Oddly, the most star-studded project of the entire Tribeca 2017 Film Festival was this short 360 documentary that embeds viewers amongst soldiers tasked with protecting African elephants from ivory poachers. As if Oscar-winning director Bigelow wasn’t enough, the film was produced by Annapurna Pictures, the motion picture company of Megan Ellison which has been responsible for recent films from Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze, and a Tribeca panel on the project was graced by the surprise presence of Hillary Clinton. But, is the piece good?
A philanthropic effort to raise awareness and funding for the work of African Parks and Enough!, two NGO’s that work to shut down the international trade of ivory, The Protectors, like so much of VR content right now, is hit and miss, but undoubtedly benefits from the kinetic visual eye of Bigelow. We watched the 10min long documentary at its festival debut in April on a Samsung Gear headset, and it is now available via National Geographic on YouTube and a range of VR apps, such as With.in. Like all VR pieces, you can watch below via click and drag navigation in the Chrome browser, but for best results use the YouTube app with your phone and pair with a headset like Google Cardboard.
360 documentaries suffer in that they are not able to replicate some of the features that have made modern short docs so good—the display limitations of mobile phone 360 dulls the cinematography, and the medium greatly restricts what one is able to accomplish through dynamic editing. From a technical perspective, the camera in The Protectors is often situated too high for my liking, giving a floating sensation I’ve encountered in other 360 documentaries like the similarly-themed experience, The Ark. Additionally, the camera is often placed on a boom pole and held out in front of groups as they patrol. Navigating the bush from a 1st person perspective is a transporting POV, but the camera shake this introduces is mildly nauseating, and Bigelow and Imraan Ismail (The Displaced, Valen’s Reef) are not always thoughtful in their cuts, which can be disorienting.
Still, the influence of Bigelow, a cinematic action filmmaker of the highest order, expresses itself on more than a few occasions. Rapid z-axis movement of the camera through grass is exhilarating, and a scene where a helicopter drop occurs directly overhead is a stunner, providing a sensation that no 2D film can recreate.The emotional climax of the film, a scene beside a dead and decaying elephant, tusks removed, is heartbreakingly composed, and accomplishes the project’s goal of imparting in the viewer a feeling of immense sadness and outrage. If the project’s mission strikes a chord with you, continue through to their website to see how you can help the cause.
With a new VR project from Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu becoming the surprise toast of Cannes this year, we fully expect to see more and more high-profile directors like Bigelow trying out this new medium. As VR insiders continually proclaim, we’re still in a feeling-out period for how to create compelling stories immersively, but we believe in talent above all else, and the participation of the some of the world’s great filmmakers in VR portends an exciting future.