Creator: Here be dragons
The film opens with an ominous soundtrack and we hear the cries of elephants over the green grass landscape. I am instantly transported. I look down and I see a herd of elephants moving towards the horizon. I must be 20 or thirty feet up. The music puts me in a state of tension as I watch the elephants move through the high grass and then, before I can think, the scene seamlessly cuts, placing me in the high grass. The grass completely blocks our field of view and I can only imagine how big the elephants are. I look down and see the barrel of a gun. My gaze then looks up and I see the backpacks and realize that I am with a group of rangers. We are looking for poachers. Nothing has been said but I know it. The soundtrack guides us through the experience and creates a dark, foreboding mood. I then hear the sound of gunshots.
The experience fades to black and the title The Protectors is illuminated. We are then gently teleported to an office where an introduction to the context and the problem is given. A map of Garamba National Park is used to explain that it is the front line of elephant poaching. Garamba National Park is the size of Delaware and there are 130 rangers who protect Garamba from poaching. This is not going to be your traditional documentary. They have introduced the problem—now they are going to make you feel it. By the end you will be mobilized to do your part to stop this terrible practice. What awaits is one of the most immersive documentaries I have ever experienced.
We proceed to meet some of the rangers, starting with Dodo. We meet him on his motorcycle and follow him as he begins to tell us a little about his philosophy and why he has decided to be a ranger. This part is voice over but, as we are given a mini snapshot of his life, it feels like we are in conversation. The visuals are extremely compelling and intimate. We watch the rangers train and get a real sense of what it must feel like to put your life on the line for these animals. We watch them lock and load rifles blindfolded. We join them for their jogging session around the camp. We are there when they target practice and we are present in their houses as their babies cry but they have to get ready to leave for duty. The experience is then narrated by Yoma.
I can honestly say that I felt very close to the rangers, which helped as I gained a grasp on something that was so deeply personal to each of them, while being a global crisis that will require a multipronged international approach to solve. We are there with them throughout the duration of the documentary, which was the strongest aspect of the documentary.
I believe that VR is wonderful when you have such unparalleled access. VR allows you to give an uncensored light to some of these topics where there is no way to cheat a shot or edit something out. One example that hit this home was a moment in the film where we come across a dead elephant with its face completely butchered, the tusks removed, and flies swarming. The elephant is enormous. We can tell because we are there with the rangers. To see such a beautiful and unique creature slaughtered, laying there, and there is nothing that we can do except be there in the space with the rangers—I think that illustrates the true power of VR. It was hard to look at for longer than the brief moment, it could not have been more than 30 seconds, I was there. When you really have something to say, VR can be the most powerful medium.
The Protectors was an example of how it can be done right. As an experience, it was no more than ten minutes long. It was masterfully shot. And it felt like a movie movie. Ten minutes was long enough. I don’t think it needed to be any longer and I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any shorter. I think that this may be one of my favorite VR experiences.