Komodo – A Paradise Under Pressure
Komodo: Paradise Under Pressure
In 2017, together with a team of scientists, divers and filmmakers, the Watermen Project team embarked on a quest to study Indonesia’s iconic manta rays and Komodo dragons, and how plastic pollution is threatening their survival. Their underwater skills allowed them to capture this adventure in Virtual Reality and to produce an 18-min feature VR Film that takes viewers on an immersive journey into Unesco World Heritage site Komodo National Park. The film, which is a Watermen Project, VRGorilla and Blend Media. This project would not have existed were it not for Dr. Andrea Marshall from the Marine Megafauna Foundation and her generous donor who put her boat at the service of the oceans in this project.
Let’s turn back the clock, shall we? I’ll always remember this scene… we are in the beginning of 2017 and I am walking towards the bus stop after buying my ticket when my phone rings… not recognising the number I answer and lo and behold it is the living legend, Dr. Andrea Marshall!!! Holly s*** batman! This lady is someone I have wanted to connect with for years, someone I had heard loads about from mutual friends and colleagues, a legend in her field.
As it turns out she had wanted to work with me and was calling with a particular project in mind… “We have a donor who will provide their boat as a base and would love if you would come out and help us tag manta rays”. I said that sounded super awesome and I would be totally up for it, but only on one condition. Andrea asked “What would that be?” I replied that we needed to film it, photograph it and share the story to spread the message of the importance of the research and the ecosystem. Of course, Andrea being a very strong ocean advocate herself, she agreed immediately.
And so, on that day the seeds of a wonderful friendship started to grow and an equally wonderful collaboration. I do have to point out that Dr. Marshall cost me a bus fare, because I ended up walking instead of riding the bus so we could have a proper conversation. 😉
As the universe seemed to work its magic, a couple of weeks later, I was speaking with Lukas Muller, who was a young ambassador for the Watermen Project back then, about filming and VR films in particular. I was telling him how I had recently immersed myself in an animated VR film at a friend’s house and was blown away by the immersive nature of the experience but also very disappointed with the poor quality of the VR films available at the time. It turned out that Lukas had just met the principals of VR Gorilla, Peter van Apeldoorn and Daan Tan. This Dutch film and VR film director duo were creating high quality VR documentaries and were striving to connect people and drive positive change through the power of immersive stories, and not the least of all, they were interested to know if we had any projects that could suit a VR film.
The first connection I made with Peter and Daan was via a call in February 2017 followed by a face to face in Amsterdam a couple of months later. A plan was starting to come together, they were super keen to work together even though they hadn’t yet done a VR project involving the marine environment but had already produced some pretty amazing stuff on terra firma and thought this idea had huge potential.
Next step was finding an underwater VR rig and the money for it along with the production costs, etc. A meeting followed in Austria in June with Blend Media, a UK company whose focus is to make immersive content. Blend signed on to the project and along with our own self-funding and their participation we would finalise the co-prod contracts in July 2017.
I should point out that everyone involved in the project was volunteering their time, expertise and energy as well as inputting some of the financial means required to make it a reality – this was a passion project for sure. We found a VR rig that we could afford, purchased the rig and booked flights for Indonesia arriving late July.
Once we arrived in Indonesia we were super excited about what was to come. We had a few days before embarking on our boat out of a small island off Bali, so we took the time to scout the area. And that is where we stepped into a world that we simply had not expected – Open landfills. In the photo, you can see cows grazing on these vast plains of garbage.
Our minds began to race. These landfills are situated at sea level and are at the mercy of the elements which meant that anything could very well enter the ocean at any time coupled with all the devastating effects it could generate on the ecosystems. The reality is that every year, during the rainy season a large amount of this garbage gets washed into the ocean. In fact, we discovered the drainage ditches of the landfill by stepping onto what we thought was garbage and sinking below the garbage into the water. We confirmed this theory with locals who mentioned that every year during the raining season the ocean becomes full of plastic.
Seeing (and smelling) such a sight was a massive wake-up call, inviting us to examine our daily habits, especially with anything that was for single-use, be it plastic or any other material. We took some time to head into supermarkets and other stores to see what locals and what tourists were buying… the majority of the single use plastics in the landfill were products purchased by tourists indicating that with some education of the visitors one could greatly reduce this negative impact on this beautiful region.
Once we embarked on the boat for three and half weeks in the Komodo National Park, little did we know that we were going to see with our own eyes what our consumeristic way-of-life can do to remote places. We even found tons of single use plastic washed up on remote islands that tourists do not visit, nor locals which shows that these single use plastics travel far and wide on their own.
