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Levi Letsoko


The Lost Botanist and the power of virtual reality



Virtual Reality (VR) is making inroads in entertainment spaces as the preferred experience for consumers of content across various sub-sectors, ranging from gaming to animation projects. Screen Africa chats to Rick and Ree Treweek, the creators of The Lost Botanist, about this game-changing technology and how it catapulted their project to new heights.

The global entertainment industry is explicitly embracing the innovations that are brought about by the technologies that are incubated in tech-hubs all across the world.

Virtual Reality is categorised as an emerging technology even though its origins can be traced back to the 1950s where it was strictly applied in controlled spaces. It was in the 1990s when VR became popular and was made available to the general public for means beyond medical and scientific research endeavours.

There is little doubt that the technology has made great strides in the 21st Century as it has diversified into Augmented and Mixed Reality.

Collision Course

The co-founder of Tulips and Chimneys (a concept and animation studio), Ree Treweek, revered for her work on the 2006 animated award-winning short story The Tales Of How, joined forces with her brother Rick Treweek to create a mind-blowing experience known as The Lost Botanist.

The collaboration saw Ree (a multi-media artist) break away from her traditional platforms and begin exploring the wonders of the VR experience, a world her brother Rick is all too familiar with.

“We (at Tulips and Chimneys) dream up and construct unique aesthetics for environments, sets, props and costumes for all media. We like to be involved in the early stages of conceptualising a project and overseeing its direction right through,” says Ree.

“We are highly skilled in character design – whether it’s a bohemian princess, a wacky vegetable or an outlandish pirate, we take great care to ensure that their stories and unique personalities are beautifully depicted,” she adds.

Rick kicked off his career making entertainment websites before launching his first start-up BreakDesign – which specialised in building websites for hospitality clients. Intrigued by new technologies, his focus shifted towards VR over the years, leading him to co-found a technology R&D studio known as Eden Labs, a hub for everything XR.

“We create impressive experiences with artists to push the limits of emerging technologies by developing XR – Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Holo-lens solutions,” says Rick.

Virtual Reality Meets Ancient Mythology

The brother and sister duo merged their backgrounds and experiences by bringing VR and animation together in a way that pioneers a new wave of consuming content generated and produced on the continent.

The collision course resulted in a project that went on to be the first of its kind by being the only African production to screen at the 2019 Annecy Animation Film Festival.

Rick describes The Lost Botanist as “an interactive adventure for immersive devices, a five-minute journey to another dimension that will restore your childhood sense of wonder”.

The short story is based on a world that has forgotten the importance of nature resulting in pollution stealing the beauty of stars from the desolate space. Through the VR experience, the viewer gets to encounter the world virtually.

“You arethe ‘Lost Botanist’in a world where dreams are starting to die. While researching the lost marvels of the natural world, you open a grimoire that transports you to the Under-Garden, the dream-like home of the spirits of all forgotten things,”enthuses Ree.

“In each of the wondrous places you’ll visit, you must find a mythical creature to guide you further into the unknown, from the Nethermere to the Amber Vale to the Nevermist…” 

The team created a fictional world inhabited by never-seen-before creatures that embody well-researched characteristics while applying existing mythologies.

Multiple Layers

Rick’s journey has been one filled with technological discoveries. Having explored the explosion of tech scenes in countries like Singapore, he experienced trends that shaped the world and are still a few years away from making their way to South Africa.

“I’ve always developed my fantasy world using tech, where Ree has focused more on multi-media platforms. So we figured we could do something quite interesting if we combined those approaches,” says Rick. “VR is the perfect platform because Ree’s approach (in content creation) is completely different and that is what sets The Lost Botanist’s VR experience apart from everything else that is out there. Add the mastery of Markus Wormstorm and the rest of the Tulips and Eden Gang – we knew we had something special brewing.”

“The technology is able to put the viewer in an interactive position, giving them a sense of being part of the story and experience, as well as the feeling of being in charge of the encounter. Through narration and sound, we help guide you through the experience but it feels as if you determine the pace and you are not hurried through the world,” adds Ree.

The animation on the project is spear-headed by Ree’s Tulips and Chimneys Studios – the company that has produced animated work for the likes of United Airlines.

The experience is curated in a way that makes it easier for the viewer to keep track of the moment without any revelations, hidden messages, or encounters flying over his or her head.

“The animation is so in-depth, people will often miss details or sub-stories as they only have so many seconds to watch each scene,” she says.

The virtual experience of the animation is built by Rick’s Eden Labs. The Johannesburg-based entity has development XR experiences for Samsung, Jaguar and IBM Research.

“The fact that you are fully immersed into the environment and can look in every direction really is quite something. VR creates the feeling of belonging in the world. No longer seeing something in a rectangle format but truly immersed in the visuals and sounds of the production,” says Ree.

Changing the Game

The use of 2D animation in a 360-degree environment in this project is counter-intuitive as the animated content is developed for stand-alone VR devices – this is evident in how the experience keeps the viewer at the centre of everything he or she is encountering.

“We wanted to challenge ourselves and create the experience on a low-end platform, meaning that when it came to scaling up to larger VR platforms, a lot of the challenges were already solved by getting it to run on mobile VR where we have a lot more limitations,” says Rick.

This year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival attracted 90 submissions from nearly 30 countries – with The Lost Botanist being one of only nine VR submissions and Ree being one of the two female animation directors in the running.

At the 2019 screenings, the productionwas up against big-name projects like Gymnasia (from the Emmy-winning Felix & Paul Studios), Doctor Who: The Runaway (voiced by Jodi Whittaker) and Gloomy Eyes, narrated by Colin Farrell, which took home the Cristal.

