Virtual Reality Films Inspire Ocean Conservation

‘The Click Effect’ and ‘The Crystal Reef’ premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival—no water required.
Apr 24, 2016·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Environmental filmmakers are toeing the waters of virtual reality in two ocean-related projects premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. While the two couldn’t be more different in concept, both aim to transport viewers beyond the knowledge of an environmental crisis to do something about it.

“Virtual reality is almost the empathy machine,” said Lauren Knapp, a graduate student in film at Stanford University and cocreator of a two-part immersive project called The Crystal Reef, which seeks to drive home the crisis of ocean acidification, a result of the burning of fossil fuels.

In the first part, viewers don standard VR goggles to join Stanford marine scientist Fiorenza Micheli for a dive at Ischia, an island off Italy’s coast, where carbon dioxide–spewing volcanic vents have naturally acidified the water, expelling most of the reef’s marine life.

The largely barren reef is a compelling location for scientists like Micheli because it offers a preview of what many more, perhaps most, ocean reefs will be like by the end of the century if the use of coal, oil, and gas for energy continues at the current pace.

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The second part of The Crystal Reef is even more ambitious, as Knapp and cocreator Cody Karutz, another Stanford graduate student, have re-created two sections of the Ischia reef, one healthy and one blighted by acidified water. After putting on another set of goggles, this time connected to a computer, and taking hold of two handheld controllers, viewers “swim” along each reef on a guided dive, plucking up shellfish samples while listening to information on the impacts of ocean acidification. At the end of the “dive,” viewers are asked a few questions to measure how the experience has changed their feelings about the problem.

“In marine issues, psychological distance is a big problem,” Karutz said. “We find that’s significantly decreased when you spend time in a virtual environment.”

The simulation is remarkably detailed. There’s something to see wherever you turn your head, although the look is so far more animatronic than photo-realistic.

“We can’t expect people to take a trip to Italy and dive in these reefs,” said Knapp. “We wouldn’t even want to—that would destroy them.” With VR, she hopes to bring the reef to more people and with it more attention on how current energy choices are harming marine ecologies.

The makers of The Click Effect also hope to sway viewers’ feelings about the ocean by taking them on a 360-degree encounter with dolphins and sperm whales.

The narrative focuses on scientist and free diver Fabrice Schnöller, who has worked for decades to decipher what these animals are communicating with their clicks, creaks, and groans.

It’s a fascinating story, but where The Click Effect—available via the “Op-Docs” section of The New York Times—stands out is in what it allows viewers to discover on their own. Casually glancing through the water in one direction can reveal a pod of sperm whales “floating” beneath the viewer’s invisible feet. Looking another way, the smooth flank of a dolphin appears, seemingly just a few yards away.

(Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival via

Director Sandy Smolan said he took an immersive media approach to The Click Effect rather than creating a more conventional movie experience because it offered him “the ability to combine documentary feel and dramatic storytelling structure.”

Unlike more traditional environmental documentaries, VR offers a way to “teach people about wonders of the ocean but without the hammer-over-the-head treatment,” said James Nestor, author of the book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, on which Click Effect is based.

“Virtual reality makes you feel like you are there,” Nestor said. “You connect and have greater connection to the ocean. I am convinced this could be an incredible way of saving these animals from annihilation.”