We were hosted on the boat for three and a half weeks thanks to the super generous support of Dr Andrea Marshall’s donor and their amazing crew. We followed Andrea and her PhD Candidate Elitza while they conducted their research on manta rays for Marine Megafauna in collaboration with the Indonesian Government.
Just to give you perspective on what filming in VR means, the VR camera rig was about 12kg and sat on the end of a 2-meter long pole. To film it properly that camera needed to sit out that distance from the operator and the operator needed to maintain the camera as stable and steady as possible. No easy feat when moving through the liquid medium and as such not all the underwater sequences could be filmed on a breath hold.
During this trip, I also had the good fortune to meet Andrea’s husband Janneman Conradie, who is a super competent waterman/cameraman and who had filmed a lot of what we captured with the VR rig on his Red 8K camera. One day during the expedition, Janneman and I hit the holy grail of encounters while doing a dive together on air (yes I am openly admitting that I scuba dive too… we could not have possibly shot this whole film in VR while only holding our breaths).
Janneman and I dropped down to about 25 meters when we watched as the boat’s cook (who was in the water on one of his first dives) had a large group of mantas swim past him… Janneman and I realised that this was a large female being courted by about 14 male manta rays, which meant we were witnesses to the ‘manta mating ritual’ !!!
We followed as best we could, completely focused on capturing this moment on film to share with all of you. We were so focused on the filming and following the mantas that we were not paying attention to anything else. The female manta is larger and stronger than the males and tries to tire the males out so she swims fast, turns sharp and frequently which makes it difficult for us with scuba tanks on our backs, to keep up but we did our best not only to stay with but to keep the cameras rolling and stable.
She shot off into the distance and we swam like crazy only to have her come flying out of the limit of visibility right back at us to use us to try to shake off some of her male courtesans. I remember clearly holding the VR pole and attached camera while manta rays bounced into and off of me… then down into the abyss she went with us in tow and then back up, over the reef, around us and onwards.
This dance lasted about 35 minutes before I looked at my gauge and realised that I was running out of air and would need to starting heading back to the surface and leaving this dance before completion of the mating ritual.
Both Janneman and I were at a loss for words after lucking into an encounter like this and moreover, capturing it on camera! Back on board I handed the VR camera to Peter and Daan, told them about the encounter and watched them running off to download the footage with the biggest grins I had seen to date.
Janneman told Andrea about what we had filmed and she went off to review his footage while Janneman and I ate and rehydrated. When Andrea came back she was smiling and also frowning… She said “I have good and I have not so good news”… this panicked Janneman and I, as fears of footage not recorded, blank hard drives and a lost opportunity immediately flooded both our heads.
Andrea: “The footage is amazing… really and truly amazing, wow!”
Janneman and I: “Phew!” What is the not-so-good news?”
Andrea: “Well, by my estimate, you probably missed the mating by about 2 minutes.”
Were we disappointed? Yes, absolutely, as to be that close to capturing something like that on film would have been incredible but honestly, we still captured most of it and it was incredible to be right there. Moreover in VR, it will be an experience on another level.
We spent the bulk of our time filming in Komodo National park not only with manta rays but also with the Komodo dragons. They are a prehistoric creature which has been on this earth for 40 million years. This pales in comparison to sharks which first appeared 400 millions years ago, but still… their resilience to survive through time is obvious. Yet today, just like mantas’ and sharks’, the Komodo dragons’ habitat is also at risk, as you will see in this VR film.
We were able to set up a VR rig on the beach, which was no small feat because that cannot be done when they are around or they will bite, which at the very least would have lead to a medical emergency. The beach VR rig captured their interactions in a very unique way, make sure you look at your feet when viewing the VR film… you won’t be disappointed!
It was not easy to film them and not without risk, but we proceeded with caution and captured some incredible sequences of these endangered lizards *in the water*, which was probably a first, and which you will see up close and personal in our VR film….
This film was delayed due to the post production issues caused by the underwater rig technical issues. The film came out in a long form, something not very common at the time in VR which due to the delay in the post production by the time the film was ready the VR industry was taking a bit of a decline as it was unclear what the way forward might be. We finally had our launch date set to be May 2020 at the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC with both Dr Andrea Marshall and I presenting the film. Unfortunately, as with most endeavours in 2020, the event was cancelled.
Although the film was almost sold several times, we find ourselves 4 years after completion of filming and 3 years after completion of the post production and able to announce that it now live on several platforms:
I am proud to have been involved in producing and filming this immersive experience and eternally grateful for everyone involved – without this team of passionate and dedicated ocean lovers and story tellers this film would never have come to be. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have and a thank you to all those that we beta tested the film with… Through our beta testing we have seen first hand the incredible impact of the immersive VR experience to inspire and motivate people to protect our world. Our hope is that you will experience the same.