Seven worlds one planet at the BBC Earth Experience

Using an exhaustive library of wildlife footage, the immersive BBC Earth Experience has the difficult job of celebrating nature whilst showing the challenges faced by our planet. Paul Milligan reports.

The opportunity to get up close and personal with the greatest catalogue of wildlife footage in the world is one that the organisers of the new BBC Earth Experience in London hope is too good to pass up for many people. Built in The Daikin Centre in Earl’s Court, the immersive experience has been produced in partnership with BBC Studios, Moon Eye Productions and Live Nation, and features a main gallery and breakout zones to allow audiences of all ages to interact with the natural world. The concept is similar to the Van Gogh Lumiere experiences that have popped up around the world in the last two years, but instead of art the BBC Earth Experience uses footage and music from the BBC Studios Natural History Unit television series Seven Worlds, One Planet, projected on multiple multi-angle screens.

Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise to find out the entire project is driven by a desire for sustainability. The experience is housed in a new 1608m2 venue, which can be disassembled when the project ends. The entire building and its contents use materials that can be recycled, reused, or given a second life.

BBC Earth Experience has been designed for people of all ages to attend, upon entering visitors walk into the Main Gallery, a huge room with 12-ft ceilings displaying nature and wildlife from the seven continents of the world. Visitors can explore planet Earth on a microscopic scale in the Micro Life room and then be immersed by drone footage on the Vista Stage.  A journey down to the ocean floor in the Water Life room will then allow visitors to interact with life below the waves.  

Tasked with designing the AV concept for this project was Tinker Imagineers, with Faber Audiovisuals looking after the tricky installation segment, both companies are based in the Netherlands. The original concept came from Frederik van Alkemade, the COO of Moon Eye Productions, who began the process of finding a company that could bring his ideas to life. Itamar Naamani, senior experience designer at Tinker Imagineers, takes up the story from here, “He wanted to find a company to solve his questions on how to make an immersive experience with this type of footage. We were among the companies he visited, we brainstormed with him and came up with some specific solutions we thought would work.”

The difficulty in this project, as opposed to the immersive Van Gogh experiences Naamani adds, is that “If you have a Van Gogh painting, you can imagine how you can spread that out and extend it over the whole space. Whereas with life action photography you have 16:9 frames which are not necessarily that easy to stitch together. That footage isn’t continuous, cuts have been made. You have to think of it in a different way to still create the illusion of one comprehensive world, but it has a different set of rules.” Faber had worked with Moon Eye before and was initially asked merely to give advice on rigging a few projectors in the same room. “The first plan was for 150 projectors in a very large square area, from there everything started evolving, getting more shape, etc,” says Jeroen Boere, senior sales manager, Faber Audiovisuals.

The BBC Studios Natural History Unit was formed in 1957, and since then has assembled the world’s greatest back catalogue of wildlife content. That is the main draw of this experience but also its biggest challenge. With such a massive library of work to draw on, where do you start? “We got a whole lot of offline low resolution footage from the BBC, we added strict rules like no camera motion in the shots because if you have all these different camera movements next to each other it's going to be a mess. You want to have one steady camera. But the BBC generally for the series likes to have nice slow pans to make it cinematic, which is great for a documentary, but it ruins our work. We wanted images to have context, so if you have a scene about chimpanzees in a forest, we wanted to use shots of an empty forest to create scenery around it, but that's not necessarily what the BBC shoots most of the time. We asked the BBC to give us all the outs (footage not in the final cut) as well, because then we can find the context for these scenes,” says Naamani. 

The way to make the BBC Earth Experience as immersive as possible, while still being a comfortable one/two-hour destination for people to enjoy was through tests, tests and more tests. “Everything was visualised in 3D environments with goggles to make sure it was a good idea,” says Ben Augenbroe, manager of operations from Faber, who was the company’s project manager on this job. “The best way is to stand in front of a big projection screen and experience it. How big is big? We did some tests with large projection screens, similar in size to the ones you see in the final show, with all the stakeholders, and our creative colleagues to be able to feel and see the real impact of it. Then we looked at what is the best viewing distance? The angles of the screens? Are they too far? Or should it be a little bit less? All the final decisions were based on those test builds.”

The building process included three test builds in the Netherlands. The first test built was to create three screens to test which projection surface would be chosen, and the colour of the cloth. The next test was to build a complete gallery, which was built out of three sections. This test was to see if everything which had been put into the plan would actually work, and to see if the synchronisation with sound and the content was right. For all the testing, there were somethings that could only be discovered when it was fully in place on-site admits Naamani. “We have a scene in the Serengeti we'd been watching it for months. Now when we saw it in real life, we suddenly found you could see a Jeep with tourists in the background, which is a tiny detail on the screen but when it suddenly gets blown up on a huge screen is really obvious. We had to check the show all the time. And just watching the show from every angle took six hours, there's so many angles, so many screens to look at. You can never see it in one go.” 

