Face-to-face: Anthony Geffen, Atlantic Productions

Published: 18 September 2019 - 4 a.m.
By: Digital Studio Middle East Staff

In April 24, 2017, Anthony Geffen made history, winning the first-ever BAFTA awarded to a virtual-reality experience for David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive VR.

Geffen’s Atlantic Productions has collaborated with his childhood hero and screen giant Attenborough for 11 documentaries until now, including the BBC series Rise of Animals and David Attenborough Meets President Obama, which have won three BAFTAs in total. One of the world’s leading documentary filmmakers and a pioneer in immersive storytelling, Geffen has been described as the man “behind some of the most exciting advancements in VR/3D/AR and AI storytelling”.

On September 27, 2019 an Atlantic Productions project for Image Nation Abu Dhabi — the ambitious five-part series History of the Emirates will be launched globally by National Geographic. It spans 125,000 years and, using CGI, recreates ancient sites and the original landscape of the region. New forms of LiDar and ground penetrating radar were used to bring ancient sites to life.

Ahead of the release of the series, Geffen spoke to Digital Studio Middle East more about the future of “edutainment” and immersive technologies.

“History of the Emirates encompasses 125,000 years of the UAE’s landscape and history” Geffen says.

“We made this series for Image Nation, Abu Dhabi, and we were able to draw on extraordinary new research and experts. We used new forms of LiDar and ground penetrating radar which allowed us to bring significant ancient sites back to life. We also used new camera systems, drones and CGI which allowed us to tell the stories dramatically.”

For the UK native, the heat and the desert conditions proved to be quite challenging on occasion, he adds.

“We were very excited to make several immersive 360 films, including the story of a pearl diver, another telling the history of Qasr al Hosn fort, and a children’s app. The television series is being shown around the world on National Geographic channel this September.”

Geffen set up Alchemy VR to take on immersive projects that exploit virtual reality for diverse platforms; from museums and cultural institutions to Sony PlayStation VR and mobile screens, bringing audiences up close with hitherto inaccessible subjects.

Alchemy VR has worked on Space Descent, a 12-minute VR, 5K experience at the Science Museum in London, re-living the 400-km journey from the International Space Station back to Earth inside a digital version of the capsule used by British astronaut Tim Peake.

Meanwhile The Munguruku: Fight to Defend the Heart of the Amazon features cutting edge virtual reality filmmaking and multi-sensory storytelling, immersing viewers in the lives and struggles of an indigenous tribe, deep in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest. Alchemy also worked on Stephen Hawking’s Black Holes.

Over the course of a stellar career, Geffen has scooped up four British Academy Awards (BAFTAs) and eight Emmy awards for his documentaries.

Apart from the projects with David Attenborough, Geffen’s diverse oeuvre also encapsulates a rare sit-down conversation with Queen Elizabeth II for the documentary, The Coronation, My Passion for Trees with Judi Dench, the theatrical film — The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, a film with the late Stephen Hawking and the series Deep Planet, following five dives to the deepest points of the world’s oceans.

A fellow at St Cross College, Oxford University, Geffen is also a professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, initiating students in the art of immersive storytelling.

“It has been very exciting teaching the world’s first immersive storytelling courses,” he says. “We have been teaching the students to re-think the way they tell stories and giving them a toolkit, which will allow them to be at the forefront of immersive storytelling across many disciplines.” When asked to evaluate his experience of teaching immersive storytelling to the students at NYU Abu Dhabi, Geffen replied: “It is very enlightened of NYUAD to see the future value of these courses. Initial jobs will be in the media, but I believe it will grow out quickly from there to many different sectors.”

Geffen envisages technology giving birth to multiple career choices in the field of media and entertainment. Yet, honing their craft and skills at storytelling are always paramount.

“My advice to young filmmakers is to learn to tell interesting stories through traditional film making — to tell a story which is not too complex or too expensive to make which demonstrates a strong storytelling ability.

“Only then should they start to look at the different emerging mediums such as AR and VR because there are going to be huge opportunities in the future using those media.

So what is the future of immersive storytelling? Does he foresee it being made available on every screen, whenever and wherever — much like we access streaming content now?

“With the increasing bandwidth and introduction of things like 5G, immersive storytelling is going to be increasingly available through different portals, wherever in the world,” Geffen responds.

“This is particularly the case with AR which already has a sizeable installed base of AR-ready devices and soon this will translate to wearables.

“Much of the success will depend on good storytelling being coupled with really clever use of the new medium, which at the moment is weak. That’s why I think this is why the NYUAD course is so valuable — they’re preparing their students for this new world.”

While immersive technologies are slowly changing the face of many professions, as diverse as medicine and journalism, the positive impact will help popularise them even further.

“There is already a lot of interest in many areas including medicine, education and engineering as well as the media industry,” Geffen elaborates.

“We’re already working with Harvard Medical School on an immersive therapy, including AI, to help treat autism and depression, and I think interest in this will spread quickly.”

While this is an exciting new medium filled with possibilities, Geffen is also pragmatic about the challenges to VR being more widely adapted.

“VR works well for certain experiences, particularly business-to-business and certain edutainment experiences, for example our Space Descent experience in which you leave the International Space Station to fall back to earth in a photo-real environment. You could really only experience that in VR, and it’s doing very well.

“While VR can be a powerful device to create empathy in its audiences, it is also an individual experience and one that is difficult to share in a group. The technology — including the resolution — has also got to get better,” Geffen tells Digital Studio.

Coming back to content production, Geffen sheds light on the disruptive nature of immersive technologies “Immersive technologies are creating totally new forms of storytelling. They will no longer be linear and two dimensional,” he notes.

“Storytelling will not only be immersive, it can also be interactive. The experiences will also be enriched by 360 3D, AI and voice recognition. Once people have learnt how to use these new platforms properly, MR, VR and AR they will create an exciting new medium. In a few years’ time there will be a large demand for this kind of storytelling,” he predicts.

Atlantic Productions has an exciting slate of upcoming projects; including a series with Judi Dench in the Borneo rainforest, a theatrical documentary about the life of Stephan Hawking, a five-part series, Deep Planet; and a film in Ecuador using new robotic cameras, which simultaneously filmed each layer of the jungle, called Under Cover Jungle.

This May, American explorer Victor Vescovo broke the world record for the deepest-ever dive, descending 11km into the deepest place on the planet, the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. For this historic expedition, Vescovo’s crew teamed up with Atlantic Productions to shoot the underwater footage to be used in a documentary for the Discovery Channel.

“Filming Victor Vescovo’s dive, the deepest dive in history, in the Mariana Trench was very complicated,” Geffen recounts.

“We helped develop totally new camera systems which could withstand the enormous pressure at nearly 11,000 metres, rigging outside as well and inside the sub. The multi cameras inside the sub had to be able to film for up to 14 hours.

“We also needed new LED lighting systems to provide the light, as well as a new robotic lander system which could go ahead of the submarine to film Victor’s successful descent. The landers also collected new scientific samples some of which have potentially huge implications for medical research.

“VR is only one part of immersive storytelling, which together with AR and MR, is going to be a game changer in the next few years.”

Geffen concludes. “It is not until people start to produce ground-breaking experiences, using strong storytelling, which optimise the medium that it will take off.”

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