features 10.3.2018 09:55 am

In the belly of the wildebeest

Picture: ultimateafrica.com

Picture: ultimateafrica.com

Local company Deep VR is leading a revolution in virtual reality wildlife filmmaking, creating a new world that can help nature conservation.

Playing Victor Frankenstein doesn’t always mean you create a monster.

It was dissecting camera gear and splicing different components together with tape and wire that ensured Ulrico Grech-Cumbo and a small team of filmmakers captured the great wildebeest migration at Kenya’s Maasai Mara in virtual reality.

Their 10 days in the park culminated in Exodus: The Great Migration, a 360-degree immersive documentary that for the first time allows humans into the middle of the action during the animal trek. Its success is, however, far reaching because their work ensures democratisation of the experience, including people who would otherwise never be able to see the phenomenon up close.

The pioneering piece of film is also making a global impact in how virtual reality can influence nature conservation – with Grecho-Cumbo and his team considered the leading crew in VR wildlife production. They’re establishing a new way for “animal stories” to be told.

But it all started with them deciding to create original African content. “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,” Grech-Cumbo recalls.

In a race against time, the small crew headed to Maasai Mara with equipment they put together in various forms of tech wizardry. “At the time there was nothing you could buy in a store to film a project like this, so we developed camera systems in-house,” Grech-Cumbo explains.

While they were sorted with gear, Maasai Mara is a tough environment when it comes to filming. Because they were the first crew ever that needed to rig cameras close to the action, they needed amended filming permits and access they were often not allowed.

On top of that, the look of their gear scared the animals, and after the first few days the team had no footage to show. But trial and error saw them wrapping twigs around tripods, hiding their cameras and finally they started seeing results as animals got closer and closer to their cameras.

What they were able to capture is mesmerizing, including a camera being gnawed by a curious lion, resulting in the viewer experiencing what it would be like if a lion decided you were its prey.

But wild animals don’t always play along, and the wildebeest were no exception. After seven days of shooting, the Deep VR crew virtually had no footage of the animals crossing the river.

On the last day, Mother Nature showed mercy and everything fell into place. With all cameras rolling, thousands of wildebeest rushed headlong down the riverbank and crashed into the water for the epic crossing.

The end product is a documentrary that will literally have a person on the edge of their seat. As they move their head around while watching it they can see a potential crocodile attack, have wildebeest running beside them and experience Maasai Mara in a way they can’t even from a safari vehicle.

It’s groundbreaking footage – and that’s why it’s so lauded. VR is quite an exclusive experience because only the viewer is having that experience. “The solitary nature of VR means you shut off the real world,” quips Grech-Cumbo.

Exodus: The Great Migration has received international praise and is part of the official selection for a number of film festivals. To view it for free visit deepvr.co.za.

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