The sheer volume of content was a huge task to overcome on this project says Naamani. To help do this Tinker had a whole crew of interns go through all the raw footage just to make the first selection.

In order to handle all the content the project was creating, Tinker made sure it used the latest tools available to it adds Naamani.  “We started off making a multi-screen edit. We knew in this room we have 10 screens, so we had an edit with 10 different frames in front of us. But at some point, we knew we needed to look at it really spacially. We created a system where we used Unreal (Engine), and connected it with (Adobe) Premiere, so you could edit actually live on a 3D model. And you could also view that 3D model from VR. During the production process we used VR a lot and Unreal, which really was a lifesaver, because there would have been no other way to  see what we were doing.”

The star of the show from an AV perspective is the projection in the Main Gallery. Although the Van Gogh immersive experience may have formed part of the initial genesis, the concept here was to be different from those experiences, and to push the boundaries of what was possible. “There are no square projection walls, this idea came from Tinker, everything is at an angle. It’s not a straightforward projection experience, we had to think a lot about how the projector will be rigged, how will the blend look, is the pixel stretch acceptable, is the brightness enough for what we want to achieve?” says Boere. To do this Faber visualised everything using the software platform Mapping Matter, “It’s gives us exactly the amount of lux in a screen, how close can we go to a projection screen before we create shade, and will tell us how big the pixels will be,” explains Augenbroe.

The decision to go with unusual angles and to use a mix of long and UST projector lenses created many challenges for Tinker and Faber, including the creation of bespoke brackets to house the projectors at different angles. “Everything is on steel, nothing is on rope wires, to keep it stiff. We calculated where the centre of gravity was for every projector and made the steels accordingly,” says Augenbroe. It’s not just the brackets that were bespoke, to get such a large canvas, the projection screens were custom made too, “It's like walking between IMAX screens,” says Naamani. The huge projection screens are made out of grey cotton and will be repurposed after the BBC Earth Experience has finished its run. 

The 61 projectors are a mix of predominantly Panasonic PT-RZ21K units, with some PT-RQ35K projectors, which were chosen because they are being used in landscape and Faber needed more light in those areas. “We are projecting everything in portrait. We have a height of 1920 pixels, we could have gone for 4K projectors but there was no real use for them because all the footage was mostly shot in HD, so we calculated it based on HD pixels,” says Boere. To add another degree of rigging difficult for the projectors, the screens are titled towards the visitors, so the images are almost coming at them. 

To have that many projectors in one space, all at different angles would be difficult in any established venue, but the Daiken Centre is a temporary venue, so other solutions had to be found to make sure the projectors were not likely to be nudged out of position due to the unpredictable British weather. “We created an inner ‘skin’ inside the tent, which is completely disconnected from the building, it stands on the floor to avoid any movement or motion due to wind or whatever external factors that are there to ensure that the projection is in 100% condition at all times,” explains Augenbroe. 

The Vista Mezzanine Stage features seven Panasonic projectors, in a half dome configuration, which gives visitors standing on a platform the feeling of sweeping over some of the largest wildlife landscapes around the world at great speed, this is done using footage shot by drones.

The audio at BBC Earth Experience is a mix of narration and music and sound effects. The levels of narration were reduced during the testing stages as it helped to cut down on sound pollution between the different areas but also lets the striking footage speak for itself. The speakers are placed above or behind the projection screens, so the sound feels, like the images, as though it is coming directly at you. Naamani explain how this was done, “We used Spat (a spatial audio processor), which enables you to mix the sounds in a spatial way. It's like surround but even more advanced, where you can create the illusion you are moving through space.”

The content is managed by disguise media servers in the Main Gallery and for the breakout rooms which are home to more traditional 16:9 screens, everything is handled via AV Stumpf Pixera servers. 

The end product all adds up to 9-metre high projection surfaces which make the visitors feel they have been transported to the Serengeti or to the bottom of an ocean. The ecological and sustainability message runs throughout this whole project, so it’s fitting that the last thing visitors see and hear before exiting the BBC Earth Experience is a special message from famed natural historian Sir David Attenborough, imploring visitors to think about what they can all do in their daily lives to protect the planet.


Adderlink XDIP KVM switches
Disguise VX4 media server
Faber custom 3D projector mount
Lightware MX2-32x32 matrix, MX2-48x48 matrix, MX2-24x24 DPio matrix,  OPTC Rx/Tx extenders
Lilliput RM7029S dual rack HDMI monitor
Megapixel Helios processor
Netgear M3400-96x 10G, M4300-52G, M4300-28G, Netgear M4300-12x12 10G switches
Panasonic PT-RQ35K, PT-RQ25K, PT-RZ21K projectors
Pixera Two, Octo, One media servers
Roe Visual Ruby 2.3mm LED tiles, Ruby 1.5mm LED tiles
Ross Video SRG2200 test signal generator
Samsung QM55 UHD monitor

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