How did Habitat XR come about and was the intention always to do films about nature?
I was running a VR production company which started in 2014 that did a lot of commercial work, from banking to baby wipes. The jobs paid well and we were always busy, but I felt like I was selling my soul. My whole team was knocking out 100-hour work weeks, pulling overnighters to service ad agencies and brand managers, and it made me start asking whether it was really worth it. The money was decent, but 3 things were lacking: Fulfilment, doing good in the world and being visible as proud Africans on a global scale. In 2016 I decided to open a division of the company where we could use profits to do the work we wanted to do.Over time, we realised how much impact this kind of work could have and so this passion project division became Habitat XR, its own company with its own mission.
Partially because I grew up spending a lot of time in nature and to this day the magic of witnessing the wild blows my mind every time. It’s a feeling I wanted to share with other people. Secondly, in South Africa we’ve got such great access to wildlife – something we take for granted. And as a South African VR production company with ambitions of being on a global stage, we wanted our work to be different of a completely different nature (excuse the pun) to what else was out there. Nobody else – not even the big broadcasters like National Geographic – was doing nature and wildlife VR on a consistent basis so we saw the gap.
Tell us how Ellen came to choose you for her Gorilla fundraiser film?
I had been trying to work with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund for a while (the foundation started by the conservationist made famous by Gorillas in the Mist). I had the fortune of winning tickets to trek with gorillas in 2018 which gave me the opportunity to walk into the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s offices unannounced to try have a meeting with senior staff, VR headset in tow. They loved what they saw and the conversation continued for a while. A little over a year before, Ellen DeGeneres’ wife, Portia Rossi, gifted Ellen a conservation foundation for her 60th birthday, and they had partnered with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund given Ellen’s passion for gorillas.
So when The Ellen Fund asked DFGF about sending a team from the US in to film gorillas in VR for an upcoming fundraiser, DFGF said they already knew an African team who could do it. The Rwanda Development Board became a partner too which made the shoot a possibility.
Tell us about the experience of filming it.
Ellen wasn’t on the shoot unfortunately, but she has spent time up there with Portia. The shoot was the most physically demanding shoot we’d ever done at the time. We were given special permission to spend extended hours with gorillas that the public don’t get to see. The hike into the jungle was like marching up the steep side of a cliff made of celery sticks. Volcanoes National Park is at quite an altitude, so oxygen is a little thinner than normal. We endured endless stinging nettle, temperature fluctuations from “gotta take my shirt off or I’ll die” to “how is it hailing right now?”. We did this 3 days in a row to get the shots we did.
What was the feedback like from Ellen and the people it was shown to?
Everybody – I mean literally everybody from Ellen to James Corden, Kris Jenner to Julia Roberts, loved it. Lots of shrieking and giggling. We were invited before the fundraiser to show Ellen & Portia the experience privately, and their reactions were priceless.
What is the actual technical process of your films and what makes it special?
VR is watched in a special VR headset. When you look around in the real world, your brain is convinced you’re looking around in another world – in this case, the jungles of Rwanda. The technical process involves using specialised 360 degree cameras to film the action, usually operated by our own wildlife-specialised team, and then ‘stitched’ in post-production to create a panoramic video that feels and sounds completely realistic. It immerses people in other environments that they may never get to experience in real life.
What is your next project?
We just got back from the Himalayas filming an amazing project about the natural value of northern India. Specifically we were quite focused on snow leopards, and were fortunate enough to capture some astonishing, never-captured-before footage of a mother with two sub-adults in VR!
How could young filmmakers get to train to do what you are doing and what is your advice to them?
There are cost-effective consumer-grade 360 cameras available from South African retailers that are great to experiment with. Nowadays there are many online tutorials, too – so I would suggest jumping in and experimenting. The fundamentals of storytelling and filmmaking still apply, so an understanding of these is also very advantageous.
Says Ulrico in conclusion: “The ultimate goal for us is to get people everywhere to care more about nature by making it more accessible through immersive technology. We call it ‘democratizing access to nature’. The world needs us to be better guardians of nature, but we don’t easily care about what we haven’t witnessed. In a world where seeing nature in person is becoming more and more exclusive, we can witness more than ever possible before.”
To view it: The Ellen Fund has made it available in different forms for free at www.theellenfund.org/getvr