“It was amazing to have so many eyes on the film and to meet other artists developing projects in this medium. It can feel like working on an island when you’re working on a project of this nature, suddenly we were able to have conversations with people that have been through similar experiments and experiences,” concludes Ree.

Tuned in to target-driven radio


The global explosion of the adoption of streaming radio and podcasts as a new way of consuming content has carved a path in the direction of target-driven radio. Screen Africa chats to Rhowan Johannes and Tiff Willemse about why streaming might be the future of radio and the technological innovations that enable it. 

Living in a technologically-advanced era has broadened the playing field in the entertainment spheres. Gone are the days when one would have a structured pattern of how they would consume content, such as tuning into one’s favourite radio show.

Unlike in the past, one doesn’t have to rely on the traditional routines of media consumption – and it is all thanks to the progress that has been made by innovative thinkers.

The world of digital brings with it an array of options – and each option consistently redefines the changes that shift economic and social paradigms.

Rhowan Johannes, the station manager at 2Oceansvibe (a Cape Town-based digital radio station) believes that alternative radio platforms offer a unique approach to the media practice.

“Our origin story is like no other – one man had the genius foresight to create an alternative platform with an incredibly unique tone that now generates over half a million unique hits a month,” he says.

Radio Wars: Analogue VS Digital/Alternative

He says: “Digital radio is a highly active market because technology is so easily available and incredibly user-friendly to set-up. The technology we have right now makes it a breeze to produce live streaming content.”

Digital radio platforms shared a common advantage in that they do not require the intricate technologies that analogue radio efficiency relies on. The availability of software enables the digital platforms to carve a unique niche.

Founder of targeted media platforms, Tiff Willemse, who is the CEO of Massiv Media, conceptualised a niche commuter radio platform that is available on designated mini bus taxis, which reaches a large market due to the average South African’s heavy reliance on public transport.

“The innovation around Massiv Metro was to utilise the innovative technology we have developed over the years and the deep understanding of the urban commuter market and combine this with dynamic, entertaining and engaging content,” says Willemse.

“We developed a radio head unit for vehicles that can only stream content exclusively from Massiv Metro. We are able to leverage our access to very competitive data rates and launch a relevant hybrid radio station,” he adds.

Structured vs. On The Go

The world of radio is undergoing changes that are similar to the ones experienced by other media platforms including television and film. Traditional radio stations find themselves in a position where they are forced to supplement the analogue set up with digital enhancements such as streaming apps and digital presence.

This transition speaks to the undeniable presence of the alternative platforms, while, at the same time, the phenomenon creates a pathway for new players to gain access to an industry that previously boasted high barriers of entry (in terms of platform ownership).

“Our motto is ‘work is a sideline, live the holiday’ – so it’s only fitting that our on-air personalities can broadcast from anywhere in the world. We’ve uncovered great hardware and software programmes that can allow this without compromising on the quality of delivery,” says Johannes.

He adds: “We’ll also be focusing a lot more on podcasting features and packaging these items in a more user-friendly way.”

Willemse openly acknowledges the added advantage that technology has placed at his company’s disposal. As a targeted media platform, Willemse’s Massiv Metro has managed to solidify a presence in carefully controlled spaces (mini bus taxis and assigned taxi ranks equipped with free WiFi), enabling them to reach their targeted market.

“We have not solely relied on this to gain and maintain our audience. Prior to launch, we conducted extensive research with mini bus taxi drivers and with commuters to ensure we put together a radio station that would engage and entertain them,” says Willemse.

“4G networks and WiFi are the key technologies alongside our custom-designed streaming radio unit, which is installed directly inside the mini bus taxis,” enthuses Willemse.

Content is King

2Oceansvibe’s Johannes indicates that it is highly important to take note of audience behaviour and keep track of any changes as and when they happen, because this allows the platform to stay relevant to the audience.

The digital radio world does have its limitations if it is to be compared to the traditional radio platforms, but at the same time it does offer a revised option to audiences who prefer going beyond the ordinary.

When analogue and digital are put head-to-head, it becomes evident that the deciding factor between two is the quality of content.

“We have to drive conversation, shows, topics and interviews across social media enticing audiences to tune in. This is why we encourage our hosts to live stream on socials as well,” says Johannes.

“Where we differ is the content we produce. We don’t work in the same parameters that traditional radio does,” he adds.

Massiv Metro’s Willemse agrees that for any platform to remain resilient, it needs to have a well-coordinated content plan.

He says: “Great content is what brings listeners back to us even outside of the commuter environment and allows us to run highly successful campaigns for our clients.

“Digital innovations are fantastic but there is so much available that at the end of the day people are going to follow and engage with relevant and appealing content and digital innovations are going to need access to this content in order to retain their audience,” says Willemse.

Brand New Wave

It is imperative for alternative radio platforms to package their offering in a very appealing fashion in order to position themselves as a new wave in the geographical radio eco-system.

The talent behind the scenes (and microphones) is a vital tool in the operational framework of the platforms, from the on-air talent to the human resources and administration, as well as the business developers.

“When you look at our current radio landscape, big on-air personalities have now been replaced by presenters who simply back-announce songs and comment on the weather,” says 2Oceansvibe’s Johannes.

“Our platform has stood the test of time because we offer such a unique and diverse group of voices that cover an array of topics and beats. Digital presenters have the power to produce longer-form content and have the ability to be authentically themselves,” he adds.

There is no doubt in Willemse’s mind that streaming radio is the fastest-growing segment of the radio industry, both locally and internationally.

“The shifting playing field between analogue and digital is a moving target. Digital in its conventional format will allow much more competition but will still be controlled by ICASA.

“The freedom of the internet gives listeners the choice to listen to content anywhere in the world, and – at the end of the day – the more accessible this becomes to people, the faster the shift from traditional radio to digital streaming radio will happen,” he concludes.

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