Max Salomon: The Story Behind VR at National Geographic
A multi-Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, Max Salomon has produced and directed an award-winning lineup of over 40 VR films for National Geographic and the Smithsonian. In this episode, Salomon, Founder of Black Dot Films VR, delves into the history of National Geographic choosing for VR and why immersive has led to such compelling content reaching audiences of 200 million.
Justine: Hi, I’m Justine Harcourt-de-Tourville. I’m here at the VR Lounge here at the Potsdammer Platz in Berlin, and I’m speaking with Max Salomon, who is an executive producer with Black Dot Films VR. Welcome!
Max: Thanks. Hi!
Justine: I’m thrilled to have you here because you do a lot of work for National Geographic.
Max: That’s right.
Justine: In fact, I think you’ve done not just a few.
Max: We’ve done over 40 VR films with them. I think, in total, our films have been seen by close to 250 million people. It’s driven an incredible reach. You know, it goes back to the origins of that moment in time when we started working with them. But yeah, I’m incredibly privileged to work with a brand like that.
Justine: So, what happened? Did Nat Geo just called you up one day and said, “Hey. How about making some VR?” Were you doing documentaries for them or how did this transpire?
Max: All of us in Black Dot Films are originally from National Geographic. It’s sort of a crucible for a lot of us. I was a part of the team that ran National Geographic’s flagship documentary series, in which we did about 21 hours of documentary a year, about anything that would fit under the National Geographic brand inside that yellow rectangle. So, anything from going to Guantanamo Bay to the prisons there to archeological discoveries to, you know, anything that you can really imagine.
It’s incredibly privileged access that you get to have to some of the best stories in the world and with that brand attached. And my partner in the company, Malvina Martin, she ran development for National Geographic Television at the time, creating the ideas that drove the series of content and of what stories will work for National Geographic in television.
And so, in 2011 or 2012, we both ended up leaving the company. It was that same moment when National Geographic turned towards a lot of reality programming. And for pretty selfish reason, it’s not as interesting for us as producers to make 21 episodes of a similar story, as opposed to making the luxury of this high end that every hour you do is a different story you get to dive into and immerse yourself in.
So, we started to look at what’s the challenge that we want to take on. When I saw the early sort of Oculus dev kits come out and sort of trying to see the potential and what that could do, an early 360 video, I said, “This is something.” I had this moment where I saw the potential in VR and said, “Okay, this can start to get at the power of what I experienced for myself that I can never translate in television.”
To step back a moment, when you work in documentary television or in documentary film, you have some of the most privileged access you can imagine. You get to go places no one else gets to go, right? And the films that you make ultimately are sort of cliff notes of the experience. You never really capture what it’s like to stand in Serengeti and watch the sun come out. You know, I got to go to the Guantanamo Bay and walk the corridors of Guantanamo Bay of this prison colony. And when you’re there, there are things that you can never capture in a film, of walking down that hallway and the sounds that you hear. It’s partially driven by the fact that you’re there and you’re composing that world for yourself as opposed to, you know, when I’m there, I’m looking around, I’m piecing this together and I’m discovering it.
My brain is active in a way that the audience in the television world is sitting passively and I’ve glued it together for them. In documentary, when you see the cameraman into a scene, he films for a half hour. You hand that over to an editor and the editor cuts it up into tangled pieces and glues it back together that is sort of approximate to what happened, but the reduced version because you need to edit it and reduce it. But it doesn’t come close to the psychological impact and realness of an experience. It’s consumed passively.
Justine: And so, do you think VR does a better job of capturing this kind of environment? Is that what you felt immediately when you were in Guantanamo Bay?
Max: Well, for me, it’s the fact that all these experiences that I was lucky enough to have in National Geographic, I could never really take the audience with me. And now, for the first time, I saw, you know what, maybe I can give somebody that experience. That experience of looking someone in the eyes that has lived a reality in a life that I’ve never lived, but that we’re sharing an intimate moment together. They’re looking at me. There’s a moment of understanding. I can see something in their eyes that is maybe fear or sadness or these powerful human emotions that we conveyed, not just through our words but through our interaction in our sharing of space.
That presence is more than that. It’s this intimacy of connection. That’s one of the things that VR does really well as opposed to film. And the fact that you’re an active participant in creating your experience in VR is important.
Justine: Would you think that is a reason why… we were speaking a little bit before and you were saying that you had incredible success on Facebook.
Max: Yeah. So, how do we now capsulate that and turn that into, you know?
I had this moment where I saw the potential in VR and said, “Okay, this can start to get at the power of what I experienced for myself that I can never translate in television.”
And so, I took the headset, you know, enthusiastic guy that I am and brought it to National Geographic and showed to everyone that I knew there was never been an alignment between the technology and this brand since the invention of the photograph. We all remember that moment when we unfold that magazine image that has three folds and that has a picture. Well, this does that.
And of course, one of my former colleagues sort of loved it and said, “Wow, this is amazing, Max, but we’re in the business of growing a print magazine or making television shows. How do we monetize this? I’ve got a nice friendly pat on the back and I’ve got to go back to work.
