The Virtual Wild

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Photo credit: Wendy Panaino

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

The Southern African rhino and pangolin populations may have found a new hero in Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, after he set out to add more technological muscle to the fight against the poaching of a threatened species. Armed with high quality virtual reality (VR) centred experiences, Grech-Cumbo tells the story in a manner that provokes the viewer to action.

Since being lured by the possibilities presented by fusing technological advancements and creative endeavours, Ulrico Grech-Cumbo – the founder of Ambrosia XR and (subsequently) Habitat XR – continues to create ground-breaking productions that raise awareness around issues of nature conservation and the protection of endangered species.

After almost a decade of exploring and applying fast-innovating immersive technologies in his productions, Grech-Cumbo harbours very strong convictions about why technology has a bigger role to play in advancing the ideals of society.

He says: “We believe that, in the modern world, people have become critically disconnected from nature due to many factors including urbanisation, habitat loss and technology.”

“Ironically, we believe that technology can help reconnect us to our natural world in a very meaningful way. It’s all about using the power of personalised empathy to foster love and respect for animals and environments that most people will never get to experience in person.”

Virtual Reality Untamed

Presenting content through virtual reality has innate advantages that are exclusive to this technology. It has the power to involve the viewer in a way that compels them to react in a very active manner due to the experience being akin to a confrontation.

It is no surprise that the impact of immersive technologies is already making a visible dent in conservation-led wildlife experiences just as much as in other sectors – such as brand experience and entertainment – that Grech-Cumbo has his hand in (through his Ambrosia XR Agency).

“Sadly, places we call ‘nature’ today are reserved for a very privileged few. Habitat XR produces some revenue-generating work for conservation non-profits like WWF and Conservation International, as well as original self-funded nature experiences, too,” says Grech-Cumbo.

“Our goal is simple; it is to re-connect people with nature through immersive technology,” he enthuses.

Growing a Trend

Immersive technologies are a relatively new phenomenon, and their popularity continues to grow internationally and more so their applications. More and more enthusiasts are consistently finding new ways of bringing the tech to the fore.

Spearheading the trend in South Africa, Grech-Cumbo is very high up on the list of those diversifying the opportunities that are presented by XR, by expanding the need for it in both the commercial and not-for-profit spheres.

The former founder of Deep VR believes that it is imperative not to under-value the necessity of great content over our enthusiasm for the technology.

“There is very little good VR content out there. If we care about the future of the format, we have to contribute to the body of content that already exists.”

“As conservationists at heart, we want to use these experiences in ways that can change attitudes and behaviours for everyone that has the opportunity of witnessing our work,” he adds.

Ideally, Grech-Cumbo aims to establish Habitat XR as the world’s preeminent immersive studio with a strong focus on wildlife and nature conservation. 

Rewild and Relocated

With numerous wildlife productions under the belt, Habitat XR continues to break the mould with more headline-worthy projects. It was inevitable for the company to pursue the rhino conservation conversation.

The bleak future that is faced by the rhino population did not in fail in plucking at the heart strings of the conservationists at Habitat XR. Grech-Cumbo assembled a team that came up with a new way of tackling the problem.

The refreshed approach was not only in the medium used but also in the way the story of the species is told.

“For a long time, we’ve been wanting to do something on the uniquely South African rhino poaching crisis. A lot of the stories out there have their focus on the same part of the narrative: the front-lines, the poachers and anti-poaching,” he says.

He adds: “We heard about the trans-location of black rhino from SA to Chad and decided to focus on a much broader part of the problem – range diversity. We applied to SANParks to be let on the team and they agreed.”

The shoots for Rewild were conducted first at a game reserve in the North West (for the identification and capture process) and then the Addo Elephant National Park. The rhinos were then placed at Zakouma National Park in the Republic of Chad.

“We’re using a combination of four different cameras to capture these projects. We tend to prefer stereoscopic (3D) 360, so we filmed most of Rewild on a Kandao Obisidan R,” says Grech-Cumbo.

“There were shots where we knew the black rhinos could destroy them, so we switched to the Insta360 Pro since it would be cheaper to replace.”

The Virtual Pangolin

Although not as popular as many other endangered species, the pangolin also faces a disastrous future if left unprotected. The team at Habitat XR made it their mission to diversify their attention on the animal through another virtual reality production titled the Predicament of the Pangolin.

In reality, the pangolin is undoutedly the most trafficked animal in the world at this point.

“Pangolins are incredibly elusive – not even our in-house game ranger had seen one in 12 years of working in the field. 

“An opportunity came up to film some that were being researched in the wild at Tswalu and we thought it would be an incredibly cool VR experience to hang out with these iconic and little-understood animals to learn about how they are the subject of a depressing amount of human damage.”

Due to the difficulty of pinning down pangolins, the team opted to film the project in confined spaces. The team opted to employ a two-lens GoPro Fusion camera in order to attempt capturing overlapping visuals and sounds.

In all, the crew managed to snap 55 shots using smaller monoscopic cameras but they might have to cut down on the number of scenes they’ll use once post-production resumes.

Future Conservation Tech

Grech-Gumbo expresses with great vigour that immersive technologies will continue to innovate and change the landscape of the film industry. Due to virtual reality being a growing medium, the improvements that will happen to cameras will have a direct impact on the look and feel of VR experiences.

“In the future, the cameras will capture scenes at much higher resolutions and frame rates and that will probably bring in changes to how we capture light,” he says.

“VR is going to spur a whole new breed of cinematic hardware. Volumetric VR is another trend to look out for – it combines 3D scanning with traditional video capture to create life-like, live action experiences you can walk through wearing a headset,” he concludes.

TECH CHECK

  • Kandao Obsidian
  • Insta360
  • ProSennheiser Ambeo mic
  • Zoom F8 recorder
  • GoPro Fusion
  • Rode rifle mic

REWILD key crew

  • Written & directed by: Ulrico Grech-Cumbo
  • Filmed by: Jared Reid, Ulrico Grech-Cumbo
  • Edited by: Telmo dos Reis; Devan Lowery
  • Audio by: Sam Mahlalela

A PREDICAMENT OF PANGOLINS key crew

  • Story by: Ulrico Grech-Cumbo
  • Written & directed by: Ulrico Grech-Cumbo
  • Filmed by: Jared Reid; Devan Lowery; Ulrico Grech-Cumbo
  • Edited by: Devan Lowery
  • Colourist: Michele Wilson
  • Spatial audio by: Axel Drioli