Anthony Geffen has brought viewers inside Stephen Hawking's mind and is a veteran of David Attenborough documentaries. His next project is going to Earth's deepest points and Netflix, Apple and Amazon are interested.
Anthony Geffen was first invited to meet with Stephen Hawking on Wednesday, 24th May 2017. A fan of Geffen’s pioneering work in virtual reality storytelling, Hawking hoped they might collaborate on a new immersive project. Drawing on his work on the second law of thermodynamics (which is concerned, in particular, with black holes) Hawking wanted Geffen to construct no less than a virtual tour of the universe, with Hawking himself serving as guide and narrator. There was only one catch: it had to feel real.
It was Geffen’s work on such BAFTA- and Emmy-winning 3D television-documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive, and David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies, that first caught Hawking’s attention. As CEO and creative director of Atlantic Productions – the pioneering company behind some of the most exciting advancements in VR, 3D, AR, and AI storytelling outside of Hollywood – Geffen was the perfect candidate to help bring the expanses of Hawking’s world to the masses. “I have never met anyone with non-stop energy like Anthony, nor his ability to get things done,” says Attenborough. “He has a unique vision, a fascination with new technology and an ability to bring together the best talent around him.”
Over the following months, Hawking and Geffen communicated back and forth on plans for the project. It was essential to Hawking that the experience took the viewer into deep space, and also that the film would still be able to hold its own in 20 years’ time. This was, after all, to be part of his legacy.
Geffen describes it as a “dream project”, explaining that he feels like Hawking has given him “the torch to carry” when it comes to engaging new audiences and generations in the mysteries of the cosmos. It was Hawking’s idea, too, that the experience should be in VR. This, he was sure, was the only way to construct a journey which allowed users to move around and interact freely with the universe.
“There’s a realism to it,” says Geffen. “Hawking’s understanding was better than anybody else’s. Especially on black holes. Not only that, he had this incredible way of visualising things. Most scientists see things in numbers, but he saw images. So, to sit down with him and map out a journey to me was the perfect way to tell a story on this bigger stage.”
And, although the genesis of the virtual journey came from Hawking, both he and Geffen knew it was essential that they consult other experts in the field if the project was to be as real and accurate as possible – it’s a decision that displayed an absence of ego about the project. Hawking, in Geffen’s words, “wanted us to have other experts involved, because he didn’t know everything about every element of space.”
Hawking was also adamant that the experience be made available to as many people as possible. According to Geffen, he “wanted it to be in shopping malls, he wanted it to be like a blockbuster movie.” This approach syncs perfectly with Geffen’s own view of sharing immersive experiences. Geffen believes that for immersive story-telling to advance the experiences must be made openly available to as many people as possible. To do this, he believes in offering VR experiences in places that normal people go to every day, such as shopping malls and other popular locations. One such experience – documenting the Amazon’s Munduruku tribe for Greenpeace – was launched in 2016, with free viewing pods installed in Rio De Janeiro and that year’s Glastonbury festival.
Beginning with a journey through a black hole, the experience will allow audiences to take in the wonders of the Universe via real-time graphics and feature film-level VFX. Its first frame will show a dark and infinite cosmos stretching out before the viewer, the blackness punctured here and there by the silver shimmer of distant stars. In the far distance, a swathe of milky white denotes a new and unexplored galaxy. In the foreground, hulking planets loom. At the centre of it all, a patch of pure nothing – a black hole consuming everything from light to asteroid clusters. Accompanying you into the depths of the black hole is the voice of the late Stephen Hawking, as he narrates his own vision of the cosmos.
Due to launch in late 2019, the VR journey will be available to view in specially-designed domes in strategic locations across the country, as well as a longer feature-length film released in cinemas.
“We’re at the forefront of the newest technology,” Geffen says. This is no exaggeration; in fact, he’s still building the tools necessary to finish the experience. “The delivery mechanism keeps changing because new bits of technology – particularly new seated haptic technologies – keep coming along that allow us to make it a better experience,” he explains. Get that right, Geffen argues, and you have the ability to transport audiences to worlds they could only have dreamed of.
