Dare I say it: Anthony Geffen is a man who cannot be pigeonholed. A man best known for his professional partnership with living legend David Attenborough, he has worked on over 11 critically acclaimed films, from the fascinating Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates to the stunning Great Barrier Reef. But this is only the tip of the iceberg for Geffen who, since proving himself as a remarkable natural documentarian, has been involved in a range of incredibly diverse projects.
Perhaps then, a good starting point would not be Attenborough, but rather Geffen’s continued innovations in cinematic storytelling in the form of virtual reality (VR) filmmaking. This medium of film is currently evolving way beyond the realms of gaming, but is, as Geffen’s work exemplifies, making waves in the film industry itself. This year’s Cannes’ Film Festival has confirmed a full VR line-up, including screenings and workshops. Popular franchises are also seeing the benefits of the up and coming mode, with Ghostbusters and Wonderland both experimenting with VR. Geffen’s passion for VR was striking and he chatted at length about the many possibilities VR filmmaking holds for the future of the cinematic experience. For Geffen, it creates “an environment where you can immerse people in a 360-degree environment”, the results of which he can describe as nothing less than “amazing”.
In June of last year, Geffen, and a team of professionals, achieved this on a grand scale. The Natural History Museum metamorphosed into ancient oceans, where visitors had the chance to travel through time and space, observing sea creatures over 550 million years old – all through VR film.
However, he is not interested in restricting VR to nature documentaries, or documentaries of any kind for that matter. “To me, as a storyteller,” begins Geffen, “I want to look at different platforms and different ways to tell stories.” This idea is a real game changer: imagine being able to go one step beyond simply watching your favourite films? Or even that TV series you’re addicted to? “I want to make some episodic things [with VR] including some dramas, because to me if you’re in that world for something like ten minutes, you’ll come back and see what happened to that set of characters and that situation.” But Geffen isn’t talking about Netflix here. He says, “It’s fantastic, why compete?” He states that he would instead prefer to “go to a different area and compete.” Watch this space.
Geffen’s ambition was inspiring and I wondered whether he thought his passion project would leave a lasting mark. I asked him about where VR would be by 2050 and he predicted, with upmost certainty, that it “will be commonplace way before then.” He even went as far as to say, rather poetically, that “I think they’ll be ways of us seeing the world around us on a contact lens.” After this interview was conducted and I undertook further research into the VR mode of filmmaking, I find myself struggling to disagree. This is an exciting time for film, and it’s only going to get better.
It was becoming clear that Geffen was interested film and its various mechanisms. I was interested in what ignited this fire in his belly. “I grew up in a generation where people were making very exciting things on television,” Geffen begins, “like Attenborough [who] was making the first bursts on screen of his big series.” Whilst we millenials may take TV entertainment as a commodity, having access to award winning international shows on almost every device, in the back end of the 20th century this concept was revolutionary, possessing the ability to transport viewers to exotic places from the comfort of their own living room. There is certainly some correlation here between Geffen’s TV generation and his love of VR. A small TV box set with four channels was equivalent to the new digital software the likes of Geffen are creating and innovating. It was new to the senses, offering different, immersive experiences, much like VR in 2016.
After lauding the brilliance and importance of television, I probed him on the BBC’s charter renewal. This is set to threaten programming, specifically the commissioning of the sort of nature documentaries that Geffen has been involved in for years. He highlights the shifting landscape of the broadcasting environment, one that is, to quote Geffen, “changing beyond all recognition.” He admits that the “BBC is going to have to get smaller… it’s run by 16,000 people which is a very big number to finance with public money.” Yet he remains incredibly loyal to the institution, believing that “it embodies… independence and creativity”. He continues by saying “it’s very important that the BBC is supported because it’s sort of a cornerstone we all work toward in the industry and if we took it away, it would actually dismantle what’s good about British broadcasting.”
For Geffen, the primary purpose of broadcasting film, of any kind, is storytelling. And the conversation naturally veered back to his preoccupation with film as a vehicle for human narrative. He emphasises “forget all the special effects and all the whizz bang – to have personal stories crafted in a way that they can translate a powerful story, is still more powerful than anything else.” For him, it is clear that film and narrative are intrinsically linked, and that that aspect of cinema should be central to the cinematic experience – be it on the big screen, television or VR.
This has shone through most of his film projects, which have covered a broad range of subject matter and genre, almost all keeping story telling at the forefront. In 2010, Geffen directed The Wildest Dream, a biopic documenting the attempt of two mountaineers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, presented in the form of a theatrical retelling.
Historical events also pique Geffen’s interest, with a string of critically acclaimed films such as Jerusalem: City of Heaven and Empires: Holy Warriors – Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. And of course: his projects with Attenborough (wildlife also offers some enthralling story lines). But which was his favourite to film, produce or direct? “Oral histories,” Geffen answers with little hesitation, and continues by briefly discussing some of his own that he is particularly proud of, mentioning The Promised Land and a new project focussing on the Holocaust. “Oral histories have been around since Troy,” Geffen continues, “We have always been recorders of human narrative.”
Working for over a period of 20 years with Attenborough, Geffen has won countless awards for his contribution and innovation of the genre. “Attenborough and I decided to do some natural history documentaries and for seven years I’ve come in at it at a slightly different angle. We’ve tried to bring a different narrative and bring things back to life.” A striking example of this would be Penguins (2012) which was screened in 3D, yet another example of how Geffen experiments with various film mediums to create a truly unique journey for the viewer as they navigate their way through wildlife.
“I think we’ve tried to do the unexpected in the natural world.” Nevertheless, Geffen expressed humility when he confesses that he “only really came to it because of [his] relationship with David Attenborough.” And long may the love continue.