Shooting “The Click Effect”

Over the past 25 years I have made films in just about every imaginable environment: the Sahara desert, the mountains of Peru, Nepal’s hinterland, remote villages in East Africa and others. But until recently I had never directed a film underwater.

Last year I was invited to the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University for an introduction to virtual reality (VR). The demonstration, in which viewers put on a headset to see a fully rendered 360-degree film image, made me completely believe I was suspended 30 feet in the air when I was still standing on solid ground. Being in VR felt exactly like being in the real world, and I was stunned by what I had experienced. I immediately realized that this technology had the potential to become a powerful form of storytelling, and I couldn’t wait to make a film in this new medium.

Around the same time, I read James Nestor’s book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves and realized that the story of two freediving researchers studying the language of whales and dolphins would be perfectly suited to VR.

Shortly after reading Deep, I partnered with Nestor, the Los Angeles-based VR startup company Vrse (now called Within), freedivers and researchers Fabrice Schnöller and Fred Buyle, and the Sundance Institute to produce The Click Effect, a VR film that allows viewers to make a deeper connection to the beauty of the world and to some of the world’s most intelligent creatures: dolphins and whales.

The film follows Buyle and Schnöller as they freedive deep beneath the ocean’s surface to record the “click” communication of cetaceans. One of the first VR films to be shot almost entirely underwater, The Click Effect includes never-before-seen 360-degree footage of face-to-face encounters with bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, humpback whales and sperm whales, which are among the world’s largest predators.

VR films are made using multiple cameras shooting in every direction and then using advanced software to stich together the images from all the cameras into a continuous 360-degree shot — like taking a panoramic shot and stretching it in every direction.

Schnöller had shot all of the necessary whale and dolphin encounters, but we still needed footage that told the story of their research and that would allow others to experience diving underwater. With time of the essence, we needed a single destination that would provide excellent variety and quality of diving; we selected Grand Cayman. The water was extraordinarily clear, and the dive sites were all close to shore and within minutes of each other, allowing easy access to multiple sites each day. The island has several significant wrecks including the USS Kittiwake, which we knew would photograph well and have great presence in VR.

Our dive team consisted of my partners, Nestor, Schnöller and Buyle; my son, Reed, who is a dive instructor; local guide Graham Johnson and our boat captain, Brad Nelson. In our first day of scouting we identified five primary dive sites, which included the wrecks Kittiwake and Doc Polson as well as Devil’s Grotto, Eden Rock and an above-water remote location on the north side of the Island.

After deciding on these sites, we planned how we would shoot sequences in each location. VR is a new medium, and many of the traditional rules of underwater cinematography no longer apply. This uncharted film language and new shooting methods are in the early stages of development, and we broke new ground in VR while shooting The Click Effect.

A snorkeler holds a pod that contains six GoPro cameras

Schnöller had worked with the French company Kolor to develop an underwater VR rig that uses six GoPro cameras mounted in a bubble housing. He used this rig to shoot all of the dolphin and whale footage, and we brought two of these units with us.

Since the cameras photograph in every direction, we needed to rethink many of the normal conventions of filmmaking. The director and crew can no longer be “behind” the camera, since everything is visible in the shot. We had to carefully plan the placement of the camera and the action that would happen around it. I also knew camera movement was critical. We experimented with various methods, including tethering the camera to a long pole held in front of one of the divers, adjusting the buoyancy of the rig and weighting it just enough to allow it to slowly rise or fall through the water or allowing it to hover or settle onto the ocean floor.

Each of the six cameras had to be turned on individually while on the boat, and then the rig had to be sealed and lowered into the water, where we would have approximately 30 minutes of shooting time for each set of takes.

In 360-degree filming even divers on the surface can be seen, so I had to establish each scene and then swim out of the shot. Reed, Johnson and I would accompany the freedivers down to determine the shooting positions for each location and then rise to near the surface to watch the first take before getting back aboard the boat while the freedivers continued filming. It was a laborious process and equivalent to shooting blind, since these early rigs don’t allow for director viewing monitors.

Every film opens a door of discovery, and this was especially true in shooting The Click Effect in VR. We had to learn how transitions would work from shot to shot (since you can’t cut from a close-up to a wide shot), figure out how to draw the audience’s attention to different parts of the frame with sound and image, and determine how traditional dissolves and narration would work. It’s rare to be on the ground floor of a new storytelling medium when there aren’t yet any rules. But with this comes a huge responsibility to figure out how to create a new language to tell powerful stories that audiences are going to want to watch.

We returned to Los Angeles and for the next six weeks worked with our team of engineers, editors, composers and visual-effects artists to finish the film. It was finally completed at 2 a.m. the morning of its initial launch at Sundance in January 2016.

The Click Effect was extremely well received and was also showcased at the Tribeca and Seattle International film festivals. The first Op-Doc VR film published by The New York Times, it is available now as a free download on the Within and NYTVR websites.

At the Sundance Film Festival a paraplegic man in a wheelchair took off the headset after watching the film, and tears were streaming down his face. We asked if anything was wrong, and he replied, “No, it’s just that I have always dreamed of swimming with dolphins, and I just have.”

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2016