A distant nebula is just one highlight in Hawking's VR tour of the Universe
Born in London in 1961 and raised in Sussex and Norfolk, Geffen got his first taste of filmmaking when he persuaded his parents to buy him a Super 16 camera at the age of eight. Each new roll of film ate up his pocket money, but Geffen didn’t care; he was hooked, shooting and editing films by himself.
“I grew up in an interesting time; by the end of the 60s, people were going to the Moon,” he says. “That’s only possible because of new technologies. You were not only caught up in the magic of them actually going to the Moon, but also the magic of how they did it.”
The eight year-old Geffen quickly put aside his own ambitions to become an astronaut, deciding instead that he would dedicate his life to telling stories. Geffen carried this passion to the University of Oxford, and then, in 1983, to a brief spell in Hollywood. After three months in California, working for Frank Wells, the president of Warner Brothers, an offer to join the BBC prompted Geffen to return to the UK. The next decade constituted what Geffen calls an “adventurous period” at the BBC.
As a young producer, Geffen was almost blown up by an improvised roadside explosive in Lebanon in 1986; worked alongside journalist Edward Behr to become the first broadcasters to reveal the true extent of Japanese emperor Michinomiya Hirohito’s involvement in World War 2 in Hirohito: Behind the Myth; and, with the late reporter Marie Colvin, spent nearly a year living with Yasser Arafat for the 1990 documentary, The Faces Of Arafat – a film praised by the New York Times as “a heroic effort”.
By the time he turned 31, Geffen had dodged death on almost every continent. Yet, even with all of this under his belt, Geffen was convinced that, when it came to innovative ways to convey a narrative, he had only just scratched the surface. In 1992, he left the BBC to set up Atlantic Productions, a company committed to marrying investigative storytelling with the latest visual technologies.
“I’ve made a point of getting to grips with each new platform as they came along, so they didn’t come as a surprise,” Geffen says. “In my lifetime, [so far] we’ve advanced from black and white television, to colour, and now to HD, to 3D, to VR… I don’t think there’s been any span of time that could have been better for storytelling.”
Geffen has long been an early adopter of new technologies. In 1996, for instance, he received backing to build his first ever virtual reality experience. By donning a headset and entering a specially-built pod, users could race chariots around ancient Rome’s Circus Maximus. It was the first model of a method of story telling Geffen would later dub “edutainment” – a portmanteau of education and entertainment. Although rough by today’s standards, the project was world’s ahead of the two-dimensional gaming experiences offered by contemporary mass-market platforms, including those of the original PlayStation, launched just two years earlier.
A 3D model of the Great Pyramid, which can be explored in virtual reality
The only problem was, with the track and horses built, Geffen’s Circus Maximus software lacked the computing power to render the crowd as well. The experience, Geffen says, taught him that although VR was clearly a medium rich with potential, he would have to wait some time before the available computing power matched his ambitions.
Geffen turned his attention to the emerging VFX technologies used by film special effects companies like Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar.
“I went over to Pixar and was fascinated. I wondered if we could utilise some skills from there,” Geffen explains. “What fascinates me is that when you base things on the real world, they become even more fascinating; you can invent Wookies for Star Wars, and they’re great, but they’re not real.”
With input from the proper experts, Geffen saw VR and animation as a way to bring true stories to life, from historical epics to explorations of the future. Zoo – Atlantic Productions’ VFX and animation wing, was founded in 2002 with the aim of doing just that.
A string of successful films followed, but in 2008, Geffen achieved particular success when Atlantic Productions employed the latest 3D technology to document the discovery of Ida, a 47 million year old fossil believed to be one of the missing links between humans and our primate ancestors. For the first time, Geffen’s team was able to bring a 3D model of the fossil to life on screens, resulting in a billion Google hits, which in turn led to Ida becoming one of the first ever Google Doodles. Recounting a conversation with a then-Google employee, Geffen recalls it was one of the first times Google indicated that its search engine could be used as a storytelling device.
