Erik Rochner: Kelp VR

Erik Rochner: Kelp VR

About the Project

Erik's project, Kelp VR [working title] is a 3-5 minute, live-action virtual reality film that immerses viewers in coastal California’s stunning kelp forests to contextualize the important role it plays in healthy marine ecosystems. While kelp forests are recognized as some of California’s most iconic dive sites, their role as climate change monitoring stations largely escapes public awareness. By featuring both topside and underwater 360 content, this film will provide a unique exploration of CA kelp forests and the life found within protected ecosystems such as the Hopkins Marine Reserve in Monterey. Guided by key human characters, it will address how scientists are partaking in collaborative climate research to better understand the effects of global climate change on local ecosystems using monitoring equipment that relays a constant flow of climate change variables from sea to surface.

This immersive underwater experience will not only enable viewers to experience the rich marine biodiversity of kelp found off of Monterey and the Channels Islands, but will take a narrative approach to addressing why kelp is an important bioindicator to healthy oceans. And by understanding the foundation of the ecosystem, scientists can start to put all of the pieces together for management/policy decisions regarding how ocean resources are monitored and utilized. In a first-of-its-kind underwater experience, this immersive film will capture both the life and science taking place within these dense underwater forests to contextualize the role that kelp plays in maintaining and monitoring healthy oceans.

About the Grantee

Erik strives to create impactful imagery backed by compelling storytelling. With a background in Science and Natural History Filmmaking, he has grown passionate for Virtual Reality (VR) filmmaking, time-lapse photography, and other unique ways to capture the natural world. Erik has worked all over the globe, on land, air, and sea, as a cinematographer and VR producer for National Geographic, Nature, PBS, Environmental Defense Fund, and

Under the brand DryftVR, Erik and Refah Seyed-Mahmoud started producing immersive 360° content well before the new medium gained commercial traction. Under the tagline “Bring the Wilderness Home”, Erik continues to use VR technology to produce immersive, natural history experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible to the general public. He maintains an innovative edge by capturing subjects and places that have yet to be explored in the VR medium. Recent VR projects include a National Geographic glow worm piece and an underwater exploration of the diverse marine found below California’s offshore oil platforms.

Project Updates and Milestones

CMG Filmmaker-in-Residence Erik Rochner has wrapped up production for his VR film about kelp forests off the coast of California. Erik's film is shot with 360VR and aims to illustrate the multiple factors affecting the current decline of kelp. The film will show viewers how a broad spectrum of anthropogenic and natural causes are at play, such as warming, ocean acidification, pollutions, introduction of invasive species, among others.

Erik began collecting footage for his film in late August in Monterey Bay at the Hopkins Marine Reserve with the intention of capturing the Hopkins Kelp Forest Array. However, visibility was poor due to a phytoplankton bloom. He then moved on to San Clemente Island in early September for three boat dives in decent weather with good visibility. There the kelp forests provided a good cross section of a healthy ecosystem for comparison. In early November, Erik shot around two more Islands: Anacapa Island where he filmed sea lion interactions amongst the kelp, and Catalina Island where he captured invasive Sargassum "devil weed" that has displaced kelp along the coast of mainland California. In addition to the underwater footage, Erik also filmed at the Birch Aquarium in San Diego in their kelp exhibit where he was able to gain footage of the exhibit interior with kids peering inward from behind the acrylic. Erik shot this footage in order to provide a juxtapositiion to wild kelp ecosystems and a baseline for "ideal" habitat and marine diversity. His goal is to see if similiar marine life could be captured in the wild. 

Erik is also collaborating with Dr. Emily Kelly of the Scripps Institute to bring an understanding of the impacts of global climate change on kelp forest ecology into the final film. Dr. Kelly is featured diving in the Birch Aquarium kelp exhibit and she provides voice over to help contextualize some of the kelp environments explored.

Post-production will continue in the coming weeks and we're excited to see his final film around the start of the New Year.