Alchemy to bring Attenborough docs to life on VR kits (Wired UK)

Opabinia, 5 eyes and a trunk,  a 450 million years old creature you come face to face with, with David Attenborough in a VR journey
Opabinia, 5 eyes and a trunk, a 450 million years old creature you come face to face with, with David Attenborough in a VR journeyCOPYRIGHT ALCHEMY VR)

A UK production company and visual effects studio have announced
the launch of Alchemy VR, a
branch dedicated to creating content for the likes of Oculus Rift
and Sony’s Morpheus. And they’re beginning with a David
Attenborough documentary on Earth’s early life.

and its sister VFX studio Zoo have been responsible for some of
the most stunning visuals on the small screen and IMAX, from David
Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D to Bafta
award-winning Flying Monsters 3D. It has been high on’s wish list to see an Attenborough-style documentary in
the VR world, coming up close to the ocean’s giants or smallest
bugs, and it looks as though that is what Alchemy plans to

The new studio will draw on Atlantic Productions’ more than two
decades experience of documentary-making to create educational
stories using a combination of “live action 3D, 360 videos and
fully immersive CGI worlds”. These projects, both with Sony and
Oculus Rift, are already underway and include a David Attenborough
documentary on the first animals that lived on Earth.

“David is enjoying working out how we can tell stories in VR,”
Anthony Geffen, CEO of Alchemy VR, told “He has always
liked new technology. Particularly when they tell stories in a
fresh way and make them more immersive.” Apparently Attenborough is
“very excited” about both Oculus Rift and Morpheus, and we can see
why after hearing the few hints the Alchemy VR team passed our way
about the upcoming production.

Apparently the team has had great fun playing with scale — “we
can make people feel truly massive, or we can make people feel
incredibly small,” Creative Director of Alchemy Phil Harper tells
us.¬†“We had this idea of placing people into a scene in which
the creatures around them are no larger than a playing card, but to
alter perspective to interpret the world on that much smaller
scale. It worked quite nicely, and suddenly very tiny creatures
took on a whole new meaning.”

The first programme, he says, is based on several creatures the
team had already built from the Cambrian ocean, around 550 million
years ago. At that time, the ocean was vastly more populated than
land — it was where life was emerging, including the earliest
arthropods. The team thought, when designing those creatures –
“wouldn’t it be cool if you could meet these guys face to

“So that’s what we started doing,” said Harper, “and the project
snowballed from there. The journey literally takes you back in time
to another world. We’re really excited about it.”

Given the subject matter, much of the programme will be
computer-generated, partially, explains Harper, because with VR
“there’s this desire to give people something they simply cannot
get at all in real life”.

“Sure you could go and jump out of a plane. But how about going
on a dive 400 million years ago? That kind of stuff just isn’t
possible at all, but Virtual Reality makes it possible for us to
give people those experiences, which is very exciting. In many ways
computer generated experiences are easier to get right as we found
in our first 3D productions.”

Alchemy VR believes with the combined experience and assets of
Atlantic Productions and Zoo, it’s well-placed to venture into VR
— it’s not a financial plunge, considering all the modelling and
VFX groundwork it already has.

Now, although has been looking forward to the first
Attenborough VR experience, we did have our reservations after
being plunged into the deep blue depths and attacked by a grizzly Great White with a hankering for human
flesh (thanks to Sony’s Morpheus). We’re assuming a few ancient
creatures bobbing in the early ocean won’t be quite so alarming,
but is Alchemy VR tempering its content to avoid this kind of
terror-fuelled result?

“Well there’s always going to be those concerns,” said Harper.
“The same was said of the cinema screen with people screaming at
the sight of a train. Those pieces of content which scare the
audience will definitely find their place — we’re actually really
interested by horror, thriller and suspense, because obviously VR
is going to make those experiences even more terrifying.”

“We can’t lose sight of the other end of the spectrum — it’s
still there — and the audiences are going to demand it just as
much. We showed the Tuscany Villa demo to one of the team’s mothers
and she giggled in awe. She understood it immediately. ‘I just want
to sit in Italy and have a glass of wine,’ she said. We were
impressed with how quickly she understood what VR meant — that we
can now take people to the most beautiful places in the world.
That’s a very cool thing, and we’re sure that an audience is going
to grow around this concept very soon.”

And the tech is nearly there, Harper believes, to share this
experience with the public everywhere. We have high-end devices
like Morpheus, and then there’s Google
. “It’s early days for sure, but I remember the early
days of mobile phones. The ‘early days’ really didn’t last long
once they were affordable, and VR already looks like it’s going to
be affordable for millions of people. If that doesn’t excite
content creators I don’t know what will.”

Harper believes it’s, in fact, the creative industry that is
actually having to play catch up now. When he first tried the
latest headsets, he instantly knew “it was going to be a very cool

“Some people put the Dev Kit 1 on and only saw a screen door
effect, a few technical problems, and a headache. I suppose there
are others who put it on and immediately see the potential of
immersing audiences in an environment. It’s a very powerful thing
and for creative companies who are looking into it, it’s a very
exciting time.”

The first sets obviously had their issues, but he believes “Dev
Kit 2 doesn’t feel much like a dev kit any more”.

Even so Harper does not predict that VR will replace home
theatres everywhere. “People said that about 3D, but they were
wrong. It just has its place and it has its audience. No one wants
to watch the weather in 3D, and no one is going to want to watch
the weather in VR. Or maybe they would, who knows…”

“What makes VR unique is that you can watch HD content in there,
you can watch 3D content in there, and you can also have incredible
VR experiences… All of these changes in technology are great, but
they are forever going to be reliant on storytellers, which for a
company like us is great news! I suppose the reason VR gets people
so excited is that it really does feel very different, it’s not
like the change from SD to HD. It’s a vast leap forwards, we just
have to make sure we deliver great content now!”

CEO Geffen says there is also an ancient world in the making,
for a future production, after the University of Arkansas shared
some of its preserved exhibits with them for data capture. Earlier
this year the University of Michigan launched its Online Repository of
, featuring high-resolution photos, CT scans and
photorealistic 3D imaging of a selection of its fossil collection,
including a Mammut americanum. Imagine that kind of
database, but brought to life through VR.

But Alchemy is just getting started, talking with major
broadcasters to see how VR can be incorporated and working on a
whole secret schedule beyond the first Attenborough outing.

“The amount of ideas we’ve got here at Alchemy is starting to
spiral out of control, which is something we’re pleased with!” said
Harper. “Because there’s essentially nothing that’s been properly
‘done’ in VR, there are endless stories waiting to get told. All of
the grammar of storytelling needs figuring out too, but again, we
keep coming up with ideas on how to navigate that. Now we are going
to tell factual stories which place the viewer in the scene. That’s
because of our roots have come from 21 years of telling leading
documentaries. We know we can do something which is truly powerful.
We’re looking across a number of genres and formats, the
possibilities in VR are endless and we have carte blanche to
develop them.”

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