Watch! Behind the mask: Anthony Geffen, virtual-reality pioneer

Documentary filmmaker Anthony Geffen has carved a niche at the forefront of high-tech cinematography. He tells Danielle Green about his passions for storytelling and videography, while at work on a pioneering virtual-reality shoot in Dubai

July 21, 1969. An eight-year-old boy in England, his face bathed in the light of a black and white TV set, looks on rapt as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of lunar module Eagle onto the surface of the moon.

But while at that moment an entire generation of eight-year-olds resolve to become astronauts when they grow up, another idea is percolating in the mind of this small boy. Anthony Geffen, captivated by the magic of beaming images from more than 200,000 miles away into homes on Earth, decides he wants to make films.

And make films he does. Geffen spent a decade at the BBC and since 1992 has run his own London-based company, Atlantic Productions – with a focus on specialist factual and theatrical programming using cutting-edge techniques such as CGI, 3D, ultra-HD and virtual reality (VR). 

Geffen’s portfolio includes acclaimed work such as Inside the Commons (BBC), in which his team gained unprecedented access to the inner workings of Britain’s seat of government; feature documentary The Wildest Dream (BBC/National Geographic), which sees mountaineer Conrad Anker return to Everest to solve the mystery of George Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 expedition; and Time Scanners (National Geographic), which unlocks the secrets of the world’s most iconic engineering feats, such as Machu Picchu, using 3D laser-scanning technology.

But it is the producer’s association with British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough for which he is recently best known. The pair have made 11 documentaries, winning 32 major awards, including two British Academy Awards and four Emmys. Among these are 2015’s David Attenborough Meets President Obama (in which Obama interviewed the broadcaster for his take on climate change), the Emmy-winning series First Life, which explores the origins of life on Earth, and the double BAFTA-nominated Great Barrier Reef series. 

Geffen concedes he has been “very fortunate” to work with a man he has admired since boyhood. In fact, in a pleasing circularity, his professional path has crossed with not one but two of his childhood heroes. Almost five decades after he watched Armstrong and Aldrin bounce across the lunar landscape, the producer has not only made his own documentary about the Apollo landing, but has also scuba dived with Buzz Aldrin after being invited to address an annual convention of astronauts in Curacao.

“To have Buzz Aldrin sitting there in the front row, listening to my tales, was extraordinary,” he says. “Later, we enjoyed scuba diving together. I had my children with me so they were, of course, bombarding him with questions!”

When we speak at Geffen’s office in London’s Hammersmith, his virtual-reality studio, Alchemy, is wrapping up one of its latest projects, a short film about Dubai. Shot entirely in virtual reality, the film, says Geffen, provides a brilliant opportunity to “capture the essence of this amazing city”, enabling viewers to “experience the texture and history of the place in ways they could never have imagined.”

The specifics remain under wraps. But Geffen offers the example of how audiences might encounter Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in this virtual environment. Sure, he says, some viewers may have experienced the ear-popping elevator ride to this 828m tower’s observation deck; but how about being virtually suspended from its exterior, Mission Impossible-style?

It’s a dizzying thought. I suggest that in the hands of less accomplished producers such hi-tech wizardry could risk pushing compelling narrative into the realms of gimmickry. But Geffen, regarded as a pioneer in VR broadcasting, is clear on the red lines. “We only ever use technology to enhance the story. We never sell the story out; we just find cleverer ways of telling it.”

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Filming David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef

And with television viewing habits atomised like never before, finding smarter ways of telling those stories is imperative. In a recent TEDx talk, Geffen highlighted the challenge faced by today’s broadcasters. “Eyeballs are shifting, eyeballs are elsewhere”, he said, referring to the myriad platforms and digital distractions vying for viewers’ attention. Techniques such as VR are, he says, a powerful new means of engaging an audience.

“One reason Sir David Attenborough and I got together is because we wanted to use new technology to push storytelling in a different direction; to tell the stories that he hadn’t been able to tell. David loves reaching new audiences and he understands that the next generation are plugged in to different platforms.”

It was, says Geffen, an enthusiasm shared by Barack Obama. After his interview with Attenborough, the pair gave the former President their VR production of David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive. The film, produced in collaboration with London’s Natural History Museum, takes viewers on a 360-degree journey through the world’s largest coral reef system, bringing them within (virtual) touching distance of sleek reef sharks and shimmering shoals of tropical fish. Obama was smitten.

“We captivated the President with the new technology,” says Geffen. “He didn’t know much about virtual reality and it moved him because he realized that kids in America who might not have the opportunity to get out of inner cities, could, through this medium, visit a national park.”

Geffen, who sat a few feet away from the interview, says Obama, a big Attenborough fan, was visibly affected by the experience. “The President was like a kid – genuinely excited. He left the presidential hat behind in that interview and it was incredible. Just me and the two of them sitting in a room in the White House. It was electrifying. At the end Obama turned to me and said: ‘How did I do?’ And I said: ‘Mr President, you did really well!’ And he did. It was a good interview. He’d done his homework.”

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The documentary filmmaker is regarded as a pioneer in virtual reality

Geffen describes the experience as among his career highs, and one he believes played its own small role in the climate change movement. “That interview led to the White House engaging more on climate change ahead of the Paris Summit. Because the impact (the film went out to 100 million people) was huge.”

It is, says Geffen, a perfect example of filmmaking’s storytelling power.

“Sir David Attenborough taught me that you show people how fascinating something is so they want to explore it for themselves. You don’t go in at the front and say ‘you need to save this place’. That’s a big turn off.”

Coincidentally, filming in Dubai took place a month before the Dubai International Film Festival, whose 2016 edition featured a dedicated VR strand, an inclusion Geffen finds fitting. “In Dubai, technology seems to be of great interest to people. There’s also a strong tradition of storytelling in that part of the world. So I think it’s a region that is hungry for it. [VR filmmaking] hasn’t yet become a stable industry. But there’s no reason it couldn’t and I hope this festival will help stimulate that.”

For now, says Geffen, virtual reality is on the brink of something manifestly exciting. “We’ve moved, I’d say, five per cent of the way along a 100 per cent journey,” is his analysis.

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On location with Sir David Attenborough

So, with 95 per cent still to go, what’s possible with more fully realised technology? Geffen points to an increasingly immersive experience, highlighting a new project, a film about rainforests in which visuals will be accompanied by additional sensory input such as smell. In just a couple of years, he suggests, filmmakers could even be working with artificial intelligence to deliver something far more personalised. “We are starting to play with techniques where you can read a viewer’s face and eyeballs. The technology will know how that viewer is responding and deliver a journey unique to that individual.”

Equally compelling is VR’s potential application outside of entertainment. Alchemy VR, for example, is exploring an application that the medical profession hopes will further its understanding of mental health issues. Geffen says the technology may also help deliver beneficial effects for patients themselves. “My understanding is that with depression you can get trapped in a particular world or mindset. [VR] could be used to broaden that out in a very intimate way,” he says.

As we wind up, Geffen suggests I experience one of Alchemy VR’s showreels for myself. And so, from the comfort of an office chair in west London, I find myself lowered into the gin-clear waters of the Great Barrier Reef, craning my neck to follow a mercurial shoal of fish as it darts around me, sliding under the belly of a giant prehistoric sea creature, and (this came as a surprise) decanted onto the exterior of the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa. It’s an exhilarating journey. If this is what five per cent looks like, bring on the other 95.

Anthony Geffen will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The 2017 edition of the Festival takes place from 3-11 March. For more on the festival visit www.emirateslitfest.com