As wildfires raged, the Forest Service was capturing the immensity in VR

The United States Forest Service traces its roots back to the 19th century; since then, it has grown to manage over 190 million acres of public land. That includes 154 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands, all of it managed in a way that attracts little public attention. A bold new campaign, called Your Forests Your Future, is looking to change that.

But how does a century-plus-old agency — created in a time where the “Wild Wild West” still existed — reach a new generation of visitors, especially those living in the digital age? Through a media-rich online experience that makes use of the latest in storytelling technology, including virtual reality. And by hiring a pair of filmmakers known for their previous work producing content for public lands: Will and Jim Pattiz, the brothers behind the viral More Than Just Parks series.

“This is the most important conversation happening around public lands right now,” Jim Pattiz told Digital Trends. “From cattle ranchers to conservationists, the goal is to get everybody’s voice heard.”

us forest service turns to vr in your forests future 370
Your Forests Your Future
Your Forests Your Future

This is new territory for the Forest Service, but if the change of course is risky, it’s worth it. Elizabeth Townley, a Wilderness Specialist with the Forest Service who is serving as the coordinator of the Your Forests Your Future campaign, told us: “Traditional methods of communication (press releases, standard public meetings, etc.) alone are not adequate enough resources to meet our goals of engaging diverse new audiences… Utilizing modern technology, and inspiring people to action through stunning imagery and messaging, is something we pride ourselves on.”

Turning up the heat with VR

When it comes to stunning imagery, the Pattiz brothers know where to start. They are putting the bulk of their filmmaking effort into a project tentatively called Fire VR, which details the work of the Forest Service to fight and manage wildfires. While it is still in the works, you can view the trailer for it above (which is made up of standard fixed-frame video).

As Will put it, the Forest Service is “basically becoming a fire agency, because it has to spend so much money fighting fires now.” This isn’t hard to believe; at the time of this interview, in late September, fires continued to burn across much of the Western United States, including the 49,000-acre Eagle Creek fire that kept the Digital Trends main office in Portland, Oregon, shrouded in smoke for weeks. Elsewhere in Oregon, the Chetco Bar fire grew to over 190,000 acres. As of mid-November, the nation saw 8.9 million acres burn in wildfires in 2017.

us forest service turns to vr in your forests future active fire map preview

Fires measuring in the tens and hundreds of thousands of acres are becoming common, and it is partly a result of past suppression efforts and the Forest Service’s “10 a.m. rule,” which was in effect from 1935 until 1978. The policy mandated that a forest fire be contained by 10 a.m. of the morning following its report. Fires were kept within a couple thousand acres, but this negatively impacted the health of forests, where fire played a natural, but misunderstood, role in the ecosystem. It also led to the buildup of fuels, which paved the way for larger fires in the future.

Today, forest fire management is more complex, more expensive, and more dangerous as a result. The upside, if you can call it that, is that it also happens to be quite a bit more interesting than many of the Forest Service’s other roles. In short, it makes a good attention-getter, the perfect place to start building out a story and pulling in an audience.

“Traditional communication alone isn’t enough to engage new audiences.”

The Pattiz brothers spent much of this past summer embedded with crews combating the 26,000-acre Sunrise Fire in Montana, capturing 360-degree video with a GoPro Omni rig (as well as traditional video with a Blackmagic URSA Mini digital cinema camera). By leveraging the power of immersive video to tell the dramatic, visually arresting story of life on the fire line, they hope to bring people in to the experience in a way no other medium can, and excite and encourage them to play a more active role in the Forest Service’s activities.

“We want to draw them in with engaging content and then give them the knowledge of how to get involved,” Jim explained.

“One of the big things we’re trying to convey is the enormity of it — how massive these operations are,” Will added. “It is literally tent city. I compare it to a Civil War-era military battle.”

Beyond firefighters, there are hundreds of people in supporting roles, from operations and technical personnel to rangers who actually help fireproof people’s homes in the area. The base even has an airport that can support both helicopters and small planes.

The firefighting crews themselves span many disciplines, including highly trained “hotshots” — the ones actually battling the blaze — as well as crews managing controlled burns or going around on mop-up duty to stamp out any flames that may try to come back.

The end goal with Fire VR is to create an online interactive map that will bring each piece of the story together. Visitors will be able to navigate to any point on the base, or drop in on the hotshots themselves, and see 360-degree video from each location.

The website is still under development, but there are plenty of ideas for how to build it out. “We might release it in pieces, almost like a video game,” Will said. “Part of the map will be grayed out in the beginning.”

The Pattiz brothers will be drawing on experience and content from many different fires to build the most interesting version of this interactive map. So the fire operation visitors experience will be fictional, but all of the visual content will be unscripted and real.

Goodbye Ozo, hello GoPro

When Jim and Will Pattiz originally started planning the project, the idea was to shoot with the Nokia Ozo VR camera. The beach-ball sized, eight-lens Ozo originally promised to be a one-camera solution for professional VR production — and it carried a price to match: $45,000.

Your Forests Your Future

However, after Nokia canceled plans for future development of the product, the Pattiz brothers needed something else. Luckily, GoPro caught wind of the project and stepped up to sponsor it by providing an Omni, the company’s virtual reality rig that houses six Hero4 Black cameras.

GoPro has gone through two new generations of Hero cameras since the Omni was released, but because the company switched to a new design for the Hero5 Black and Hero6 Black, the older Hero4 remains the sole Omni-compatible model. Still, with six of them working together, it’s possible to produce some really great results.

