In January 2020, the students of the New York University in Abu Dhabi were taken on an excursion to Anthony Geffen’s Atlantic Production studios in the UK. Geffen is renowned as one of the world’s leading documentary filmmakers and a pioneer in immersive storytelling.
The three week gruelling course, designed by Geffen in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi-based University, is an exploration of how immersive technologies (virtual, augmented and mixed reality) are transforming storytelling and how it is evolving into a fast paced and disruptive industry.
“Although J-Term courses span just three intensive weeks, the experience is timeless,” says NYUAD vice provost and associate vice chancellor, global education and outreach Carol Brandt. Speaking more about the J-Term Brandt says that the course is a jewel in NYU Abu Dhabi’s offerings.
She adds: “It enables our students to put theory into practice through extensive fieldwork experiences within and beyond the UAE. Students have seminars in 24 countries this year. Many of the courses also have a special focus on the UAE as a case study. And J-Term continues to grow — this year, more than 1,300 students will participate in 90 courses, compared to just 145 students in 15 courses when the programme began a decade ago. This would have not been possible without our own exceptionally qualified faculty and the wide range of other extraordinary scholars, artists, and professionals with whom NYU Abu Dhabi has developed strong ties.”
Geffen developed the inaugural version of the course in January 2019 as part of a curriculum development initiative with NYUAD’s programmes in Film and New Media and Interactive Media. NYUAD students have also interned at his Atlantic Productions facility.
“The aim of this course is to enable students to utilise new immersive technologies for storytelling and how it’s evolving a fast paced and disruptive industry,” Geffen tells Digital Studio ME. “The visit to the Atlantic studios showed the students how these technologies are being used on the cutting edge of filmmaking and storytelling in the real world. The students also got a chance to see the cutting edge technology and experiences which aren’t available anywhere else in the world and is right on the forefront of what’s happening in the immersive industry.”
Moving forward the students will use this knowledge to create their own immersive films.
Geffen predicts immersive storytelling is set to become one of the most important forms of filmmaking in coming years, as the industry continues to make huge leaps in VR, AR and other immersive technologies. “[Acquiring] these skills are going to be vital for all filmmakers in the near future, so I think it’s incredibly important to teach the students all about immersive filmmaking at this early stage in their careers.”
Does more technology mean we are about to lose the art of telling a story in its purest form? “2D television and film are always going to have an important place in storytelling,” Geffen says. “But new immersive techniques such as VR and AR and the techniques that surround them are going to enable us to tell stories in a very different way. In fact, it’s important that VR and AR tell the stories that are relevant for their medium, because are so many stories that are better told in 2D.”
The students who visited the Geffen’s London-based Atlantic Studios were exposed to a mixture of classwork, workshops, field trips and guest lectures from industry leaders and world class storytellers to teach the students new storytelling structures and how these can be used across multiple platforms to create immersive content.
Geffen says the new generation of filmmaker coming through universities from around the world are better understanding the nuances of immersive story telling. He notes: “In many ways, new age filmmakers come with a very relevant set of skills which were not around previously, from social media interactivity, gaming and graphics. These are really useful skills in terms of immersive storytelling and give up-and-coming filmmakers a big advantage. One thing that is really important is that in all mediums, the storytelling is the most important thing.”
A recent example is Geffen’s work the History of the Emirates — a series produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi that spectacularly uncovers the historic past of the UAE stretching back 125,000 years culminating in 1971. The five-part series used CGI to recreate 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.
It’s safe to say that the contingent of travelling students have a whole new perspective to filmmaking. Two students — William Mlekush and Sreerag Jyothish — spoke to Digital Studio and shared their first-hand experience of the excursion upon their return.
“My greatest takeaway from this course was the demystification of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality,” Mlekush says. “By demonstrating the current accessibility and maturity of the technologies through innumerable case studies, the class drove home how important this decade will be for the development of these immersive technologies. I came to understand that what ought to be showcased on these platforms is not technical prowess or cheap advertisements, but well-crafted stories. After all, it’s not the processing power or the field of view or the motion tracking that determines the value of these technologies, but how they enable and shape the ideas of the people who create and communicate with them.
Jyothish predicts that the fundamental medium in question itself is going to change. “In what we talked about in the classes, and experienced, that was kind of the biggest thing; that the change of medium, than in the technical phrases such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality, is really a reflection of the loss, or rather the moving beyond the need of physical constraints / media. Transitioning, albeit slowly, where the real physical world becomes the canvas / medium to all that information and technology can bring to us.
Jyothish’s ambition is to work for a production house that works on creative and commercial content experimenting on ways of expressing stories, facts, and fiction in aim of disrupting existing ways of doing the same.