Inside a specially constructed full-dome planetarium at the center of Sundance’s New Frontier exhibit space, audiences of Lynette Wallworth’s expansive multimedia project "Coral: Rekindling Venus" are granted access to the usually unseen depths of the world’s coral reefs. "Coral" includes both a 45-minute cinematic reverie of high-definition underwater cinematography projected onto a planetarium ceiling, and an augmented-reality experience of digital animation and real-time oceanic data unlocked with a smartphone or tablet app.
Given the high-tech description, along with the project’s presence at the technologically cutting-edge New Frontier, it’s a winning surprise to be ushered into Wallworth’s deep sea fantasia through a decidedly no-tech victory of immersive design. Inside the planetarium dome there are no seats, only cushions and beanbags strewn casually on the floor. The subtle equilibrium change required to lie down and view the film from below lends the audience a childlike perspective, perfectly orchestrated to prepare them for the wonderland that’s about to unfold.
The film arcs overhead. Waves of kaleidoscopic footage of alien coral forms and vivid undersea denizens wash across the ceiling in successive close-ups. Viewers are guided in the experience by an original score, alternatively playful and ethereal, but there is no narration — this is not your standard instructional nature documentary "unless someone is talking to you as you watch," Wallworth notes, "not one piece of information is given to you. It’s just your relationship to [these creatures] and their relationship to you."
Strengthening the relationship between the human world and the globe’s endangered coral reefs is the mission of the piece. Inspired by the global cooperation of the 18th Century scientific community, which rallied together to observe the movement of Venus across the sun from points across the globe, Wallworth saw 2012’s recurrence of that natural phenomenon as the perfect time to bring together her artistic rallying cry for a similarly global connection to the world’s oceans. Beyond the temporal significance, there is the deep connection between sea and space at work in the piece, fusing the imaginative allure of two mysterious realms that have long fascinated humankind. Within the bubble of the planetarium dome, watching bioluminescent specks in the darkness of the deep sea fan out in constellations, the conceptual richness of Wallworth’s vision is undeniable.
But it is the equally rich conceptual marriage of mission and media that makes "Coral" a clear success when it comes to strategically expanding cinematic boundaries. The film and its screening space generate a meditative rapture. Regaining my feet and exiting the planetarium dome, there is a powerful moment of resonance as the real world rushes back into the space that "Coral"'s world has just occupied in my mind. It is this fleeting but visceral sense of a film’s world and our immersion in it that Wallworth seeks to engineer into lasting impact with her augmented reality component.
On the walls outside the planetarium screening space six images of coral hang in wood frames under gallery lighting. Each specimen is depicted on the same dark, draped fabric, more evocative of a museum display than a high-tech trigger to a 3D animation experience. The mismatched aesthetic makes what comes next all the more satisfying. I’ve just downloaded the "Coral" app to my smart phone. Approaching a painting with my phone camera pointed at the canvas, some hidden element seems to lock into place. The same coral I can see painted on the wall suddenly leaps into three-dimensional life through the window of my phone display. Tapping the screen, the coral’s canvas backdrop swings open like a barn door. Into this unlocked third dimension on the screen in my hand, the coral sinks down into an animated rendering of the ocean floor. Fish swim out from hidden caverns and linger before my eyes. This is an unmistakable instance of wow-factor.
"Coral" is not content to leave it at that. A tiny button that looks more at home on my iPhone display has also appeared. Press it, and the "Coral" application pings the Coral Reef Watch data feed of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Overlaid against the continuously animated 3D backdrop it delivers real-time information on the state of the coral reefs depicted in the film. It is the continuous real-time check in that forms the backbone for the project’s goal of creating long-lasting impact. "What I hoped is that you would feel the connection to the reefs through the work, and maintain the connection to the reefs through the augmented reality app. It’s the maintaining of the relationship that becomes important," says Wallworth. Beyond the display at New Frontier, anyone with the app can download the coral images that will trigger the app’s 3D and informational display from wherever they are in the world, giving the project an unlimited reach. (The "Coral" film is also being screened at planetariums around the world this week in connection with its Sundance New Frontier appearance.)
Like the integration of heavenly inspiration and undersea subject, Wallworth’s conceptual integration of technology is complex. The NOAA data delivered by the Coral app is available online for anyone to find. What Wallworth recognizes is that the emotional power of film is what gives that data meaning. Augmented reality has the potential to be an afterthought for transmedia strategies for traditional films. Not here. The 3D aquarium imagery of the AR component recalls the film’s beauty and power, providing an extended emotional body through which the energizing pulse of live data can continually beat. In an elegant echo of the project’s subject matter — the beauty that is to be found in a precarious but perfected balance of natural elements — Wallworth’s "Coral: Rekindling Venus" is a media ecosystem that is thriving.
Julie Fischer is a first year graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. She is a research assistant for the Open Documentary Lab.