Until now, Eline Jongsma & Kel O’Neill, an award-winning Dutch-American filmmaking team, has been best known for “Empire,” the Emmy-nominated interactive documentary which appeared at The New York Film Festival in 2013 before being acquired by POV.
The filmmaking team was recently awarded the inaugural Tim Hetherington Visionary Award in memory of the celebrated British photojournalist and filmmaker (“Restrepo”) who was killed covering the civil war in Libya in 2011. They received the award for their latest project, “The Ark,” a virtual reality documentary that will tell the stories of the African and American rangers and scientists who are fighting to conserve the world’s last four remaining northern white rhinoceros.
The pair is shooting “The Ark” with a 360° camera system in both San Diego and Kenya. With the funds they received from the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award, they have already shot the San Diego portions of the film. They are raising funds via Kickstarter to shoot alongside the rhino bodyguards in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. In just a few days, they have already raised nearly $10,000 of their $21,500 goal.
Indiewire recently connected with Jongsma and O’Neill over e-mail to learn more about the project:
How did you decide on this subject matter?
Eline Jongsma (EJ): A year and a half ago, we were about to become parents and I was reading The Economist in my doctor’s waiting room. One of the articles really quickly mentioned “frozen zoos.” I told Kel about it, and we were immediately fascinated by this hidden world.
There are only a few frozen zoos in the world and they basically store genetic material of different kinds of animal species, a lot of them endangered, some of them extinct. We got in touch with the San Diego Zoo and found out about their stem cell rescue effort that they were doing in collaboration with scientists from Scripps. And that’s how we ended up working with Nola, the last remaining northern white rhino in San Diego.
How far along are you in production?
Kel O’Neill (KO): We’ve shot everything we need in San Diego, and stitched that footage up pretty well. That’s an intense part of the process: we’re shooting with a ten camera GoPro array, so all of these different images have to be stuck together, or stitched, into a giant 360° image ball. It’s super time-intensive and the closest thing you can experience nowadays to shooting film back in the day. You shoot, you wait, you freak out and then you have to work with what you have.
Kenya is our next, and last shoot, for “The Ark.” There, in Ol Pejeta Nature Conservancy, the last three northern whites are guarded by a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week bodyguard squad. One of the rhinos is the last male on earth. He’s named Sudan and he’s 41-years old, which is an eternity in rhino years.
The Kickstarter’s really there to get us to Kenya so we can get 360° footage of Sudan and the other rhinos before they disappear from the planet. Bear in mind there were seven northern white rhinos when we started working on this project a year and a half ago. Now there are four.
Why is VR the right medium for this particular project?
EJ: There is something about the solitude of the animals. Live-action VR makes you feel like a floating brain—pure consciousness. You experience their solitude directly, emotionally. You can float between two environments and two communities that are worlds away from each other in physical space. It’s a very dreamy medium, and we gravitate to that.
What are some of the challenges inherent in shooting VR?
KO: Data management is the boring answer. What do you think?
EJ: There is no picture frame! It requires a completely different way of looking at film. We love a good challenge.
You say the biggest challenge is time. How much time are we talking about?
KO: There’s no way to know. Scary, isn’t it?
Find out more about “The Ark” on the Kickstarter campaign page.