Melting glaciers and rising seas in Greenland; raging fires in Northern California; a relentless drought in Somalia and the disappearing Amazon forests. Famine, Feast, Fire and Ice are the four installments in a virtual reality (VR) documentary on climate change by filmmakers Eric Strauss and Danfung Dennis.
The series, showcased at AFI Docs, the American Film Institute’s Documentary festival in Washington, D.C., offers a 360-degree view of destructive phenomena brought by climate change on our planet. It immerses viewers into the extremes of Earth’s changing climate.
Eric Strauss told VOA he hopes that when someone watches the series as it drives home this idea that there is no hiding from global warming. “This is coming for all of us, regardless of where we live or what our income is; it’s going to affect everyone.”
Ken Jacobson, AFI’s Virtual Reality Programmer, says viewers – who watch the film wearing virtual reality headsets – react in many different ways to this all immersive experience.
“Some people have a very visceral reaction where they jump, where they kind of yelp because they are very surprised by what they see, while other people, I think, are very reflective and can even be sad, depending on the content,” he said.
One of these viewers is James Willard, a film and TV production student at George Mason University. He describes his experience of watching the installment Feast, about the deforestation of the Amazon rainforests to make space for industrial-sized cattle ranches to satisfy the global appetite for beef.
“You are completely immersed in this whole situation,” he says, “You are facing these animals eye-to-eye and watching as they are marching towards their death.”
The film needs no dialogue. A few sentences set up the topic. “It is actually stripping away a lot of the information, putting you in environments that you then experience for yourself,” says Eric Strauss, “You are much more of a protagonist in some way in this type of stories than you would be in a traditional form of cinema.”
Another viewer, Patricia, has just watched Famine, the episode that looks at the extreme drought in Somalia. “It makes it even more powerful because you feel like you are there. I think, it’s a great medium to spread the word on critical subjects,” she says.
That’s what Strauss wants to hear. “That is the goal; to effect change, to effect positive change.”
VR films are becoming more accessible as the technology evolves, and are often viewed on smart phone applications. But VR Programmer Ken Jacobson says watching them through a virtual reality headset is the best way to experience them.
But can VR films ever replace traditional 2D or even 3D films?
“I think it is going to add another aspect on how we are going to watch movies,” says student James Willard. “Virtual reality can be very dangerous because you are completely immersing yourself within the story to the point where you don’t see anything else. At least in the movie theater you are fully aware that this is a screen in front of you, but if you look to your sides you don’t have another screen there completely immersing you within that story. And with virtual reality that’s exactly what it does. For some people, it will be okay to take off the goggles and go on with their lives, but for others it may be too much. I don’t think it will completely take over.”
Eric Strauss agrees that VR will not overtake traditional cinema, but he says virtual reality can allow viewers to relate deeply with socially conscious stories.
“The technology creates a situation where you truly feel transported to that location because you are not just witnessing something or watching it on a screen. You are occupying the space. And that creates an emotional connection where you can’t really turn away. I mean, there is no getting away from what you’ve allowed yourself to be teleported to and hopefully that will create a visceral, emotional response in viewers and what they are seeing will prompt them to want to get involved.”