CFC Media Lab Brings VR Co-Production ‘Mother of the Forest’ to Planet in Focus Film Festival

Posted: Oct 15, 2019

When animator, storyteller and educator
Kylie Caraway set out to complete her master’s thesis for her MFA in Digital Futures from OCAD U, she looked to her interest in environmental activism and her passion for storytelling to “create something that visualized environmental issues in an entertaining, yet educational way.” Her love of trees, her upbringing in California and Texas, a family trip to Yosemite National Park, and many concepts, moments and interactions throughout her MFA journey led her to create and direct Mother of the Forest, her MFA thesis and a CFC Media Lab and OCAD U virtual reality (VR) co-production that explores a sequoia tree’s ecosystem through embodied perspectives of various species.

Innovative, timely and topical,
Mother of the Forest is an immersive experience and piece of art-science that promotes and encourages environmental activism, advocacy and awareness. Through the illustration of symbiotic relationships, it asks users to contemplate their own role in intertwined ecologies impacted by human activity, resulting in biodiversity decline and climate change. Scientific information gathered from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks experts is articulated in a combination of 360 video, digital environment design, and interactivity and exhibit the hidden truth, beauty and precarity at play in this ecology.

A pathway through a sequoia tree forest in California

An image from ‘Mother of the Forest’

CFC Media Lab partnered with
Planet in Focus to bring Mother of the Forest to audiences at this international environmental film festival as part of a Climate Spotlight for their 20th anniversary, which includes climate change-focused films and programming. Planet in Focus starts today (October 15) and runs until October 20th in Toronto. Members of the public can sign up in person to experience Mother of the Forest during various timeslots from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 19 and Sunday, October 20 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

We caught up with Caraway in time for the festival to speak about her inspiration for
Mother of the Forest, the use and role of immersive media in storytelling, and her experience in the MFA Digital Futures program.

When did your interest in environmental activism begin?

KC: With regard to my growing awareness of environmental and ecological issues, I have to thank two teachers in my life: my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Augustin, and my high school geography teacher, Mr. Wenzel. Mrs. Augustin provided my first encounter with geography. I was first introduced to National Geographic Magazine through her. She instilled in me a feeling of perpetual curiosity. Mr. Wenzel is another pivotal person in my life. He taught me to look outside of myself and to think globally. In the years since [high school], I did not become a geographer, but rather an artist. For a while, I wasn’t active in environmental issues or advocacy, because I incorrectly assumed that climate change and environmental issues should be left to scientists and policymakers. Luckily, I’ve readjusted my outlook, and now believe that art and other fields can engage with environmental activism. Ecological issues are too heavy a weight to place on scientists’ shoulders alone. Everyone has a role to play.

“Ecological issues are too heavy a weight to place on scientists’ shoulders alone. Everyone has a role to play.”

How did your idea for Mother of the Forest come about?

KC: I wanted to create something that visualized environmental issues in an entertaining, yet educational way. Storytelling felt like the best way to do this. I also wanted to include interactivity – to entertain, but more importantly, to promote the idea that movement, action and agency can play an important role in a user’s experience, in order to promote environmental activism.

Why did you choose to explore the sequoia tree ecosystem specifically for your production?

KC: As I was developing the larger themes for my thesis, I took a trip with my family to Northern California, and found myself in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. I have always loved trees, but I was particularly spellbound by the sequoias and their surrounding environment. Their size and age are pretty spectacular (sequoias are the largest trees on Earth and can live more than 3,000 years). So, to hear that they too are impacted by climate change, it made me feel like they were an important species to study further.

A large sequoia tree

A sequoia tree, as seen in ‘Mother of the Forest’

What are you hoping to accomplish with Mother of the Forest?

KC: My hope is that Mother of the Forest and similar projects will get people excited, informed and concerned for ecosystems such as these [the sequoia tree ecosystem]. I am striving to educate users, but also have them feel the connection between us and our fellow creatures. Digital media is a great tool, because it can be shared globally. If we only try to educate the people who are able to visit these parks in person, I believe it will not be enough. My hope is that by experiencing and learning about an ecosystem that you might not be familiar with, and probably have not visited, you will feel encouraged to keep these natural areas flourishing into the future, and act in some sort of ecologically beneficial way: may it be reducing your carbon footprint, voting, donating, volunteering in your local community, or countless other actions.

Why was it important to use VR to tell your story?

KC: It was actually Ana Serrano (CFC’s Chief Digital Officer and founder of CFC Media Lab) who encouraged me to use VR. Part of the Digital Futures program entails working through a prototype of your thesis project with CFC. When I told Ana that I wanted to explore multispecies storytelling and I was toying with using VR, she advised me to consider the affordances it could provide for this kind of narrative. Simply put, the immersivity and sense of perspective drew me to use VR for environmental communication. It gave me the ability to place the user into this ecosystem, using both 360 footage from the sequoia park in California, as well as a digital, animated representation of it. Additionally, VR’s sense of first-person perspective was an important factor in this project – rather than one perspective, I wanted to create a feeling of togetherness, yet still establish the separate role each species plays in this evolving ecology. VR was an easy way to transition between individual perspectives while telling the story of a holistic ecosystem.

