SxSW 2019 Interview – THE ATOMIC TREE director Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

“Have you ever thought about what a tree witnesses in its life?  The memories it holds within its rings? The Atomic Tree, a new virtual reality experience from the creators of the award-winning VR film Sanctuaries of Silence, takes you on a journey into the memories of one of the most revered trees in the world–a 400-year-old Japanese White Pine bonsai tree that survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima.  From Japan’s ancient cedar forests and Buddhist temples to the family home in Hiroshima where the pine was nurtured for five generations, this VR experience explores the unbroken chain of living stories held within the rings of this tree. The delicate shape of this bonsai contains sacred forests, human family, and deep time, inviting us to reflect on the living strands of kinship that are woven between human and non-human worlds.”

Welcome to the amazing SxSW and congratulations on your movie playing here! Are you planning to attend SxSW with your film?

Yes, planning to attend! We showed our last VR experience Sanctuaries of Silence at SXSW in 2018.

What is it about Austin, either the festival or the town itself, that excites you the most?

Both the festival and Austin have a relaxed and inviting atmosphere to share and experience art, music and of course film.  I’ve always enjoyed showing projects here whether at SXSW, Austin Film Fest or other festivals and screenings. Great audiences all around. And of course, the food here is great.

How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send your film into the festival/conference?

I’ve actually only ever shown VR at SXSW.  They have one of the strongest VR programs in the world with solid curation and invited us last year to exhibit Sanctuaries of Silence.  We had a fantastic time and are excited about sharing THE ATOMIC TREE this year.

Tell me about the idea behind your project and getting it made!

The Atomic Tree is an adaptation of a chapter in the acclaimed book The Songs of Trees by David Haskell.  I loved the book and met David shortly after who loved the idea of a VR adaptation and agreed to come on board as a writer on the project.  We went to Japan last spring and shot the project, visiting all the places the tree had lived. From ancient cedar forests, temples on the island of Miyajima to the family home in Hiroshima where the tree was cared for 350 years and experienced and survived the Atomic blast.

Who are some of your main creative inspirations for this project?

There aren’t too many films out there with a tree as a central character, although VR has been experimenting with this, and the work of other artists trying to offer a non-human point of view has been inspiring.  Our greatest inspiration came from spending time in the spaces the tree lived, experiencing first hand the environments that shaped its history.

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use, and any creative challenges in making it?

VR is a constant creative challenge as well as a technical one.  The tech is changing fast and still has a lot of limitations. We also pushed ourselves with a lot of challenging moving shots — cable cams, remote controlled dolly moves – that can be hard for stereoscopic VR.  

Here is the tech info: The Atomic Tree is a stereoscopic 360 experience filmed with the Kandao Obsidian R. The moving shots were achieved using a combination of a Dactylcam Lite cable camera, a Kessler motorized slider and the Moza 360 Air gimbal to help keep the camera stable and the horizon level.  The audio was recorded using an ambisonic Sennheiser Ambeo VR microphone, a Sennheiser MKH Short Shotgun mic and the Zoom F8 multitrack field recorder. The film was stitched together using the SGO Mistika VR software and all the rig removal was done in After Effects and Mocha Pro. The animations were created with a combination of Maxon Cinema 4D with X-Particles and finished in Adobe After Effects using Adobe and Mettle Matra plugins. The spatial sound design and mix was created in Pro Tools and finished as 1st order Ambisonic sound. The film was edited in Premiere Pro 2018 and colored In Davinci Resolve 15.

After your short screens here, where is it going next? Anywhere you would love to show it?

The piece will be distributed via WITHIN.  We are in discussed with several other festivals interested in showing the piece, but can’t yet reveal details.

This is one of the VR Pieces playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to!

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