Deep dive: A chat with diver and VR filmmaker Laura James

“People protect what they love, but they must know it to love it.”

Virtual reality is often a vehicle to explore imaginary realms, but it can also transport you to strange worlds right here on Earth. For environmentalist and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Laura James, VR and Oculus proved an ideal pairing to help people discover the mystery of Earth's oceans and its inhabitants. She believes this sort of immersive experience can spur the imagination and, with a little luck, planet-saving conservation efforts from a new generation of activists.

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James has been using video to advocate for Earth's oceans for 20 years, collaborating on underwater video projects, like Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish and Sea Otters v. Climate Change, both of which garnered Emmy Awards. Today, she's using VR and 360 video to surface ongoing threats to the health of ecosystems near her native Washington and beyond through new film projects, research initiatives, and VR-based education.

“You could say my work as a filmmaker is a love story to the undersea world,” says James. “And there's no other medium quite like VR to capture the feeling of immersion you feel while suspended weightless in a column of water.”

What first interested you in VR as a medium for environmentalism and advocacy?
When I first started filming underwater environmental issues, viewers sometimes felt I was editorializing. Upon seeing 360 video, I was convinced it could lend transparency to my journalistic endeavors. The viewer could literally look around and see the whole picture for themselves and reach their own conclusions.

Do you feel VR can help people better understand and connect with the environment?
Not many people will become scuba divers. Fewer still will ever get to climb Everest or actually explore space. Immersive technology lets us transport people to worlds they'd never see, and for those who may have once been a diver, or explorer, to revisit places from youth.

What led you to combine VR and environmentalism?
The underwater world and the threats it faces are the perfect subject matter for immersive video. One of the biggest challenges in ocean environmentalism efforts is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ phenomenon. Beneath that thin barrier there's a whole world waiting to be investigated and explored. For many people, their world ends at the line between land and sea, so by utilizing immersive technology it's my hope that I can help transport viewers into a very special place that can't be unseen. Fighting for the ocean's future, and by extension, our future, becomes paramount at this point. Cousteau said “people protect what they love.” I like to add to that “but they need know about it first.”

Can you talk about your methodology and overall process when shooting for VR?
I spend a lot of time thinking about shots, tinkering with gear, and scheming. When it comes to ‘game day’ I work to minimize the variables that might impact the shoot. Shooting topside 360 video is challenging enough, now imagine stuffing little cameras into water tight housings with limited control underwater. Diving must be second nature, so that it doesn't distract from the task at hand. I also practice diving with my long time dive buddy, who is behind the scenes pulling double duty as cameraman and autonomous lighting array. Different cameras need different light, so its imperative to understand the nature of your cameras before a job. I make a lot of test movies and push them out on Facebook and YouTube so others can learn from my mistakes and successes.

When I’m working with cameras that don't have underwater controls, I make a special note of cool finds on the dive. This helps when I'm stitching and editing. Clips are often broken down into 4 GB segments, so a 45-minute dive will have between 7-8 clips. I used to connect all the clips, but when shooting higher resolutions with six (or more) cameras, the project sizes start getting out of hand. During the dive I’ll make a point of doing a "wiggle and tap" during moments when not much is going on (or approximately every 7-10 minutes) so each clip will have a syncing assist. This way, if a seal pup shows up in the first eight min and the Octopus was approximately 2/3 of the way through, I can save time stitching just those parts.

Can you talk about your work using Oculus Go? Has it changed your approach as a filmmaker?
Oculus Go has been a total game changer for me. Before its release, I did what everyone else was doing, first with a multitude of random phones and other VR systems, like Google Cardboard and Homido Mini. These all required one-on-one introductions to the medium. With Oculus Go and kiosk mode, my audience can walk up to a headset, put it on and start watching. The battery lasts long enough for demo use, my audience (and attendants) don’t have to fuss with headphones, and no one misses the first 30 seconds of the video getting sorted and comfortable. As a filmmaker this has allowed me to focus more on content and quality of storytelling versus creating something that's just easy to share. It's also allowed me to work on stories for a broader audience that found previous headsets uncomfortable or intimidating.

Can you tell us about your upcoming avatar-based educational series for Rift?
Underwater 360 videos can be hit or miss. Once the initial wonderment wears off, people still find entertainment and relaxation, but I think as content creators we can do more to keep our audience engaged and use these opportunities to educate people. I hope to use a photo realistic underwater educator created just for this purpose. This avatar will act as a guide during educational dives in VR, creating a guided nature trail-type experience with a real narrator telling a story about the environment you're visiting. These experiences will start as simple educational stories narrated by the avatar, but as the project matures, I hope to incorporate citizen science into the mix with things like dynamic ‘fish counts’ using gaze detection on photo realistic fish in room scale environments.

Further down the road, a full on diving game would allow us visit user generated levels based on high level photogrammetry (using photos to create realistic maps) of sites normally off-limits to all but the most experienced divers. These could range from dangerous shipwrecks and remote cave dives (some with fewer visitors than outer space), archaeological sites only open to scientists, and even places that no longer exist due to time and tide, environmental changes, or habitat destruction.

You once lectured at a women’s correctional facility—how did you get involved?
A few years back, I stumbled on an article on inmates in solitary, where they were given the choice of 30 minutes “in the yard” or 30 minutes watching nature videos in a place called the “blue room.” The results were dramatic with regards to behavioral issues, with less altercations and aggressive behavior following the blue room experience. I got to thinking: if nature videos can make that kind of difference, could immersion in a 360 nature scene have even greater impact?” I started looking into programs in our regional prison system for something similar, and the closest I could find was the Green Prisons Program where environmental advocates visit a women’s correctional facility and give presentations on environmental opportunities following their release, like volunteering.

At the time, my 360 video collection wasn't ready to show at the facility, but they did invite me to give a presentation on urban stormwater runoff, Seastar wasting disease, and citizen scientists that can help scientists. Now that Oculus Go is available, we're talking about a presentation featuring nature videos (underwater and otherwise) and mixed with education about immersive media, in the event that any of the women are interested in telling a story about their experiences. I hope to facilitate a new nature series at the facility with Oculus Go headsets available at all times so residents can sign up and experience nature more than once or twice a year.

What guidance would you offer someone looking to follow your path as a content creator?
Be brave, be humble, find your passion in the medium and be ruthlessly persistent. Don’t panic if you look around and others are using better gear or shooting crazy awesome stuff. Make the most of what camera you have, shoot shoot shoot shoot... First focus on consistency, getting the shot you envision in your head, every time. Next work on refining your skills, once all that is second nature start to experiment, soon you’ll be the one shooting the crazy awesome stuff. Learn to stitch/edit, even if you don’t love it or pursue it beyond the basics, get a feel for how the shots look with regards to stitch lines, distance and framing. Watch other people’s videos relentlessly and learn from them, if you see something amazing, reach out and let them know (you never know how that one little complement can make the day of another creative) you may develop a long standing friendship that will benefit you both. This industry is still too nascent to hoard information, we will only grow stronger and more successful together. That said, listen to advice from your peers but take it all with a grain of salt. Always try to do things a bit better than last time. Did I mention shoot, shoot, shoot?