Everyone loves the BBC’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet series. They provide a rare glimpse into the lives of the animals that inhabit our world, and weave a narrative that’s as immensely compelling as it is insightful.
However, no matter how great these shows are, they don’t let you get up close and personal with the animals themselves. The BBC Earth team know this too which is why they, in partnership with Google and Lenovo, have been working on developing a fascinating virtual reality experience to bring you closer to life in the ocean than most others have ever been before.
Designed for Google Daydream – with extra features on Lenovo’s new Mirage Solo headset – BBC Earth: Life in VR takes you on a journey from the Californian coast down into the depths of the sea and back again. It’s a great experience, one that takes you up close to sea otters and gives you a glimpse at never-seen-before moments in nature like a sperm whale hunting down a giant squid.
“Our mission is to find new ways of storytelling and bringing the natural world closer to different audiences,” Jill Kellie, commercial director for BBC Earth, told me. “We’re always looking for innovative ways to do that so, when this opportunity arose to create VR story, we just couldn’t say no.”
Building a living VR world
Having gone through the experience myself, it’s clear the BBC has put a lot of work into the project. Instead of using 360° video footage or pre-rendered settings, the development team at Preloaded created a completely interactive living world.
“Nothing here is pre-rendered,” explained Preloaded’s head of art Jon Caplin. “All the sea otters and creatures are aware of you, they react in different ways to your presence. They all go about their own daily lives, such as the sea otters hunting for urchins. All the animals have AI built into them.”
That may sound absurd for a short VR experience but it really does add a level of weight to the world. Sea otters are just as interested in what you are, as you are in them. Discovering a Garabaldi’s nest resulted in me being hounded by the famously territorial fish as it came at me from all angles. Brushing up against the skyscraper-sized kelp of the kelp forest sees it sway and bend around my presence. It’s all done to really make you feel like you’ve dived beneath the waves.
“It’s part of the brand, we always want crazy amounts of detail,” explained project lead and BBC Studios head of interactive Tom Burton. “It’s got to have the same authenticity that you’d have through the programmes.”
Working closely with the BBC Earth team, Burton and Caplin were able to tap into their vast wealth of knowledge to create an experience that was unlike almost anything else that had been produced for VR before. Working with natural history filmmaker Charlotte Jones on developing a script also provided a level of insight that went into making Life in VR feel more immersive than before.
“[Charlotte] was a fountain of knowledge. You get a firsthand account of how an animal works and what happens when you’re up close to it which, from an experiential point of view, is ideal. The ability to actually go and ask someone ‘what’s it actually like to meet an otter?’ is invaluable.”
Recreating BBC Earth in VR
For BBC Studios and Preloaded, BBC Earth: Life in VR didn’t just have to be faithful to nature itself, it needed to feel very much like a self-contained episode of Planet Earth or Blue Planet. For the BBC Earth team, that required flipping things on their head just a little bit.
“With traditional wildlife documentaries you have footage and you sit down in an editing suite to create the story,” explained Caplin. “This was on its head, we looked at what the key animals we were going to use and what the narrative was that would take us through this experience.”
When it comes to writing a script like this, things can get a little confusing. “We had to help Charlotte get her head around how she’s scripting the world,” explained Burton. “If she didn’t say it, it didn’t exist. You can’t just say ‘oh we’ve got footage of the shrimp so let’s use that’. We didn’t have shrimp, we never made shrimp.
“What Charlotte started to realise was that she was world building, rather than simply storytelling.”
Even with that shift from straightforward storytelling to interactive games design, BBC Earth: Life in VR manages to feel very much like the BBC shows. Despite its runtime of around 15 minutes if played through in one sitting – ignoring opportunities to explore and delve deeper into the world – it’s very self contained. Focusing on four separate elements of life under waves, it very neatly ties back up right where it began, just off the coast of California.
“We discovered that the format we’ve developed over decades that works as a way to inform audiences is just as applicable to VR”, Burton adds. “Sure you’ve got to twist it about a bit, but people do just love the same thing; an opportunity to be taken on a journey.”
People do just love the opportunity to be taken on a journey
But where do you draw the line? Where do you say that 15 minutes is all you need when an episode of Blue Planet II lasts a full hour?
“With television, it’s 30 minutes and 60 minutes but that’s only because that’s how long pieces of tape used to be. My attitude is, make it as long as you want as long as it’s good and there’s enough money to make it.”
“You can spend as long as you want in there,” Caplin added. “In terms of length, we felt that we wanted a 10-minute experience from end-to-end but with a view that it could open up to a 40-minute one. It’s giving the player the free agency to create their own story, they’re hitting their own beats as they go through.”
A future of VR for the BBC?
As BBC Earth: Life in VR was developed in collaboration with Google, nobody is really quite prepared to inform me if the experience will find its way off of Google Daydream-powered devices and onto, say Oculus Go or even the HTC Vive. However, it does look like this isn’t the end of the BBC’s VR endeavours.
“What we’ve developed is basically an interactive format and we’d quite like to do another one,” Burton explained. “In the same way you’d have a kit of parts, shots and cameras and narrative, we’ve built that and taken it to an interactive audience.
“I really hope more people just start making VR [experiences] like this. We need to grow the audience and we’ve all got to do it – even if we’re competing with one another. I’d like to think that this is one such example that proves it’s viable.”
That doesn’t mean another BBC Earth experience is right around the corner, but the BBC does see an inherent value in investing time and resources into the medium. BBC Earth productions have always been about pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on film, with Blue Planet II‘s groundbreaking “mega-dome” enabling simultaneous above and below water filming.
“One of the values baked into BBC Studios production and distribution is to continually innovate,” explains Kellie. “VR is a massive tick in that box, it’s really important for us to be showing that we’re operating in the area and that we’re doing it properly. We’ve got to be the best storyteller in the world, and that’s one of our guiding principles.”
For the BBC, VR is just another medium for its storytellers to explore and innovate in.