The following year, Atlantic Productions released The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, an award-winning film charting mountaineer George Mallory’s attempt to be the first to climb the mountain in 1924. As well as becoming one of Atlantic Productions’ first IMAX productions, Geffen employed actors to recreate Mallory’s last days on the mountain, in temperatures of -20oC, no less. The resulting film was the highest altitude costume drama ever recorded. In addition to this, Geffen’s team had to digitally recreate the top of the Everest, as the atmosphere is far too thin to allow video camera-bearing helicopters to fly. Geffen’s team were not so much reaching new heights, as building them out of thin air.
Another project saw Geffen’s technology come crashing back down to Earth. Commissioned by London’s Science Museum to create an experience around the Soyuz crew return vehicle that astronaut Tim Peake used to return to earth from the International Space Station, Geffen created the Space Descent VR experience in 2017.
First, Geffen set about photographing the inside of the pod, then his team digitally reconstructed it to create a 5K VR experience in which audience members transition from floating through the serene depths of space to slowly tumbling towards earth, before penetrating the earth’s atmosphere at 28,500kph. The VR experience took 100 computers one month to render, and is an exhilarating and finely detailed experience, with everything from the pod’s instrument panels to the burning heat of re-entry rivalling anything seen on the big screen.
A scene from Munduruku: The fight to defend the heart of the Amazon
Geffen’s most successful collaboration to date saw him explore our own planet over 11 projects with the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, whom Geffen first met during his tenure at the BBC. Back then, Geffen assumed that Attenborough – comfortably established with his own production team – was unlikely to want to move to a new home. Later, after founding Atlantic Productions, Geffen met Attenborough for lunch and expressed his regret that they had never managed to work together. To his great surprise, Attenborough agreed.
“It was the last thing I expected to hear,” says Geffen. “Attenborough said ‘There’s one rule: we do it together, and we go on the road together.’”
Beginning in 2011, the pair travelled the world, re-defining filmmaking technology as they went. At that time, 3D cameras were cumbersome and heavy. Nor were they the most reliable pieces of kit. Documenting penguins in South Georgia, Antarctica (for Sky’s The Bachelor King), the cameras had to be reassembled on site so that they would work in freezing conditions. Filming in the Eden Project (Kingdom of Plants), Geffen had the opposite problem; the cameras kept overheating, necessitating the production crew to call in every single available ice cube from surrounding restaurants in order to complete filming.
As their films became more and more ambitious, Geffen and Attenborough petitioned camera manufacturers for new designs suited to the task at hand. “It was the storytellers going to manufacturers and saying, ‘This is useless unless we can film insects,’” Geffen says. It was partially through the work of Geffen and Attenborough that 3D cameras went from devices the size of a modest fridge freezer to pinhead cameras able to fit inside an ant’s nest.
Their work hit its apogee with David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive, broadcast by Sky in 2014. The premise was simple: Attenborough spends a night at the Natural History Museum with the eight most fascinating extinct creatures brought back to life. Filming ran from 6pm to 8am for 11 days, and was unlike anything Attenborough had ever done. The finished product is a high point of documentary-making. In one scene, Attenborough marvels over a three-metre long ichthyosaurus, a dolphin-like mammal belonging to the late Triassic period. In another, a skeletal sabre-toothed smilodon stalks Attenborough through the museum’s hallowed corridors. Attenborough, for his part, has never looked as enthused.
“[Attenborough] had done traditional documentaries with real animals. But we took him to a different space, which he loved,” Geffen says.
Not only did the film require Attenborough to act against a blue screen, interacting with animals that were not there (and in fact, no longer existed anywhere on Earth), it also required that he put his trust in Geffen; with some of the special effects not completed until the day of the premiere, there were no daily rushes for Attenborough to approve, and thus, no way of knowing what the finished product would look like.
“I didn’t tell David,” Geffen says, “But when we started the project, the technology to finish it was not ready. But, my belief was that you push everything to the limit, and you make it happen. That is the mantra.”