“We chose [the Omni] because it’s lightweight, compact, and portable,” Will said. In retrospect, trying to use the bulky Ozo may have proven more trouble than it would have been worth, given the environment in which it would be employed, from dense forest to the interior of a cramped helicopter cabin.

Size wasn’t the only benefit of the Omni rig, either. Thanks to its support for external batteries, the Pattizes were able to shoot all day with a single, high-capacity V-mount battery.

“We want to draw them in with engaging content and then give them the knowledge of how to get involved.”

On working in VR, Jim said, “It’s a lot of fun, but it has its own unique challenges.” For one, the crew had to try to camouflage the tripod as best as possible so it would blend in with the environment. Then, everyone had to be able to get out of the way of the shot, which isn’t easy when the camera is capturing a 360-degree perspective.

Post production is also more complicated, since GoPro doesn’t have internal stitching for the Omni: Each camera saves a separate video file, and all the files need to be properly stitched in post. Fortunately, Autopano Video Pro came to the rescue; it has built-in support for the Omni rig and largely takes the pain out of stitching. Adobe Premiere Pro was used to edit the subsequent immersive video clips.

Beyond VR, the Pattizes are looking to build out the Your Forests Your Future website with plenty of additional content, including a More Than Just Forests video series. It will essentially be an extension of their current More Than Just Parks project, with the goal of eventually filming in all 154 National Forests — no small feat.

From a technical perspective, National Forests present one exciting advantage over National Parks. As stunning as each More Than Just Parks video has been, there is always one specific shot missing: the aerial perspective. Drones are outlawed in National Parks, but most National Forests still permit them.

“Having that perspective is crucial to capturing the expanse of a forest,” Jim said. There are limitations, of course.

“The Forest Service’s problem with drones is during firefighting operations,” he continued. “A drone will ground all the aircraft, and the fire can double in size while they try to get the drone down.”

So don’t expect to see any aerial footage of the wildfire operations in Montana. Elsewhere, however, the Pattiz brothers will be flying the DJI Inspire 2, a high-tech $3,000 aerial platform that can support various camera payloads, including the new Zenmuse X7 that shoots cinematic footage from its Super35 sensor.

A problem of not enough voices

We first spoke with the Pattiz brothers about Fire VR in February 2017, at the premiere of their Hawai’i Volcanoes video. At that time, when the nascent Your Forests Your Future campaign was little more than a cloud of exciting ideas, they hinted at a VR component similar to Google’s Hidden Worlds experience, “only even better.” Fast forward a few months, and the scope of the project has only grown larger. Fire VR will help to draw people in, but that’s just the kindling.

National Forests serve multiple purposes, from recreation and conservation to logging and ranching, but public input on forest management was previously only taken in-person at meetings. This meant a small number of people could have a large influence, and the resulting forest plan may not have accurately reflected the public’s desire for how the land was used.

“The problem isn’t too many voices, it’s too few. Three people show up … and those are the only public comments that go into the forest plan.

When asked if Your Forests Your Future risked complicating the issue by involving too many people, Will Pattiz said absolutely not. “The problem isn’t too many voices, it’s too few. Three people show up at a public meeting, and then those are the only public comments that go into the forest plan.”

Townley of the Forest Service elaborated: “After all, these public lands belong to everyone, and there is a role we all can play to ensure they are managed in a way that reflects the needs of the public while balancing the management of natural resources.”

This is a big issue. Every National Forest has a forest plan — they’re required by law — but many are well over 20 years old. They include all sorts of information, from where campsites can be established to where logging is permitted and what species need to be protected. But without sufficient input, these plans can easily fail to meet public needs, especially as those needs change over time.

Your Forests Your Future came out of a new planning rule that went into effect in 2012, with the aim of making forest plans more responsive. “The Forest Service utilizes adaptive management,” Townley said, “which simply means we want to be flexible and change as conditions on the ground change, demands from the public change, or resources change.”

us forest service turns to vr in your forests future pattiz brothers photos 09
Jim (left) and Will Pattiz film the Hawaiian volcano for their series More Than Just Parks.
Jim (left) and Will Pattiz film the Hawaiian volcano for their series More Than Just Parks.

Looking at the history of fire management offers insights into the importance of generating broader public feedback for forest plans. During the era of the 10 a.m. rule, some ecologists and foresters had already started arguing against fire suppression, but the rule only gained strength throughout World War II, when timber was deemed too vital a resource to let it burn. Had the public been better educated, there may have been more voices on the other side of the argument.

Sparking a movement

Your Forests Your Future is the most ambitious public outreach campaign the Forest Service has ever attempted, with different components that need to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Beyond the website, the VR project, and the More Than Just Forests series, there are multiple short explainer videos, a podcast, and even plans for a mobile app. It’s a significant undertaking, and the stakes are the literal ground beneath our feet.

The Pattiz brothers have somehow found themselves at the center of it all, but if the stress has gotten to them, they don’t show it. When asked where they saw themselves in the future, Will joked, “We’ll be the founders of the Moon Park,” suggesting that the sky is the limit.

Instead, they seemed genuinely excited about the prospects of working on such a great project. And they should be: Their passion is exploring the outdoors, and now they’re connecting it with a larger mission, the outcome of which will directly link to how our National Forests are managed in the coming decades.

But at the end of the day, Will and Jim Pattiz are just two people. Many more voices are needed, and the brothers hope to involve outdoor celebrities, brands, and other organizations to help get the message out.

“Outdoor organizations need to recognize this opportunity,” Jim said. “Let’s expose these arguments, get everything out there, so that when decisions are made, we can point to why they were made.”

Paraphrasing John Adams, he added, “If good people don’t [get into politics], other people will. This is an opportunity for good people to get involved.”

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