VR and the personal experience: Alchemy VR

Warrior Jose in Sawre with Nokia Ozo camera Greenpeace UK
Neal Romanek
September 22nd 2017 at 12:57PM : By Neal Romanek

For Atlantic Productions, VR is a natural progression in a long history of cutting edge storytelling

The name Atlantic Productions has become synonymous with top-end documentary, and the company's collaborations with David Attenborough have earned the company a truck-load of awards.

In its quest to bring the audience into an ever deeper and fuller experience, Atlantic has always been quick to embrace and develop new technologies. It was an early adopter of 4K and, in the brief 3D craze, Atlantic pushed stereoscopic technology about as far as it could go, dragging heavy 3D cameras to remote locations, creating 3D microscopy rigs, and pioneering 3D time lapse.

Given this past, it was obvious that Atlantic would be one of the first major production companies to get serious about VR, so much so that the company created its own VR wing, named Alchemy VR. Last year, Alchemy became the first company to win a BAFTA – or any other top tier award for that matter - for a VR project.

David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive VR allowed viewers to sit in a submersible with the legendary naturalist for an up close view of one of the world’s great natural wonders. 

The 19 minute film has run at venues worldwide, including London’s Natural History Museum, the National Museum of Australia, and, of course, Glastonbury. In Australia, Great Barrier Reef had a total of 20,345 visitors over a period of 185 days, which are better numbers than most Hollywood films.

Alchemy VR has also brought viewers 360 perspectives on the Galapagos Islands, re-entry to Earth from space in Space Descent VR with Tim Peake, a look at the life of the Munduruku people of the Amazon, and a trip inside the Eden Project self-contained biosphere experiment – to name a few.

A personal experience

Liz Biggs is Alchemy’s head of development. She had been a self-shooter of observational documentaries and began working with Atlantic on some of their early VR ventures. Her entry into Atlantic’s VR team, included a climb to the top of the Burj Khalifa to shoot 360 video with a rig of five Nikon DSLR’s. Since she has helped to develop and shoot some of the best 360 documentary work going.

“One of the first things we ask ourselves is when we start a project is, Why VR?” says Biggs. “The fidelity of the image is still not that great, although it’s improving. You don’t have a lot of the tricks of the trade of cuts and zooms and other traditional filmmaking techniques. So what are you doing it for? What is the advantage?


David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef Dive VR.1 (C) Alchemy VR


“But when we look at what 360 video has to offer, we see there’s a huge advantage. It really does give you a personal experience that you don’t get even in super high quality documentaries, like the ones we make.”

What does she think about those who say that 360 video is a flash in the pan, like 3DTV?

“I think that’s very short-sighted. There are huge avenues for it. Samsung said last year a total of 10 million hours of 360 video had been watched on their headset. That is a huge start. Some of that is due to the novelty factor, but 360 does give you an immersion and a connection with the subject matter that is different from every other storytelling medium out there.”

Liz points to a short test piece Alchemy did with the BBC featuring the actor Simon Callow. The BBC was trying to determine how much proximity to talent affected learning. The conceit of the piece was that the viewer walks into an empty studio to find Simon Callow listening to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Callow then engages the viewer directly, enthusing about the piece and about Wagner’s life. Viewer feedback revealed a lot about the power of VR and about the medium’s own idiosyncracies.

“People watching the piece said, ‘I didn’t want to take my eyes off of him. I felt rude breaking eye contact.’ They know that it’s not real, but we scripted it in such a way that it felt like a real conversation and Simon, being such an incredible actor, was able to says things and ask questions in a very realistic way. It was really effective. And that’s something that you just don’t get, even with a traditional presenter talking down the lens to you.”

Biggs also points out that the VR space precludes “second screening”. It’s the ultimate medium for focusing attention – and with this captive audience will require a new type of storytelling.

“In a lot of documentaries there’s a lot of repetition and sign-posting – you’re just about to see this, you’re seeing this, you’ve just seen this. A lot of that is in anticipation of channel surfing, but it’s also because audiences aren’t ever entirely watching TV. In VR you can’t have that. That will evolve – you’ll have multiple screen inside the VR, but at the moment there’s a purity to it that can be very, very powerful.”

Bringing the camera to the animals

Alchemy’s head of production Ian Syder cut his teeth on Big Brother (a kind of nature documentary) and the BBC Natural History unit. He notes that in making VR choosing the right subject and location requires as much care as shooting it. VR can’t rely on zooms or long lenses so the action has to come to you.

“We got lucky with our documentary on the Galapagos, because the wildlife came right up to us – they had never seen human beings. The challenge of natural history filming in VR is you have to have groups of animals coming to together – I can imagine something like a watering hole in Africa, where animals gather. But going forward, I think we’re going to have to put more movement in there. I think we’re going to have to do interactivity too.”

Syder approves of the Nokia Ozo, currently the only serious contender in high end VR capture.

“The Ozo is probably the simplest camera in the world to use. On Galapagos there was restricted space onboard. and I ended up shooting a fair amount of VR for it. I’m a techie, but I’m not a skilled DoP, and as a camera it is brilliant. It’s really changed the way we do VR. Suddenly, the riskier shots are possible – you can put it on a motorised dolly, or strap it to a helicopter.

Syder sees VR as developing to something beyond merely recording events and being a medium for entirely interactive experiences.

“We’re very used to doing things in CG at Atlantic. But the interactivity is a step beyond what you would do with normal video. We need to do it in a game engine. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re learning.”