On December 5, National Geographic announced a partnership with YouTube to produce immersive content that would bring its audience to the farthest reaches of the world. The partnership kicks off with the release of The Okavango Experience, a four-part immersive series about the Okavango Delta.
Immersive Shooter spent some time with Nat Geo’s Senior Director of Immersive Experiences, Jenna Pirog, and Producer Kaitlyn Mullin to talk about why immersive media is a perfect fit for National Geographic and how the publication plans to double-down on its commitment to the medium.
This partnership is certainly not National Geographic’s first foray with immersive content. For people who may be unfamiliar with your previous work, can you explain what your approach to immersive media has been, thus far?
National Geographic has been working in the 360 medium for a few years, and has published some very successful pieces bringing our audience face-to-face with hammerhead sharks, climbing up redwood trees with scientists, or hanging off a cliff with climber Alex Honnold.–Jenna Pirog (JP)
Nat Geo’s mission fits perfectly with what immersive tech is capable of doing: trying to show people the world so they can care about it more deeply. Showing people the world is also the mission of the technology, as well. (JP)
How will this new partnership with YouTube change Nat Geo’s approach to the medium?
Over the past few years, Nat Geo has published more than 25 360 videos, most of them made with production companies. This is the first piece where we’ve brought the production in-house. Kaite and I are here on staff, and then we rely on freelancers. For The Okavango experience, we worked with wildlife photographer Sandesh Kadur. (JP)
The partnership includes support of the productions, both with access to technology and engineering help. We also really wanted to give our photographers, filmmakers and scientists access to the technology. But what we wanted most was the production support to send a team out for a fair amount of time. (JP)
We’re now able to send a team of three immersive specialists on an expedition for three weeks. When it comes to natural history, filmmaking takes time. It’s hard to drop in on an inaccessible environment. We don’t know what each day will bring–if there will be an elephant encounter or not. (JP)
We also have ongoing conversations with Google’s engineers on how to improve cameras for these types of environments. For example, our engineering team worked with their engineers to build a remote trigger system for the Yi Halo camera so we can shoot when an animal encounter happens. (JP)
What made The Okavango Experience the right piece to launch this new partnership?
When we first started talking about this partnership with YouTube, we knew we wanted to use this technology on a major project. We found out that The Okavango Documentary would be premiering on the Wild Channel in December. The timing worked out perfectly we thought it would be an amazing story to bring our viewers face-to-face with the wildlife living in the delta. (JP)
What camera(s) did you use for The Okavango Experience?
It was all shot on the Yi Halo, which really stood up to the challenges of the environment and the temps. Having access to Jump stitching and a simplified post production process was absolutely necessary for productions like this. (JP)
We have a few VR180 cameras that we’re sending out on assignments to find the best use case for that medium for Nat Geo. I’ve seen it used well for live events like concerts, but we’re still figuring out what the use case is for us. (JP)
What unique challenges did the crew have to overcome to do this series?
Sending the Yi Halo out into the wilderness of Botswana for a month definitely meant there were some physical and technical hurdles the team had to overcome. Temperature was one of them. Another was that if you have an issue with the camera, there isn’t a lot of connectivity to get in touch with support right away.–Kaitlyn Mullins (KM)
There are also the challenges of filming wildlife. We want to be conscious of how we’re filming. We don’t want to impact their behavior. Sandesh’s background is in wildlife photography, so he knew to place the camera at a lower angle–at or below the animal’s eye level–so it would be less intrusive and the animals would be more likely to come up to it. (KM)
When you watch the piece, you can sense that you’re seeing them in a calm state, as if humans aren’t present. That was the main goal of this. You often see animals running in drone shots, and that’s often because they are frightened. (JP)
We also had to deal with everyday fieldwork issues, like stabilizing moving shots, dirt, wind, rain, etc. There’s no easy solution to those problems. It’s important to have the time so if you don’t get the shot you wanted one day, there will be another opportunity. (KM)
How do you think the pieces in the Okavango series differ from your previous immersive work?
We were very intentional about the audio in this piece. From the outset, we knew we didn’t want to scoreMusic added to enhance the mood of the video. it and use a lot of music to create the soundscape. We wanted the audio to be just as important as the visuals, so we worked with Q Department and sent a wonderful sound recordist who recorded immersive soundscapes of what the places really sounded like at such a quality that you feel like you’re there. (JP)
On these types of trips when there are fewer humans around you, you use your senses in a different way. You’re using your sense of smell differently. You’re hearing things in a different way. Your eyes actually become your third sense. So, we wanted to make that a part of the experience. (JP)
It’s very much a headset-forward piece. We want you to feel like you can experience this ecosystem in all its glory. (JP)
As a headset piece, will The Okavango Experience be shown at the National Geographic Society’s VR theater so more people will have the chance to experience it the way you intended it to be watched?
