A three-part documentary series — and a three-year labor of love — the project was originally conceived by filmmaker Jonathan Griffith and world-famous climber Ueli Steck, who set out to climb both Mount Everest and Mount Lhotse without bottled oxygen for the first time in history. After Steck fell to his death while acclimating on Mount Nuptse, his friend and climbing partner Sherpa Tenji took up the mantle to try and complete what his mentor had started.
“Everything we hear about Everest nowadays is about the Western conquering hero,” explains Griffith. “I quite like this story because it’s actually putting the sherpa community on the central stage.”
We sat down with Griffith to learn more about Everest VR: Journey to the Top of the World and his approach to adventure VR filmmaking.
What first interested you in VR as a medium? How has it changed your approach to filmmaking?
Jonathan Griffith: I come from a mountain cameraman background — I’ve always been passionate about capturing humans pushing the boundary of exploration in these wild places and sharing that with the world. Alpine climbing isn’t just about beautiful scenics though; it’s about the human struggle in these often alien-like places. That’s not always an easy thing to be able to bring to the viewer in traditional media, but VR does it so well. It offers immersion both in the physical sense and the emotional sense, and of course we get to play with all the strengths of immersion such as sound as well. Honestly, once I first discovered VR, I knew that that was all I wanted to shoot and produce — going back to traditional media would feel like a huge step backwards. There’s still so much untapped power in VR, and every day we’re learning a little bit more.
How did your vision for this three-part series change over time?
JG: It was actually input from the Oculus team that crafted it into the piece that it is today. That’s part of what I love about VR though: We’re at a stage where we’re still trying to work it all out, and the only way to do that is through a lot of collaboration and trial and error. The first episode turned out quite different than I had originally planned, but I’m really proud of how it both looks and is directed. It’s a complex story to tell in VR as it covers multiple people across geographical locations and time — which it turns out is quite hard to tell as a VR narrative.
You have to be very open to suggestions and ideas in VR. It’s often by thinking outside of the box that you come up with the best way to do VR narrative, and that’s why collaboration is so important at this stage.
What were some of the technical and environmental challenges you faced while filming?
JG: So many! On a very basic level, I just had no idea if the cameras would even work at those temperatures and conditions. I also wanted to try and capture some pretty interesting shots. There are nighttime time lapses in there where I’ve had to manually capture each frame which meant staying up all night outside hitting “record” every 30 seconds on the app. Those were cold and boring nights at high altitude. I also spent 13 days sitting patiently after an avalanche. In Chamonix for the first episode, we were still shooting until a few days before my wife gave birth to our second child, which made me really nervous whilst staying the night up high or on big mountain routes. I had organized with three different helicopter companies for pick-up spots in case I got the “emergency” call from her. Every text message I got on my phone almost gave me a heart attack. I guess you could also point out that climbing these huge technical mountain routes with such absurdly complicated capture, rigging, and audio equipment was a challenge, but I also had a great team of friends and climbing partners who all were an integral part of it
I know it may sound obvious to say that VR is not easy to capture, but in this vertical environment it’s another thing entirely. There are so many steps to successful and correct VR capture that challenge even people just working in a studio environment, but in the mountains we have to move fast to finish the route in a day. I really relished the challenge though, and because I was pushing VR capture so hard in all sorts of non-VR friendly environments, I also learned so much about the limits of VR and how you could also bend those limits.
Tell us about your team.
JG: I’m lucky to have a really excellent team working with me. My editor and producer-in-arms Matthew DeJohn has an incredible in-depth technical knowledge of the 3D world and has been an invaluable asset to the film — not only as an editor but also as a sounding board to some of my more wacky ideas. Often in VR, I’m just not sure if a certain shot is going to work out when translated to a headset, and it’s been a case of working out exactly how we can capture it whilst still adhering to the “laws” of 3D capture.
This series was also exciting from a sound design perspective. I really dug deep in the sound design mix with Brendan Hogan and his team at Impossible Acoustic — I don’t think any of us thought we would go on such a deep dive as we ended up doing, but sound design is something that is so often overlooked in VR and to me it’s as important as the visuals. You can direct a viewer so much more with sound than with visual cues. Honestly, I’m really proud of the sound design in this series. It’s just incredible and it took the experience to a whole new level.
Finally Keith Kolod did a fantastic job on a lot of the stitching — that is an art form in itself and he, like all the others, went above and beyond their budgets to make the series what it is today. I owe them all a lot not only for the work they did but also for spending hours exploring new ideas and going down the rabbit hole with me on a few of them.
Having said all of that, one of the more frustrating things about VR is that you’re trying to create realism for the viewer, and that means that if you’ve done everything right the viewer won’t think you’ve done anything at all. However, it does take a ridiculous amount of work in post-production to make everything feel right! I wanted to create an experience that was comfortable for viewers of all abilities and make them want to come back again and again. It always amazes me how many VR experiences are created without the viewer first and foremost in mind. If you make them feel uncomfortable, they will not come back for more.
What was it that first attracted you to adventure photography?