Attenborough need not have worried. The film was a success with audiences and critics alike, winning a BAFTA for Best Specialist Factual Programme. After its release, the Natural History Museum even reported a 17 per cent rise in visitors. The biggest praise, though, was to come from Attenborough himself who, upon seeing the finished film, declared “CGI has reached the peak of perfection in 3D.”
With this success under his belt, Geffen decided that the time was ripe for a return to VR. The same year he set up Atlantic Productions’ VR branch, Alchemy. The plan had always been that the first VR films would be Attenborough-driven, a plan Attenborough wholeheartedly endorsed. “He loves technology, he’s like a kid,” Geffen explains. “His phone is a brick with an actual built-in spirit level, but he loves technology. He gets it. He has an incredible curiosity.”
The pair’s first live-action VR collaboration explored the Great Barrier Reef. Attenborough had dived the reef for a documentary some 60 years earlier. Now, nearing his 90s, this was no longer possible. Using a state-of-the-art submersible, equipped with cameras covering a 360 degree field of vision, Attenborough and a pilot descended 300m. Dressed in slacks and a powder blue shirt, Attenborough looks every inch the master of his environment as the submarine descends beneath the waves into yet another world of mystery. In addition to the three-part BBC TV series, Geffen won another BAFTA for the resulting VR experience, and spawned an interactive website through which users could visit the Great Barrier Reef in real time each and every day.
Geffen had sought to expand the audience’s experience ever since his documentary on Ida. To do this, additional content had been spread across different platforms, including a website. A programme, Geffen muses, is the main dish, and once a person acquires a hunger for a subject, they should be able to indulge it elsewhere.
With the BBC Great Barrier Reef series, this was taken one step further; Geffen had seen that home audiences were not yet ready for 3D programmes – primarily because the supply of good content did not yet exist. In 2016, Great Barrier Reef Dive VR with David Attenborough opened and ran for over a year. Crucially, this success proved for the first time that there was a commercially-successful model for large-scale immersive experiences.
Tim Peake's VR re-entry experience
In mid July, Geffen invited WIRED to his west London studios to discuss a roster of confidential works in progress. An unostentatious building near Hammersmith Underground station houses Atlantic Productions, as well as Zoo – its 3D and VFX animation branch – and the VR innovation hub, Alchemy. Here, over 100 staff are busily inventing the future.
Geffen’s own office is decorated with DVDs and VHS tapes of programmes he has produced, displayed alongside a wall of Emmys, BAFTAs, and other awards accumulated over a four-decade career at the forefront of documentary making.
Relaxed in a grey suit, and looking at least a decade younger than his 57 years, Geffen describes his first immersive project with real world applications outside of “edutainment”. Produced in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, Neuro-AI will be used to treat and diagnose patients with schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s. The AI headset works by monitoring and interpreting subtle facial expressions in real time. As the area around the face and eyes is believed to display 90 per cent of everything we think and feel, the project will allow medical professionals a better understanding of patients who may otherwise struggle to express themselves.
“The disconnect between what a patient is thinking and feeling and what they’re outwardly expressing is a major problem in a number of social interactions,” says Harold Bursztajn, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and advisor on the project. The Neuro-AI process, is, in Bursztajn’s words, “A fundamental game-changer” and “very much at the new heart of precision medicine.”
Which is not to say Geffen’s sense of adventure has diminished. Via a television screen in the corner of his office, we are given a tour of the sunken wreck of the Titanic. The ship’s flooded corridors have been captured in immaculate detail by real-life film crews. Here a grand piano, there a child’s doll, its face still intact. Then, before our eyes, the film footage merges into VFX as water drains from portholes, paint returns to the walls, carpets unfurl over long-untrodden corridors, and the ship is brought back to life, being lifted above the waves as the film rewinds a century of decay.
