orbi thumbAs a four-year joint venture between the BBC and Sega opens to the public, Wired.co.uk explores how the two companies developed their high-tech experimental theme park Orbi, and how it aims to change the way people discover natural history.

Charlotte Jones is an executive producer who has undoubtedly worked on projects with fewer risks before this. “We were producing a film for a theatre that hadn’t been built, on a scale that nobody had done, in a shape that nobody had created anything for,” the BBC Earth productions head explains. “Two weeks ago we went out [to Japan] and played the images for the first time and we were like, ‘Oh my god, it works!’”

It’s early August and it’s warm in the BBC Bristol complex, where Jones has just arrived to talk to Wired.co.uk after another 48-hour trip to Japan to visit the project site of Orbi — a high-tech, experimental, purpose-built natural history attraction in Japan’s Yokohama district. Four years in the making and a collaboration between BBC Worldwide and gaming giant Sega, Orbi presents re-edited BBC productions such as Frozen Planet, familiar to UK televisions, within environments that include a two-storey-high, 40-metre-wide theatre screen larger than any IMAX, rooms that simulate Arctic conditions for visitors aspiring to feel like a penguin standing in a blizzard, and an environment that places two-dozen people in the centre of a simulated wildebeest migration.

It exists to bring the natural world into city environments, pairing the BBC’s 50,000-hour archive of nature footage, as well as creative expertise, with Sega’s technology and experience building attraction parks.

To BBC Worldwide, creating Orbi is a necessary step in an experimental new direction

But Orbi’s long and highly experimental development cycle has been a trek through technological and creative jungles, with countless unknowns inherent to invention forcing the BBC to rethink filmmaking and storytelling; to work with the British broadcaster, Sega also had to sign into a collaborative partnership, which is a first for the typically self-reliant Japanese company.

To BBC Worldwide, creating Orbi is a necessary step in an experimental new direction because younger generations of potential natural history lovers demand more than just television. “If you think about when David Attenborough first had his vision of how to inspire people abut the natural world, he happened [did so] at a point in time when broadcast was the way to do that,” says Amanda Hill, chief brands officer at BBC Worldwide. “If he’d started at the point we are at now, you’d never start with just TV and radio.”

Earth Theatre

The centrepiece of Orbi is the Earth Theatre — a grand cinema that seats 350, developed by Sega and built to an ultra-wide 5:1 aspect ratio. The films it premieres are crafted by the BBC using existing documentary footage shot in regular widescreen. So when Sega presented the cinema format to the BBC Earth team, a major question arose: how do you even fill a screen that large and that wide?

“We paint whole scenes [in a 5:1 aspect ratio] out of bits of HD footage. Some of them are 100 layers deep” Charlotte Jones

“We’ve worked for about two years to figure it out,” says Jones, who highlighted that an earlier R&D film was scrapped for not being immersive enough. “We paint whole scenes [in a 5:1 aspect ratio] out of bits of HD footage. Some of them are 100 layers deep [meaning] we’ve taken 100 different elements from other images.”

The first production is Ice Worlds — a 15-minute film documenting the four seasons in the polar regions. Although many scenes appear to show single ultra-wide views, these were stitched together frame-by-frame from multiple camera angles, down to individual polar bears being “cut-and-pasted” from other scenes.

“Nobody realises that they’re all cut together, because they’re so beautifully done,” says Jones. “Everybody just assumes it’s just one shot. God knows how people think we do it.”

This method of “painting” scenes from up to 100 simultaneous sources of footage meant the team in charge of workflow, editing and final post-production — Films @ 59, based in Bristol — had to work with vast amounts of data. “The picture edits were done using Adobe Premiere in a canvas of 5,248×1,080 pixels,” explains Miles Hall, project manager at Films @ 59, who highlighted that each of the two Earth Theatre films had twelve terabytes of video information being processed during a given edit.