JG: As a climber, I felt like the public view of alpine climbing was rather warped — it's not all heroics and flags on the summit. My experience was really very much the opposite. It’s more of a war of attrition, but also a very calculated one. I wanted to capture that because I felt that no one was really bringing back these stories of human struggle and adventure in these far flung places. The advent of digital cameras changed all that, of course, and I love that, but back in the day I was using actual film and once digital came out I was carrying really heavy SLR cameras up hard routes. Now I seem to have gone a step further and I’m carrying up these immense VR camera systems that make even the heaviest SLR look like a compact camera! But for me, that’s the next step in my work and how I want to bring people into my mountain world.
How do you think VR will continue to impact filmmaking and travel moving forward?
JG: I think once you’ve watched properly produced VR, you cannot fail to see that it’s the future. Of course these consumer changes don’t happen overnight, but I think we’ll be surprised how fast it will be for the hardware to catch up and for VR and AR to be ubiquitous. If you’d told me 10 years ago that we’d all be consuming video on our mobile phones, I wouldn’t have believed you, but here we are. There will still be a place for traditional media of course, but once the hardware catches up and we start to see application adoption, then I think the stigma that is so easy to associate with new tech will melt away pretty quickly. VR won’t seem novel to my kids when they grow up — it will just be how they consume media. But the VR that they’re going to be consuming is going to be completely different to the VR we are creating today, both in terms of narrative and interactivity. The only way to get there is just to get there. You have to marry the hardware with creative development and ideas, and that is an evolution rather than a revolution. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the possibilities of VR content — that’s what’s so exciting about it all right now.
What role do you see VR playing in the rise of global adventure tourism?
JG: VR is incredibly well suited for anything that involves adventure for sure, but I don’t really see it as a replacement for the real thing. Everest VR is the closest thing that most people will ever get to climbing Everest (for now), but if you actually have your heart set on climbing Everest, it won’t replace that wish — it will just accentuate it. In some way, I think it will help get people out there in nature, give them new ideas and passions. If you’ve managed to immerse me in a location or adventure that completely took my breath away then it’s something that I would want to explore in person, not something that I’d just tick off the list.
What I do think is really fascinating is the application of VR outside of just pure entertainment. I love the idea of classroom VR and trying to bridge the gap between students who can afford to go on school trips and those who can’t. You can bring a whole class to any location on the planet in VR, be that the Amazon or the Louvre, and students retain it far more than other media. I know because I’ve seen it. Now that’s a really amazing use case for VR. Similarly we have a 10-minute version of Everest VR that’s used in palliative care for outpatients undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy — your surface body temperature decreases when you watch Everest VR, which combats the uncomfortable elevated body temperature that chemo patients have in reaction to the drugs. How amazing is that?
What does it mean for you to be able to share Everest and this uniquely personal story with people across the globe?
JG: I think I’m pretty well detached from the story to be honest by now. I’m really proud of it though, not just as a story but as a project. I started out with this rather crazy idea and it took an insane amount of work to pull it off into the finished product that you can watch on Oculus TV today. People still cry when they finish the film, so I know it has some kind of an impact on them. A lady told me the other day that she’d remember it for the rest of her life, and that’s really nice to hear after you’ve put so much of yourself into a project. It makes me realize the real power of VR. It's exciting.
Your client list varies widely from Red Bull and The North Face to The New Yorker and the BBC. Who’s been your most memorable client and why?
JG: That’s a tough question. I guess working on the BBC Planet Earth series was a big childhood dream of mine — having been brought up on anything made by David Attenborough, that was a proud moment for sure. To be honest with you nearly all of my work projects are memorable just because they are so varied and I’ve been lucky enough to capture some of the world’s best climbers, sadly some of whom aren’t with us anymore. I actually think this VR journey has been one of the most interesting ones though; it has made me break out from the “outdoor” world and into the world of Hollywood and big production houses. That in itself has been a huge adventure, and I’m lucky enough to have spent a lot of time with incredibly passionate creatives, producers, and agencies. It wasn’t easy leaving the work world that I had embedded myself in, but it really opened up my eyes to how much raw creativity there is out there. The Oculus team has been incredibly supportive and honest, which I really appreciate, and I’ve also been very lucky to have worked with Vulcan Productions who I have huge respect for not only in terms of what they create but in their values and ethics.
What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?
JG: I’m off to Ecuador in a few days to shoot a VR story out there which I’m really excited for and then straight on to some completely different projects (for me). That’s also what is fun at this stage: We’ve managed to bring VR production costs down a huge amount and it’s now affordable for everyone and anyone which couldn’t have been said a year ago. It’s opening up the floodgates a bit which is a welcome relief from the last few years of always having to pitch to clients. I think next in terms of creative is going to be about interactivity within VR film and the new hand-tracking on Quest has certainly opened up my eyes to that — no need for controllers, so it can be a seamless and light interactivity from the user. Like I keep saying though, it’s all experiment. We just hope that, whilst we’re experimenting, we create something really interesting.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
JG: Get stuck in! I really do think that 2020 is going to be a turning point for VR. Costs are affordable, clients are interested, and headsets are now incredibly user-friendly. Adoption is here, and this is an exciting place to be as a creator. It’s not easy though, so you need to be motivated and spend a lot of time learning a whole different skill set, but the challenge is the fun really. Try out Everest VR, and if you can’t imagine how this media is going to transform into something truly incredible in a few years time, then I just don’t know what to tell you!