Exodus, the great migration

How did a South African production company manage to film the world’s first narrated virtual reality (VR) wildlife documentary? With many unpredictable close encounters, a never-say-die attitude and some incredible last-minute footage

Exodus: The Great Migration takes viewers on an immersive virtual journey through the annual great wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. Viewers can experience being confronted by charging herds of wildebeest and their natural predators. The team behind this international first is Parkhurst-based Deep VR.

Setting up the rig for the VR shoot

The documentary’s debut took place at the Circa art gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, and entailed a pop-up cinema with specialised VR goggles, vibrating floor, and scents of the African bush.

Deep VR’s CEO Ulrico Grech-Cumbo says, “We asked ourselves how we could  use this technology to foster appreciation, education and conservation for Mother Earth and  set out to film the greatest mammal migration on the plains of the Maasai Mara, in VR.

“Having to self-fund this passion project was humbling. We went to the US to pitch Exodus to a well-known wildlife broadcaster, but got turned down. With a crowdfunding campaign we managed to raise enough capital for a few plane tickets to Kenya, which was just enough for us to decide to commit.”

The VR cameras had to be rigged and placed as close to the action as possible. “At the time there was nothing you could buy in a store to film a project like this, so we developed camera systems in-house, ensuring the rig was trample-proof and camouflaged,” says Grech-Cumbo. Even with all the preparations, the team were kept on their toes, with a drone malfunctioning twice, camera-shy wildebeest refusing to cross the river as soon as they spotted the camera rigs, and innumerable equipment malfunctions.

A lion in the Masaai Mara

It was trials like these that resulted in a nerve-wracking ten days in the Maasai Mara.  Equipment and finicky animals were far from the team’s only worries. Deep VR’s local guide abandoned them soon after they landed, the team picked up dysentery which confined them to their beds, and one of the crew was almost gored by a wildebeest. Amending the filming permits for the park was also an issue, as the Deep VR team had to leave their vehicles and traipse on foot throughout the National Reserve to set up the rigs – an unprecedented way of filming in the park.

Wild animals don’t always play along, and the wildebeests were no exception. After seven days of shooting, the Deep VR crew virtually had no footage. “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,” Grech-Cumbo said.

Then, on the last day, everything fell into place. With all cameras rolling, thousands of wildebeest rushed headlong down the riverbank and crashed into the water for the epic crossing. “We were all ecstatic.”

Exodus: The Great Migration has received international praise and is part of the official selection for film festivals, including The Wildscreen Festival, the Austin Indie Fest, the Melbourne Fringe and the VR Arles Festival, while also screening at the Samsung™ Developer Conference 2017 as a curated piece.

As for the future of Deep VR’s 360 wildlife documentary ambitions, Grech-Cumbo revealed that the success of Exodus: The Great Migration has allowed Deep VR to establish a wildlife division focused on telling original, self-funded stories about natural history, wildlife and the environment.

The new wildlife division’s first project, Exodus: The Great Migration, will form part of a broader VR series that focuses on mass migrations of mammals, birds, invertebrates and insects across the globe. Upcoming immersive VR episodes will feature, amongst others, the Amur falcon’s incredible 60 000 km journey from Mongolia to South Africa in Exodus: Amur Falcons

Exodus: The Great Migration is co-directed by Ulrico Grech-Cumbo and Telmo dos Reis. The VR documentary and a short film  Made in the Mara, directed by Amy Montalvo, to document the creation of the VR piece can be viewed online at www.deepvr.co.za/exodus.