The VR theater is another amazing investment the Society made. It’s outfitted with 400 headsets so everyone can watch 360 content simultaneously. They’re only doing two shows per season–spring and fall. There were two events in October, one with photographer Aaron Huey exploring the sacred sites within Bears Ears Monument. The other was exploring Antarctica with photographer Paul Nicklen. Both were spinoffs of stories featured in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine. We are planning to do two of these VR Theater events per season. (JP)
During Paul’s talk at the theater, someone in the audience asked about the safest way to travel to Antarctica that keeps conservation issues in mind, and he said, ‘Buy a VR headset.’ Obviously it isn’t the same as going there, but it really does give you an environmentally conscious way to takeIndividual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. in the natural beauty. (JP)
The Okavango Experience will be released to coincide with the television premiere of Into the Okavango, a feature-length documentary, which premieres Friday. How do you pair immersive content with other mediums (documentary, articles, photos, etc.)?
There was also a lot of press going on around the film that helped introduce new audiences to the medium. We like to takeIndividual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. any opportunity to introduce a new audience to this medium and get more people interested in immersive formats. (JP)
And how do you decide which stories would lend themselves well to 360?
We know that not every story requires every medium, so we have to ask ourselves whenever a great story comes in from a writer or photographer if it’s best for 360, audio, or something else. We’re very considerate of the medium a story should be told in, and that will continue. For 360, we’re always looking for stories where being surrounded by the environment lends a deeper understanding of that place and the wildlife that live there. (JP)
For me, the main thing in VR is whether or not the story benefits from being told in that format. Does the format add value? For The Okavango experience, we were really lucky to be able to do it as an immersive piece, because the format really suited the story. The story is elevated by bringing viewers into an immersive environment. (KM)
What’s next in immersive media from National Geographic?
In 2019, we’re doing another four-part series, about women scientists and water conservation. We’re very interested in the idea of doing series in the near future. We can’t say much more because it’s still in development. (JP)
Another part of this partnership is to offer access to these cameras for our photographers on assignment for the magazine. There will be a number of pieces from our contributors coming out over the next year. (JP)
With the partnership, we also have the opportunity to send the Halo camera out on assignments with other National Geographic photographers. Quite a few Nat Geo contributors have voiced interest in the technology. When you’re dealing with a relatively new technology, you need to give people the opportunity to try it out and coach them along. (JP)
Can you talk about the process of introducing this new technology to Nat Geo contributors from other backgrounds?
With Kaite and I both coming from the New York Times, we’ve both trained a lot of photographers and filmmakers on this technology. We’ve found that photographers are especially patient with this medium. They’re very comfortable composing the frame and waiting for something to happen in it, and that can be applied to 360 video. Place the camera and be patient enough to allow something to happen around it. (JP)
It’s been exciting to see how interested the photographers are in the technology, and how willing they are to learn. We get pitches from them all the time with great ideas for immersive stories. Then, we can train them on how the cameras work and the best practices, and send them out to the field with their amazing background in photography and their eye for beautiful shots. (KM)
I think the big change between traditional photography and 360 is the focal point. In traditional photography, you have the subject and you want to frame your compositionThe layout and relative position of the objects within a shot. around that. But with 360, you see the whole scene so you have to have a more holistic view of what you’re filming. You can’t just think in terms of one focal point where the main action is. You have to think about what else might come into play when setting up your shot. (KM)
How did each of you get into VR in the first place?
I started working in VR when I arrived at the New York Times back in 2015. I helped launch the NYT VR app and the Google Cardboard rollout. I also produced 15 VR projects during my three years there. (JP)
I started getting into immersive formats back at the University of Southern California, as a student of Robert Hernandez. After I graduated, I came on as an editor and producer for NYT’s Daily 360 project, and that’s where I really learned all about the production process of immersive formats. Then, I joined Jenna here a few months ago. (KM)
Do you have plans to experiment with augmented reality in the near future?
We’re definitely very interested in AR, especially with the relaunch of our mobile app. We’re excited for next year and we’re excited to continue figuring out how best AR will apply to NG storytelling. (JP)
That fits with what we were talking about earlier, how when we get a story idea from a photographer or writer, we want to make sure it’s being told in the best medium for that story. And that might include AR. (KM)
What happens after the YouTube partnership?
There’s no time limit for the partnership, so we’ll continue dreaming up what we can do with this technology and adapting alongside it. That’s the best part about working in this medium: imagining what we can do with this technology. (JP)
The first episode of The Okavango Experience series launches Dec. 11, 2018, on National Geographic’s YouTube channel, website and on National Geographic’s VR app on Google’s Daydream platform. Successive episodes will be released on the next three Tuesdays.