The public have an appetite for 360 documentaries — and they’re willing to pay.

It’s been a very busy year for me in 360 film making, with three big projects back to back, it has been the most hectic period of work since I started directing immersive documentaries five years ago. This is a post about some of the work I’ve done this year, and how despite the creeping pessimism, there is in fact still cause for real optimism in this space.

In January of 2018, I’d just come back from a trip down the Nile with the BBC. We’d filmed a two-part S3D (spherical 3D) documentary on Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam, which will be the biggest dam in Africa when it’s finally finished. They are quite literally damming the Nile, and Egypt aren’t pleased about this.

Damming the Nile unpacked that story over two parts, both of which are available on the BBC VR app. Over three weeks, myself and a BBC team journeyed down the Nile from Sudan, into Ethiopia, and finally Egypt, to unpack the story in immersive 3D. The project was funded by BBC VR Hub, who as part of the project pushed through an app which showcases BBC 360 content on Gear VR and Oculus Go. The series went on to pick up the Rose D’Or award for Best Augmented or Virtual Reality experience for 2018.

Before the end of January, before I could even come to terms with finishing such a massive project, I was already on my way to Australia to work on a similar project in Antarctica. Whitespark Pictures, and their talented executive producer Briege Whitehead had got in touch about a project they’d been working on for more than a year — Antarctica. I jumped at the project. It sounded perfect for VR; incredible landscapes, an isolated impossible to reach place, and a story that could really carry the film. We were going to meet the people living and working on the frontiers of earth in Eastern Antarctica. Our film would tell their story, and the plan was for the Museum of Western Australia to exhibit the film once it was finished.

A quick glance out of the window and there it was — the frozen wilderness of the southern most continent. We spent more than two weeks at Davis Research station in Eastern Antarctica to shoot the material we needed for ‘The Antarctica Experience’, and it was a time I won’t soon forget. Incredible hours-long sunsets, penguins, elephant seals, glaciers, helicopter rides and icebergs.

What an adventure I was having in 2018 — VR was taking me to some of the world’s most beautiful places. And it’s exactly these incredible adventures that audiences want to take part in. The 360 video I’ve been shooting is their ticket to hitch a ride along the way. In fact, such has been the demand to see the finished Antarctica film at the Museum of Western Australia that it totally sold out its first run. By popular demand, a second run of showings sold out too. In Western Australia alone, more than twenty thousand tickets have been sold.

Trailer for The Antarctica Experience at the Museum of Western Australia

The model is simple — sixty to eighty synchronised headsets with the sound played out over a 7.1 surround system. The shared experience it creates means audiences leave the theatre sharing notes on their favourite parts of the film. ‘Gasps’, ‘oohs’ and ‘aawws’ are heard collectively rather than in isolation. Tickets are $15, a price point that Australians think is well worth it given the experience they get. The museum sells the ticket as part of the entrance ticket price, so audiences see it as a worthwhile add-on to their day out. A 360 documentary with good storytelling against an epic landscape, tied together at a world class on-sight attraction has really resonated with people. The shared on-sight VR experience is a model that is really working.

Just this month the Antarctica Experience headed to Australia’s capital where it will now run for at least another six months at the National Museum of Australia. With the museums really backing the project, giving it a good space and a decent run, audiences are taking up an interest. And the press coverage has also been fantastic, the experience peeked the interest of multiple radio stations, hit the local and national newspapers, and TV stations were regularly running news stories about it.

The premiere in Canberra on January the 3rd of this year, with representatives of many other museums all in attendance. The success of the format has turned heads; it can perhaps spur more on-sight attractions on to bring quality immersive experiences to their audience.

With news of many VR companies downsizing amid growing pessimism in 360 video and VR, the growing success of the Antarctica Experience goes to show there is an appetite for 360 documentaries out in the real world — and people are willing to pay for it. What’s required is high quality content, a decent location, and a system which properly plays back the experience for a large audience to enjoy.

To make the film required many companies to collaborate; my own company IMRGE, Dolby, Whitespark Pictures, and DNEG. Everyone worked tirelessly on the project until it was finally finished, but the work didn’t stop there. Briege Whitehead from Whitespark then worked tirelessly with the museum to build the synchronised system the experience would be played on, which has been crucial to its success.

It proves something that many people working in 360 video already know — when people watch the content, 360 creates impactful and memorable experiences. Now we know that there is a commercial model to iterate on which can bring audiences to our work.

The film now has a run of 180 days at the National Museum of Australia and ticket sales so far have been good. The appetite for this kind of experience has been proven, so lets see what 2019 brings for connecting mainstream audiences to immersive storytelling.

PS — I should most definitely mention that no sooner had my feet touched the floor from the Antarctica Experience, I was on an intensive hostile environment training course in order to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After weeks of pre-production, production, and post, the three part series is now available on the BBC VR App. It’s such a sizable chunk of work that I’ll unpack it all in a blog post to follow.

Get in touch @phillyharper or phil at imrge dot co

Formerly @truthloader. Sometimes @bbc. Running IMRGE VR. Creator of ‘Reddit for Sale’ and @howyougotcaughtinthenet Filmmaker. Creator. Programmer.