The great wildebeest migration at the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya is one of the most popular and largest movements in Africa. This mass migration, which includes zebras, antelopes and over a million wildebeest, has become the highlight of many Safari trips as tourists from around the world flock to the nature reserve to document this spectacular sight.
Unfortunately not everyone is fortunate enough to take a trip to Kenya and witness the migration first hand, and while wildlife programmes may give us a glimpse at it, even the best footage will only present viewers with the filmmaker’s point of view. But imagine being part of an immersive migratory movement that lets you get up close and personal with the animals at the Masai Mara National Reserve as they anticipate their crossover.
With this in mind, Deep VR, a virtual reality production company based in Johannesburg, added a Virtual Reality (VR) wildlife division to its cinematic offerings and recently released their first VR film titled Exodus: The Great Migration.
A screening of the film took place recently at Circa Art Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, with wildlife enthusiasts, tech writers and moviegoers gathered at the site to participate in the film’s local premiere. At the event, attendees were treated to a screening of Made in Marra, a behind-the-scenes collaborative film showcasing the Exodus crew’s 10-day stay in Kenya to capture the wildebeest migration.
Deep VR CEO Ulrico Grech-Cumbo addressed the audience and spoke on why the company chose to launch a wildlife division. Grech-Cumbo and Deep VR co-founder Telmo dos Reis had never experienced an animal migration before but sought a truly original African experience, even if it meant self-funding their work. “We’re on a crusade to create truly original African stories. One thing our continent offers the world is plentiful and exotic wildlife. Nobody was doing it in VR, so we saw an opportunity to film something we loved, that we could become the best at globally,” said Grech-Cumbo.
Taking VR to Kenya
When the time came to film Exodus, the Deep VR team found that there was nothing available in-store to shoot a project of this nature. So the team had to develop camera systems in-house and ensure that their rigs were “trample-proof”.
Grech-Cumbo expands: “We gutted them in order to install special aluminium heat plates instead of plastic components that would dissipate heat (as GoPro H4s are notorious for overheating). This, allowed us to attach custom optic ribbon cables to the camera bodies and the other end to 250-degree Entaniya fisheye lenses, which allowed us to house the camera bodies and microSDs inside 6mm-thick, steel casings that we created to make sure the rigs were ‘trample-proof’.”
However, even with such detailed planning, the crew were disappointed to find out that their camera equipment, although more than efficient for the job at hand, was also attracting the wrong kind of attention. To the crew’s dismay, a pack of curious lions began using the protruding devices as something to nibble on, while the camera-shy wildebeest tried to avoid them at all costs. As a result, the team had to disguise their equipment by covering it in grass and other kinds of greenery in order to camouflage the rigs before planting it in the wild once again.
Other challenges faced included the drone camera malfunctioning – twice! As well as issues with the crew’s film permit which led to them abandoning their vehicle and walking on foot throughout the National Reserve to set up rigs.
After seven days of filming in the wild, the crew discovered that they still had not acquired the footage they needed for the film. “That was terrifying, thinking we had invested so much time and money, and now would have to return and tell people our mission had failed,” comments Grech-Cumbo.
The team soldiered on until the last day, when everything finally took a turn for the better. On the tenth and final day, and with all cameras rolling, thousands of wildebeest dashed down the riverbank, crashing into the water for the much-anticipated crossing.
Upon leaving Kenya, the Deep VR crew had shot over 130 hours of footage. Telmo dos Reis was the head of post-production, while Skhumbuzo Dlomo did VFX work including tripod removals, roto painting of tourist vehicles, as well as frame-by-frame painting of missing data. Overall, post-production duties took a year and two months to complete.
The VR Experience
Costing R1.7 million to make, Exodus: The Great Migration is a 9-minute virtual reality documentary.
At the premiere screening, guests utilised Samsung Gear VR headsets together with the Samsung S8: “They’re untethered and the new S8s have a UHD screen resolution – higher than anything else on the market. The one thing that is lagging in VR is display resolution, so we opted to actually purchase a rental pool of 40 of these kits due to their high resolution and ease of use for activations and pop-up VR cinemas,” informs Grech-Combo.
The film takes the viewer through a range of emotions, first showcasing the dry conditions and desperation that leads to the migration. Observing the massive troupe of wildebeest grazing, the viewer is able to wander around the animals and explore their turf. Other wild animals, including lions, can be seen at close range.
The narrator provides a deeper insight into the migration and also directs the viewer to other events within the 360-degree environment.
As the day of the big move finally approaches, the herd gathers near the riverbank in anticipation of their trip. The treacherous trail through dark waters filled with crocodiles creates an atmosphere of distress and a sense of urgency for the viewer.
As the herd gathers the courage to take to the water, it feels like a deadly race against time, with the scores of animals pacing their way to the other side.
While there were some sound glitches and slightly blurry visuals at times; Exodus: The Great Migration is a more than worthy effort for the first-ever narrated VR wildlife documentary. The Deep VR team is already working on a series of mass migration VR films focussing on mammals, birds, invertebrates and insects.
The team’s current project features the Amur falcon’s 60 000 kilometre journey from Mongolia to South Africa: “Pre-production has been great. The first trick with migratory projects is to coincide with them actually being there. There are currently 15 000 falcons in the roosts where we are filming. We’re simply creating what we call ‘shoot hypotheses’ of how we think the birds will react in certain circumstances, and designing around it, knowing that it’s very likely we’ll have to keep changing strategies until we can get useful shots,” Grech-Cumbo shares.
Several more pop-up VR screenings of Exodus: The Great Migration are scheduled to take place at various locations, with details to be provided on the Deep VR Facebook page.
“The Great Migration is pretty well known – the purpose of the first episode of Exodus was to teach people about the format. Future episodes of Exodus will focus more on wildlife education and conservation. We hope to use the format to create more empathy for conservation-related causes and mobilise people more readily (than traditional formats) to get involved,” concludes Grech-Cumbo.
- VR GEAR: Samsung Gear VR headset with Samsung S8