“The most important thing is that we were cutting in parallel with an After Effects graphics team,” says Jones. “We could then slide these complex images through to them and they would pick a polar bear up and blend him in, then put it back into Premiere. So we could move this stuff between two platforms, which means we could really push the experimental nature of what we were creating.”

Building a test facility

With the editing underway, testing was essential. But when your film is to be shown on one of the largest screens in the world, on the other side of the planet, and it hasn’t even been built yet, how can you realistically test?

The answer was to construct a scaled-down version of the theatre being assembled in Japan, but in Bristol. “We built a quarter-size 5:1 screen in an old disused bottle factory,” says Jones. “This is during winter [of 2012] in a shack and everybody was wearing gloves and thermals. Then we had projectors brought in and lined up on scaffolding and we’d have all the viewings down there. We’d cut stuff in the edit, spew it out and take them down to the bottle yard.”

Neil Nightingale is creative director at BBC Earth and was understandably nervous about the whole process. “It was terrifying… But very exciting,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever made a film or television programme for a format that doesn’t exist.

“A quarter-size is nothing in terms of judging the feel [of the real theatre],” he adds, highlighting that on one visit to Bristol, Atsu Hasegawa, creative director at Sega, visited the bottle yard for a screening, got out of a chair and walked up right in front of the smaller screen so it dominated more of his peripheral vision, exclaiming, “Now that’s the experience!”

Goodness, nose!

Back in Japan, Sega was working on another aspect to Orbi’s theatre: smell. Hasegawa, the man in charge of developing Orbi’s exhibitions, had wondered: what would it be like to sniff these environments? Jones’s reaction was initially skeptical. “I said, ‘The natural world is basically birth, death, crap… It doesn’t smell too good’.”

“I said, ‘The natural world is basically birth, death, crap… It doesn’t smell too good’.” Charlotte Jones

Nonetheless, back in the UK a smelling party was arranged. “We had this really brilliant meeting [in Bristol] about three months ago where the Sega team came over with a load of vials,” says Jones. “We had, ‘Here’s [bird poo] number one, would you like to smell? Or would you prefer [bird poo] number two?’ And the differences were that number two was the bird that eats mostly sardines, but number one was a bird that eats mostly shellfish. We’re sniffing and thinking, ‘I think number two’.”

During Wired.co.uk’s visit, only one smell was used — a perfume-like interpretation of a scent you’d expect on a beach, pumped out through pipes in the auditorium while a seal chases penguins. Ultimately there may be several aromas used. The immersion of the experience cannot be understated; it’s a deeply enjoyable 15 minutes, underpinned by an original and dramatic orchestral soundtrack from frequent BBC composer Timo Baker. What is quite apparent though is that even working in HD has its limits when blown up to 40 metres wide. With a screen of this size, it’s a hope that higher-resolution formats such as 4K could be used in future.

The friendly peanut

A walk around the complex is like roaming through a collection of installations that appear to be the result of somebody saying, “Wouldn’t that be awesome!” Take the installation called “-89.2? (all installations are named by a number, in this case after the temperature the polar regions can drop to). This is a room intended to give visitors a feeling of what it would be like to be a penguin during an arctic blizzard, as seen in Frozen Planet and others — something the 35-degree heat outside in Yokohama makes very attractive.

This is a room intended to give visitors a feeling of what it would be like to be a penguin during an arctic blizzard

“We take your body’s surface temperature down to about -20 for a very short period of time, using wind chill,” explains Anthony Winston, Orbi’s technical director. “The idea is that people are able to compare their body’s reaction to that sort of environment while learning about how the penguins are able to deal with -50 or -80 where they are, and how amazing that is.”

Amazing is one word; surreal is another.

The arctic room itself is small, minimalist in aesthetic, with enough room for around 15 people, although only eight are permitted at one time. A safety video explains you can exit at any point if you need to, and that the experience only lasts a few seconds. As the door behind you closes, a wind machine fires up. It’s almost deafeningly loud. The air pressure changes so dramatically we found it challenging to catch a breath. Wind chilled through an industrial refrigeration system pummelled into us at 20 metres per second. The hand rails around the room become essential, although instinctively one clutches at your torso for warmth.

