Ring Imaging helped us build underwater housings so we could take our VR180 capture underwater. I’m not sure how we got out of this with all the cameras intact, but we did.
EC: I was really happy to see the success of the underwater shots. The camera housing was finished less than a month before the Indonesia trip; luckily, I was able to get it into the water for a couple of weeks for a field test before the PHORIA team left for Indonesia. Having one round of feedback to Blue Ring Imaging and Z CAM turned out to be key, as we were able to unlock things like expanded white-balance support for color filters. Also, there were many behind-the-scenes photos of Joseph acting as a human tripod, wearing a 4-axis gimbal stabilizer.
Joseph, can you talk a bit about that setup, and why you had to use it?
Sure, we used a steadicam with a gimbal to stabilize moving shots, and get the camera into position quickly while in the field. Traditionally, filmmakers have avoided movement in VR films, but we wanted to shift that paradigm. I think we got some amazing footage with this setup. It helped a lot when trying to get shots with inquisitive baby elephants brushing passed, or leaning into me while filming.
Can you tell us a few things you learned while involved in the project?
JP: Good fixers are worth their weight in gold!!! 3D-180 has incredible potential as a medium for creating immersive experiences that truly captivate audiences and generate compassion and understanding. Meditation is necessary when working in small teams trying to pave a new path in the world. There really is a way forward for environmental conservation, and it’s in collaboration and commune with local and indigenous communities.
What’s something about VR and immersive filmmaking that surprises you?
JP: The complete ubiquity of acceptance of VR as a powerful medium. We shared rushes in the field with locals, and watching native Kenyan tribesmen immerse themselves in VR and come out with ear to ear smiles left me with no doubt that this is a powerful medium!
How would you describe this project to someone new to VR and immersive experiences?
JP: Ecosphere is an immersive nature documentary. Its goal is to celebrate the critical conservation work done by community-led organizations around the world, to help wildlife and humans live in harmony, and thrive. The series was produced using prototype cameras, to make each episode feel as real as possible. We dare you to watch all three episodes and try to reach out and touch something you see in VR.
EC: Experiencing the natural history footage in ecosphere will make viewers feel like they are present as observers in the represented biospheres--it’s hard to imagine how one could feel closer, short of being there in person. In particular, the underwater scenes will feel strangely familiar to SCUBA divers because it’s really what we see when we’re below the surface.
What was it like working across different time zones with a diverse collective of developers, creatives, and conservationists?
JP: It was an interesting challenge. I’m truly grateful for the incredible global team we had on ecosphere and all the hard work and love they put into this project. The global nature of the team meant a pretty significant lack of sleep for me. While I was sleeping, our UK and French producers could be reviewing and working away, so I’d wake up to new edit notes. It is a kind of 24-hour working bee to bring this project to the potential it’s reached today.
EC: During the project kick-off, I flew to meet the PHORIA and Silverback team in Bristol (UK) before heading to Melbourne for an intense working session. We did weekly virtual meetings from that point forward, but it was an around-the-world session!
If you’re ready to start exploring, grab your Oculus Quest or Oculus Go, and check out ecosphere today. For more ways to celebrate World Ocean Day, dive underwater with even more experiences on Oculus TV.
Head over to the Tech@ blog for a look behind the scenes of ecosphere, and for additional insights from the creators.