And then, at Christmas in 2015, I’ve got a phone call from a former colleague who said, “I know you’ve been coming out and telling us about VR and such.” Something just landed on my desk. I don’t even know it and we just went through it.
We don’t know how that happened, but we’ve sold VR to Facebook. We’ve done a deal with them and said, “Can you help us fulfill this obligation that we have?” I said, “When is the first one due and how much?” He says, “Well, you know, we have to make 24 films over the next year and the first one is due on January 1st.” I said, that’s…
Justine: Next week.
Max: That’s next week. So, we just did things a little bit and started to roll out the content and it was the launch of 360 video on Facebook. Right now, it’s not in headset necessarily. That’s not where the large part of the audience is but National Geographic has a following of about 70 million people on Facebook, which is a huge audience.
And it was really interesting, the first couple of pieces that come out. The comment streams were hysterical because suddenly people will realize that they’re somehow controlling the camera and they don’t know how they’re doing it, right? And they have this experience where they say, “Wait, the camera works really terrible,” then they realize that they’re the camera operator.
And it goes viral. All of a sudden, overnight, the first film that we released, I think, were seen by 8.5 million people in three days. Huge numbers. The next one comes out two weeks later and got the same kind of numbers. It was like volcanoes going off in terms of National Geographic social media. And so, there were a lot more eyes on what we were doing.
We had to fill this pipeline inside the National Geographic IP of that kind of brand, of that kind of quality of image, that kind of quality of storytelling. But I think one of the things that distinguished our work as opposed to others is the quality of the image. It has to, ultimately.
I think whenever you work with a brand, you have to fulfill the promise of that brand and we all have a very strong sense of what National Geographic’s promise to us is. I’’s storytelling. It’s high quality image. And those are things that are actually hard in 360 video, stories with a beginning, middle and end that matter, right? It’s not just enough that you can turn around inside the image. It has to be more than that to fulfill the promise.
The other really important thing, I think, that is important to realize about cinematic VR is that it’s not the same as film. It’s a distinctly different media for which the rules and the grammar, if you will, don’t yet exist. If you think about the early days of cinema, it took about 15 years from the invention of the movie camera and moving picture to getting to the grammar of it.
The first thing that somebody showed actually on a moving camera was a railroad track. They put the camera on the front of the train and filmed railroad track, and people felt that they were on a train. They actually built a theater that looked like a boxcar of a train and they rode the train.
I mean, that sounds really familiar when you think about early VR here. You know, a lot of these experiences are like roller coasters at train track, right? But it’s not a story and it’s not cinema.
When you think about these early days of cinema and what it took to get to Sergei Eisenstein who circumvents montage in editing to get to Buster Keaton, who figures how to tell a joke, to the grammar of what a closeup is.
In a lot of early cinema, everything is the same size. They shot it like theater, sort of everything had to fit on the stage in a certain way. All of these inventions that we came along in the grammar of cinema to get to, eventually, Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars and these things that we think of cinema today, but that’s a hundred years of narrative innovation and understanding the rhythm and pulse of that medium.
When you talk to a documentary filmmaker or any filmmaker, one of their main tools is editing. It’s the rhythm. It creates drama. It creates performance. In VR, that editing is left to the audience, so that means that it’s like tying a story with one or two hands tied behind your back.
One of the big revelatory moments for us was actually kind of the partnership with Facebook. Facebook is actually a big data company. They’re not a content company. They’re a data company. They collect information. In our case, they were recording 30 times a second where everyone that was watching our 360° spherical films where they were looking and turning that into heatmaps.
So, when people are looking all over the place, there’s no build up happening as to where they’re concentrating, it’s all green dots all over the place. But then, suddenly, you see concentrations happening where they turn red. They sort of heat up. And then, you can sort of reverse engineer and say, “Why are people looking over there and what is it that’s making them focused here?” Because once you understand that, you can start to try to design that. And once you have that design, you have control over the medium and you can actually tell a story. It’s not just about the novelty of “Here’s an image. I can turn around in it.” That’s a technology. That’s not a story. That’s not a medium. That’s not a form.
So, one of the things that we started to pull out of this data was where people are looking. And if you think about that, that’s actually editing, right? In a film, the editor tell you where to look. When you’re looking at a closeup of Person A, the closeup of Person B, the two shot, the hands, the reaction shot and all of that grammar, that’s where you should look.
In VR, all of that is left over to the audience, which is terrifying for the filmmaker because we just lost control. But we figured out looking at this data to regain that control. And some of that is tied to the fact that we’re human and fundamental things about hardwired things in our brain.
We’re social creatures because I’m sitting here with you, right? There’s a sort of social contract of behavior, what it’s like and such. And so, we’re looking at each other in the face. We’re having eye contact. If I break that eye contact and I suddenly look behind you, you’re going to say, “What’s distracting Max?” and you’ll turn around and look over there. So, I can literally make you look somewhere.