Other areas simulate the experience of flying 40,000km across the planet’s surface, using large projection screens that curve beneath your feet. The BBC’s flyover footage, combined with the size and angle of the screen, can give a genuine feeling of vertigo as you appear to be flying over the precipice of a cliff or waterfall. It’s not as high-tech as the main theatre but it’s an entertaining few moments.

Kids flocked to it, stroking its head only to discover it’s touch-sensitive and rubbing the bear’s face will cause it to roar

As fun and unusual as some experiences in Orbi are, they are diverse in the age groups they will appeal to. A small object in the centre of the complex — fondly referred to by the creative teams as “the peanut” — is (as the name suggests) a large peanut-shaped object about the size of a cow, minus the head and legs. Projected onto it is the 3D image of, amongst other creatures, a polar bear. Kids flocked to it, stroking its head only to discover it’s touch-sensitive and rubbing the bear’s face will cause it to roar.

Other rooms are more intense. The room in which a wildebeest migration is simulated takes place in a dark room with closed doors and no windows. Screens surround visitors 360 degrees, the floor is fitted with transducers that shake the ground, and it’s loud. A few nervous smiles creep across certain visitors’ faces, including the face of this reporter. In action, the animals charging past you on-screen appear life size. As seen first on the BBC programme Nature’s Greatest Events, these thousands of wildebeest are being hunted by crocodiles. The snap of a croc’s mouth over the leg of an unlucky wildebeest interrupts the stampede of panicked mammals being felt in the floor, and as it ends, so too does the ever-so-slight feeling of claustrophobia.

It’s in stark contrast to the friendly peanut resting just outside.

The diversity overall is intentional — it’s aimed at children and adults, with learning and education a key facet, and the park remains open until 11pm. According to one overheard conversation, couples may use Orbi as place for romantic, and informative, dates. Speaking to Wired.co.uk, the president and 20-year veteran of Sega, Naoya Tsurumi, explained, “What I want to do for families is [to have] grandma and grandpa take grandson and granddaughter here; for three generations to connect through Orbi.”

The last mile

After four years of development across two sides of the globe, the final few hours remain crucial to the development cycle. And on the night of 19 August, just hours prior to the opening ceremony, engineers are still working behind the scenes to tweak and perfect the installations.

On the morning of 20 August, a traditional Japanese opening ceremony was attended by press, guests and the first visitors. A group of local schoolchildren sang to piano accompaniment, followed by a ribbon cutting in which senior members of Sega, the BBC and others each donned white gloves and snipped the venue open in unison with several pairs of scissors.

For those working on the project for a number of years, it was an emotional moment to see it come to fruition. “When the kids sang the translator behind me started to interpret and I thought, ‘Stop, I’ve got to get up in a moment and I’m going to be sobbing’,” said Hill, who cut the ribbon for the BBC.

Whether Orbi is successful or not will largely depend on how it evolves. With so much experimentation, risk-taking and continual refinement, the Orbi in two years time will no doubt be quite different, and the BBC will continue to produce a new film for the main theatre every six months for the theatre. “We’ll be learning what works and what doesn’t,” says Nightingale. “We’re doing more films so people can come back.”

It will be interesting to see how Orbi has evolved at such time it launches in the UK, which has been identified as a potential candidate for an Orbi opening along with North America and other parts of Asia and the Middle East. To visitors in Yokohama, a room that viciously simulates unbearably cold weather is what some people in Britain call “Glasgow”. So a room that simulates the intense heat found elsewhere in the world will be an appropriate differentiation from the Japanese installations. Some upgrades would be welcome, too, such as even higher-resolution video footage for the main theatre.

But the vision is likely to remain the same: “The whole intention was to knock people’s socks off and for them to think the world is awesome,” said Jones back in Bristol, “to say, ‘Now I get it — and now I want a part of it’.”

Nate Lanxon is the editor of Wired.co.uk and reported from Bristol, London and Japan.