WA Museum’s interactive documentary, Beneath the Waves, is winning awards and breaking new ground.
Sam Field couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The director and camera operator had been living for months at a time on a boat, the Kimberley Quest, filming and diving alongside 12 of Australia’s top marine biologists. The team were exploring remote reefs off the Kimberley coast for Western Australian Museum’s award-winning documentary and website, Beneath the Waves.
“I started to look at the media content we were producing on the boat – wonderful short videos on amazing flora and fauna of the Kimberley that the scientists were discovering,” says Field, from Perth-based Periscope Pictures. “I realised that these could form the basis of a much more immersive experience … an interactive documentary. In a virtual way, we could take people on that same expedition.”
The ambitious marine project, which was created by Periscope with funding from ScreenWest and Lotterywest and sponsorship from energy giant Woodside, highlights 475,000 kilometres of WA’s stunning Kimberley coast, as well as its 2500 islands and reefs. Project partners include the Australian Museum, Queensland Museum, Museum Victoria, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and the WA Herbarium.
Based on six years of fieldwork led by WA Museum, the interactive documentary features glorious underwater footage and in-the-field interviews. The scientists and researchers involved in the project collected more than 16,000 marine varieties to help biodiversity studies in the region, and this has led to the discovery of 180 species.
Unlike other quality documentary-style websites, Beneath the Waves doesn’t rely on first-person stories or background pieces to explain what the project involves. It uses stunning visuals as its base, with breakout videos and fact boxes to fill in the details.
The narrated doco has seven chapters that explain different aspects of the project. As viewers progress through each chapter, bonus mini videos, fun facts and species details are “unlocked” that add depth to the experience, and a map helps viewers locate the scene of each piece of action.
At times it’s difficult to know how to navigate the website – signposts are at a minimum – but it’s worth taking the time to find out. Only those who get to the end of the documentary get to enjoy the full experience.
WA Museum chief executive Alec Coles says the interactive documentary format is a unique platform for scientists to share specialised research and give “everyone a front-row seat” to the region. “Periscope Pictures has captured the reality of scientists at work in the field and the majesty of the Kimberley and its marine world in an educative, engaging and world-class documentary,” Coles says.
What shines through the documentary is the enthusiasm of the scientists themselves. “It’s particularly exciting for us to work up here in the Kimberley,” says fish specialist Dr Glenn Moore. “It’s some of the last frontiers that have never been explored and we’re certainly diving on reefs that no one has ever been to before.”
As viewers discover, the Kimberley coast is truly one of the most stunningly unspoilt destinations on Earth. This is not only because it is remote – the coast is home to sharks and crocodiles that are as likely to eat you as smile at the camera. (It’s also why Field wore a shark shield during filming.)
“The Kimberley marine wilderness is one of the world’s most remote areas, and not everybody has the chance to visit it physically,” Field says. “I felt very privileged and wanted to share that experience with others.”
The website continues to attract the right kind of attention. It has won national website, education and innovation awards from the Australian Teachers of Media, WA’s Film and Television Institute and the Australian Web Industry Association. It’s also a finalist in the Visual Media Experience category at the prestigious SXSW Interactive 2017 event in the US.
“It took a number of years to put together all the pieces of the puzzle, from funding to building the required technologies,” Field says. “But I’m proud Beneath The Waves is now completed and being so well received.”