Afterwards, we continue into the past as we don a VR headset and hand-held controls to explore a full, 3D reconstruction of Egypt’s Great Pyramid. The rendering is not yet complete (there are no colourful hieroglyphics adorning the walls, or scurrying scarab beetles) but even in its early stage, to wander the pyramid’s hidden vaults at your leisure is awesome in the truest sense of the word. Sand-filled corridors, dark, winding passageways, and deep vaults are there to be explored at the user’s leisure. Most are areas tourists visiting the real thing will never see. The project – which Geffen hopes to launch in 2019 – is being developed with the blessing of the Egyptian government, and in collaboration with a tech company that Geffen is not currently at liberty to name.
Collaborations with a number of media institutions are in the pipeline. And, while contractually, Geffen must remain tight-lipped about any such partnerships, he is able to confirm that Atlantic Productions is in dialogue with Amazon, Netflix and Apple.
After their initial explorations of VR technology failed to take off due to a lack of enough good quality content and the software necessary to share it with a large customer base, Geffen believes that many media companies may be ready to dip a toe back into the water. “I think everybody charged forwards a bit,” Geffen says. “Some had huge plans [for VR], and got whole divisions together, only to scale them back.”
Now, however, with an increase in both the technological capabilities around VR, an increase in the number of good quality experiences, and a growing audience demand for such experiences, Geffen says that Netflix and Apple have become some of the heaviest investors in the sector. Geffen has, he says, been in “deep discussions” with both companies about how they move their services into VR.
“At the moment [these companies] are juggernauts; they are doing incredibly well in what they do, but they are nervous about changing anything to do with their relationship with the subscriber until there are extraordinary VR offerings, like the things we are making now,” Geffen says.
Geffen’s next project may be the one that convinces them to take the plunge. This year, entrepreneur and explorer Victor Vescovo will explore the world’s oceans by means of an innovative new submarine. His journey will include the first manned expedition to the Titanic in 13 years.
Geffen was Vescovo’s first choice when it came to choosing a partner to help capture his new ocean explorations. Currently filming and due to air next year, the project is set to do for the mysteries of the ocean what Hawking’s black hole experience will do for space.
If the Attenborough dive to the Great Barrier Reef was a logistical nightmare, Vescovo’s mission is something else entirely. Vescovo will descend among live underwater volcanoes, and submerged and treacherous subaquatic mountain ranges.
There was also the small matter of building a submersible capable of withstanding the extreme pressures of the deep sea. A whole host of technical problems presented themselves. How do you ensure there is enough battery life to carry you to the depths of the ocean and back? How do you guarantee crystal clear, 360-degree video-capture in the total absence of natural light?
“[Vescovo] literally created an industry in order to build this sub,” says Geffen. “One day, it will be the key to understanding the ocean; it has technology no one currently knows about.”
Not only does the proposed series represent a number of practical difficulties, active volcanoes, crushing pressure and freezing water aside, any one of the descents is a potentially fatal undertaking. One power cut, one engineering miscalculation, one fault in hull integrity, and Vescovo will be trapped without hope of rescue.
“There’s no way out,” Geffen sighs. “In space, [if something goes wrong] you can get outside the capsule and hang on. In this new submersible, you’re safe until the moment anything goes wrong, then you’ve had it. You can’t get out, and we can’t send another vehicle down there.”
In preparation for such a scenario, Vescovo has been practicing piloting a model of the submersible at home, and in pitch darkness. Should the lights do go down, he hopes muscle memory will be enough to guide him to safety.
If all goes to plan, results of his expedition will be broadcast in three one-hour episodes next year. The final episode may be broadcast live, from one of the deepest, most inaccessible locations on the planet. But this too presents problems. Chiefly, how to transmit the signal to the surface, an issue Geffen is working with Nasa to overcome. Usually, a cable is attached to the submarine, but in the deep ocean, Geffen says, things get “complicated”. Instead, the signal must be transmitted through water, a process Geffen says is far more complex even than transmitting a signal through space.
On an undertaking of this scale, everything, Geffen says, is working against you. But, no one ever said inventing the future was easy. And, whether he’s pointing his lens to the stars or the ocean floor, we imagine Geffen wouldn’t have it any other way.