There are other things that are more subtle than that that have to do with things that are more reptilian in the brain. Things like the movement of the camera can literally force you to look at a certain place in the 360°. If the camera is moving in one direction, you’re human so you don’t want to fall. You don’t want to look where you’re going.
You’ll look left and right, but you will end up focusing exactly in that sphere where I want you to look, which means that when I then make the edit, I don’t need to wait for the audience for five seconds for them to figure out where the point of interest is in the shot. I’ve created it before the edit. I’ve prepared them for that. And that means I can speed up my storytelling. I don’t have to wait honestly for people to figure out where they should be looking or where the subject is.
One of the key things as well is the power of the eye contact. Eye contact in VR functions totally differently than a cinema. When I do an interview for television, I put myself as a producer or a director right next to the camera and I make eye contact with the person and make sure that they’re looking at me. And that’s a magical moment between me and them. That doesn’t translate to the camera. I get to look at that person in the eye.
In VR, it’s important to be seen because I always say that the audience is the character, but they’re more than that. If you think about the social context, for me, it was high school. Nobody looks at you in the eye and you feel invisible, right? I’m exaggerating. I wasn’t really that kind of kid in high school.
Justine: We’re all that kid.
Max: We’re all that kid. We all felt like we were that kid in high school.
Justine: We were all that kid.
Max: But it is true in VR. If you launch a VR film and nobody’s looking you in the eye, it’s strange. You’re all ready and when you look down, you don’t have a body, right? So, you’re sort of this phantom or this ghost effect. The eye contact makes something more real.
One of the ones that really stands out is this one that we did with orangutans. Unfortunately, today, because of the forming of plantations, deforestations and such, orangutans are really one of those species that is being crushed at the moment. And when the forests get torn down, the mothers or the adults are aggressive, and they end up getting killed. But the young ones are cute, and they end up in the illegal pet trade.
It’s really kind of a tragic context, so there’s this NGO that intervenes and tries to bring them back. It brings them to a preserve and teaches them what it means to be an orangutan. And you can see it. I mean, some of them actually have a fear of heights. They don’t know what a tree is. In some cases, they’ve never seen a tree before since the day that their mother was killed, then they were plumped into this other world.
So, we started out to try to figure out how do you film this and how do you tell the story. Every day, they’d bring them into the forest in a wheelbarrow. It’s like a school bus. We mounted our cameras in front of the wheelbarrow and all of the orangutans are curious about this thing that we’ve now put into this world, this shiny, expensive, fragile camera that either has their reflection in or has a red light on it. They want to touch it.
But what is amazing in VR is that they’re all looking at the camera. When you see an orangutan touch the lens in the documentary film and you’re sitting on your couch at home, you’d say, “Oh! Too bad for the cameraman, he has slime on his lens,” because it’s a passive experience.
In VR, because you’re actively looking down, on your left or right and figuring out that world for yourself, there’s no edge for the frame. And when the orangutan reaches out and touches the lens, they’re reaching and touching you. When they look into the lens, they’re looking and seeing you, and you’re connecting with them.
There’s one moment in the film where one of them is looking back. And at the end of the day and she realizes there’s nobody around, she looks left and right, and suddenly, she leans and puts her lips on the lens. It’s a magical moment when you see them in the film because she literally leans and gives you a kiss.
So, I showed that to my mother-in-law over Christmas, and she was in tears. She had been seen. “She saw me.” The next thing you know, is people reach for their checkbook and say, “How do I help?”
And those are the kinds of moment that we can’t tell in a documentary film. We can only tell them in cinematic VR.
Justine: Thank you so much, Max. That is an incredible story. Really powerful. I wish you good.
Bio Max Salomon
Max Salomon is the co-founder of Black Dot Films VR, an award-winning immersive and cinematic VR production company. With a background as a seasoned multi-Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, he has gone on to produce and direct an award-winning lineup of over 40 VR films for National Geographic and Smithsonian. Critically acclaimed and virally successful, is groundbreaking work in cinematic VR has reached an audience of over 200 million viewers.
Black Dot Films VR experiences also played a central role in launching of the world’s largest synchronized permanent VR theater – of over 400 seats – at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC.
THE LONG ROAD HOME: MEMORIES OF WAR
“THE LONG ROAD HOME: MEMORIES OF WAR” – which takes viewers inside the shattered PTSD-laced dreams and memories of 3 soldiers who survived one of the bloodiest days of the Iraq War – recently won the 2018 Webby Awards for best cinematic VR, best documentary at VR Fest 2017, and the 2018 Cine Golden Eagle for best non-fiction VR.
one Strange Rock
His 3D VR film “One Strange Rock” takes you floating side by side with astronauts to see our home planet from orbit aboard the International Space Station. It is the first 3D VR film shot in space and recently one the Lumière Awards for Best Educational VR, and 2018 VR Fest’s best cinematography and best documentary.
Prior to his work in VR, Max produced and directed high profile documentaries for National Geographic and Discovery. His long-form work has earned him nearly 20 National Emmy Awards, including back to back wins for Best Investigative Documentary for “Gorilla Murders”, and for NG’s landmark investigation into the BP oil spill “Can The Gulf Survive?”