How did VR enhance storytelling in Mother of the Forest?

KC: I believe that VR’s immersivity emphasizes the working pieces of this ecology, from highlighting the scale of these trees and their fellow species, to their location within the forest, to their interactions with each other. VR moved Mother of the Forest away from a nature documentary, where we look at a species or place at a distance, and instead toward an experience of the ecology from within. It allowed me to truly implement the concept of “multispecies storytelling” through a switch in perspectives – from a human, to a Douglas squirrel, to mycorrhizal fungi, to a sequoia tree. I believe that placing the user into the environment creates a greater sense of this precarious ecological reality that we are connected to, whether we like it or not. VR made it possible to engage people in such a way to effectively show that environmental issues and climate change aren’t just concepts – they are times, places, and creatures.

“I believe that placing the user into the environment creates a greater sense of this precarious ecological reality that we are connected to”

What do you think are some of the benefits of using immersive media (virtual reality, augmented reality, extended reality) in storytelling?

KC: Immersive media is interesting to me because it places the user into the story, and usually involves some interaction. The user’s actions can impact how the story is told – you obtain some degree of agency that is different from more traditional forms of media. Whether we place someone in a recorded space, imaginary space, or a mix between the two, I think being in these spaces and interacting with them has an effect on the message users take away from the experience.

What role do you think immersive media has to play in climate change education and advocacy?

KC: I believe immersive media is a great way to blend entertainment and technology with a big message. I think one of the most important things about environmental communication is a sense of place – the emphasis may be on a particular species, concept, time or system, but it is always connected to a place, whether on a micro or macro scale. VR gives us a chance to experience places we may not be able to visit in person, to put them in the spotlight, and to illuminate the ecological stresses caused by climate change. I think it invites us to be curious, think globally, and engage with these issues.

A collage of four images: three images of sequoia tree ecosystems, one image of a woman wearing a VR headsetImages from ‘Mother of the Forest’, a user experiencing the production through a VR headset

What made you want to apply for the Digital Futures MFA program at OCAD U?

KC: My background is in film production, animation, and teaching outside of the classroom, so my prior work was focused on storytelling and artistic creation fused with pedagogical practice. I applied for the Digital Futures program because I wanted to learn new ways of implementing different technologies into my creative practice, while simultaneously acquiring the credentials to pursue academia and teaching. I was particularly interested in having a structure to learn about digital games and interactive and immersive media.

How was your experience in the program?

KC: I really enjoyed it! The program is highly interdisciplinary and it was fun to meet and work with people from very different backgrounds. When I started the program, we explored a variety of technological innovations. This brought me out of my comfort zone, which at the time was a scary thing. But the program provided the space, people, and resources to learn, tinker, test, fail, and develop all sorts of projects. Overall, I learned many new ideas and practices that will help me as I move forward in my career.

Is there anything else that you would like people to know about Mother of the Forest?

KC: Mother of the Forest is about a community, and it was created with the assistance of an interdisciplinary community of specialists with diverse skill sets: it involved the work of academics, artists, scientists, audio archivists, non-profits, and nature enthusiasts. Mother of the Forest is not just a virtual reality experience for art – it has roots in many other fields. This is an art-science project targeting activism and advocacy for the sequoia ecosystem, and at a grander level, climate change. I think it’s important to highlight that a collection of very different people working together can provide the basis for a beautiful, but more importantly, necessary collaboration, in order to tease out how we should build a future for all of us.

And here’s a fun fact! I’ve often been asked why the project is titled “Mother of the Forest” because it’s not referenced in the experience. During the 19th century, in order to prove to the general public that these trees were real, a sequoia tree by the name of “Mother of the Forest” had its bark stripped and later reassembled as an exhibition in the New York Crystal Palace. While this exhibition highlighted the size and grandeur of these magnificent trees, it ultimately led to Mother of the Forest’s demise, as the tree died from its desecration. My project honors this sequoia tree that was used and ultimately destroyed as an art exhibition; but here I hope to use the beauty of sequoia trees for conservation rather than spectacle.

What’s next for you?

KC: I’m excited to say that I’ll be continuing on a similar path: I’ll be teaching some courses at the University of Toronto, but I’m also planning a few new projects that are within the field of environmental communication. I will be collaborating with parks in Canada and the United States and with their affiliated scientists, as well as non-profit organizations. As for the projects themselves, I don’t want to say too much at these early stages, but one of them involves barnacles!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kylie Caraway is an animator, storyteller, and educator whose work bridges fields including digital media production, environmental communication, speculative fiction, and information visualization. Her research and practice focus on the interplay between scientific research, interactive media, and visual pedagogy to promote experiential learning for environmental advocacy.

Mother of the Forest is the first co-production between CFC Media Lab and OCAD U that has come about as a result of the Digital Futures graduate program at OCAD U. Learn more about the Digital Futures Graduate Program at OCAD U here.

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