Humpback Whales Tell Their Story in Guardians of the Kingdom VR

The Vulcan Productions team supports documentary films and XR (mixed, augmented, and virtual reality) experiences that inspire action around the most pressing issues of our time. To help tell this story, we sent the film Guardians of the Kingdom on tour across the globe. Currently, Guardians of the Kingdom is travelling across Russia.

In this breathtaking VR experience, a newborn humpback whale, Tofua’a is born. The coast of the Kingdom of Tonga is his nursery, where his mother Moana (voiced by renound marine biologist Sylvia Earle) will spend the next four months telling him the story of his lineage and community – a legacy that has been passed on from generation to generation since the beginning of time.

In the nearby village lives an old Tongan fisherman, Kalafi, one of the last whale hunters. He has passed his love for the ocean to his daughter Finau, teaching her the sacred relationship that Tongan people have had with whales for generations. Finau, who is now a mother, transformed her fear of whales into a deep connection that is key in creating a future of hope for the Kingdom of Tonga.

Meet Kalafi, a key character in #GuardiansVR. This virtual reality project that we're proud to support immerses people with humpback whales to understand how they live, how they feel, and how they move. ⁠ ⁠ Learn more about these beautiful creatures and their relationship with the people who live in the Kingdom of Tonga at "PaulAllen.com ⁠ ⁠ #humpbackwhales #whale #whales #kingdomoftonga #tonga #hunting #ocean #marinebiology #VR #virtualreality #XR #storytelling

We caught up with directors of Guardians of the Kingdom, Sophie Ansel and Christophe Bailhache, to learn about the power of VR storytelling and what kind of action they hope people will take after experiencing the story of Tofua'a and Finau.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this experience? Why is this story important to tell?

SOPHIE ANSEL: Whales need more ambassadors today. They have some safe zones like Tonga where whaling is forbidden, but we are threatening their survival by the amount of waste we’re disposing in the ocean.

I hope the audience will feel connected, moved and inspired by the story of Finau and her family; I hope the audience will embrace that the community of Tonga has a dramatic past with the whales, but has taken an important action to not only stop whaling but also work with the whales.

CHRISTOPHE BAILHACHE: 40 years ago, humpback whales were on the brink of extinction. Although their population numbers have rebounded, they are facing many threats such as plastic pollution, noise pollution, fishing net entanglement, and of course whaling still exists. We wanted to bring back a success story from the Kingdom of Tonga to inspire and empower people, creating an emotional connection using an immersive experience to create long lasting impact.

We want people to understand that the value of a whale alive significantly surpasses the value of a dead whale, and that by embracing species protection and environmental tourism practices you can achieve powerful results.

How did you get into VR filmmaking and how has VR changed the way you approach storytelling?

BAILHACHE: I got involved in VR through ocean exploration, science and outreach at a time when VR barely existed. It all started in 2011 when I invented a very special camera system called the SVII, as part of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey. This camera enabled us to produce the world’s first underwater 360° imagery. That’s how our team at Underwater Earth took Google Street View underwater for the first time and got people virtually diving. I have been privileged to take this camera on many missions around the world, photographing all kinds of environments and marine life allowing scientists and the public at large to explore the ocean remotely, engaging people with our ocean in ways that were not possible before.

Why VR for this particular story?

BAILHACHE: Underwater Earth’s mission is to raise global awareness of the ocean – it’s magic and the issues – using powerful tools such as storytelling, imagery and technology. We believe VR to be an immersive and innovative technology that helps people really understand the importance of ocean conservation. It takes people where it is hard for most to go. Imagine connecting eye-to-eye with a humpback whale in Tonga! Simply magical. With experiential immersive storytelling at its core, VR is a powerful tool to create change.

ANSEL: The ocean critically needs our empathy. It’s probably the last place on earth where wild animals still can roam freely without walls or borders. It’s a place we’re disconnected from because we’re not able to freely live there.

VR gives us the ability to immerse people in an environment that 99 percent of humans are unfamiliar with. Yet the majority of us have a direct impact on the ocean – through our waste and our consumption.

Guardians of the Kingdom gives us the ability to immerse audiences in this habitat. Through the VR experience, people visit the homes of these marine creatures to understand how they live, how they feel, how they move in order to get them to think of the ocean differently.

What obstacles do you face when creating a VR film?

BAILHACHE: There are a number of obstacles when creating a VR film. In VR production, color and lighting are more difficult to manage than in traditional filmmaking, especially underwater. When you take VR equipment underwater it is more complex as cameras need to sustain rough conditions in remote locations. The post-production element is also much more challenging as you deal with multiple cameras at the same time. In VR, audiences have the freedom to choose where and what they look at, so from a storytelling perspective you constantly need to think outside the square to best convey narratives.

Do you think that these kinds of VR experiences can lead people to care more about an issue and take action?

ANSEL: Definitely. You are fully present in the immersive experience. VR forces a full attention. There is no zapping, no multitasking. Once you are in the headset, you are engulfed in the story. You are diving in another world. Our objective is to encourage viewers to go on the website as soon as they have finished the experience so they know how they can have an impact on the whales and what they can change in their daily habits.

BAILHACHE: Our aim is that our immersive photography and films bring people closer to the ocean, to interact more with the ocean and understand its importance and the issues. Powerful storytelling is crucial to a future on this earth and we believe in taking the audience from emotion to action using immersive tools such as VR to foster a deeper understanding of the ocean.

It is exciting to drive this on-going big adventure of ocean protection, and we are proud to see the ever-increasing number of people we are engaging with the ocean and ocean issues. This is just the start!

What gives you hope for the future of our oceans?

ANSEL: There is a sense that we are entering one of the most critical times to save our oceans and its inhabitants. What gives me hope is that there is a groundswell of interest and of action around the world. It is a very exciting time where we all have the power to make a difference!

BAILHACHE: We have lost 90 percent of the big fish. 100 million sharks are killed each year. Countless number of species are affected by unsustainable fishing practices and we’re on our way to loose 90 percent of the remaining coral reefs due to climate change.

It may seem like a lost cause but nature can bounce back if it is given the chance. We need to act quickly and creatively, using innovative tools such as VR to raise awareness and to educate. This is how VR as a medium can make a difference. We’ve seen it on all our projects. When you take people virtually diving underwater, there is an instant connection. This is how you connect people to an environment they know very little. This unknown and critical environment, representing 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, is their ocean and our ocean.

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