Expedition Reef

Expedition Reef

California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Film review by by Volkmar Schorcht, Jena

A visually eye-catching underwater film for planetariums – please more of it!


Length: 26 min

Unidirectional orientation

Release: February 2018

Writer and director: Ryan Wyatt
Narrated by Lea Salonga

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About half a billion people depend on them. They are provided with food and income from the existence of coral reefs. For most other people they are just beautiful, colorful and full of life. Few people are aware of the protection they provide to our coasts or of their importance to the conservation of biological diversity. Expedition Reef takes us under water and immerses us into these contexts. We learn what the reefs are made of, how they grow, who their inhabitants are and look at them from a global perspective. We humans are dependent on the coral reefs while at the same time endangering them with our actions.

Expedition Reef is in line with earlier California Academy of Sciences documentaries on exploration, explanation and conservation of life on Earth, including Habitat Earth and Life: A Cosmic Story. With this film, the Academy once again fulfills its very own mission.

Nearly a tradition for Ryan Wyatt’s films, the story begins in his own house, this time in the aquarium. Aquariums house and preserve the treasures of the sea and have also been, so far, the only access to the world of corals for the reviewer. The virtual transition from the big aquarium to the underwater coral world of the Philippines is absolutely fantastic, starting with two Moorish idol fish “swimming” through the aquarium screen. I’d like to see more of such scenes in fulldome movies.

After just the first minute the breathtaking quality of the visual design reveals itself. The difference between filming and computer graphics is disappearing. To a large degree, photogrammetric methods were used to build realistic landscapes and models. Thanks to the enormous level of detail, the viewer is not at all faced with the question of whether or not the scenes are real or computer generated. He feels as if he is underwater and is immediately fascinated by the richness of detail. The animation effort to build this scientifically accurate reef world is hard to imagine.

The first step is to get to know corals, to understand their symbiosis with algae and to explore their habitat. But the film wouldn’t be from the California Academy if it wasn’t about more. What relationships determine the life and growth of the reefs?  What influence do we humans have?

Another characteristic of the fulldome films from San Francisco is also intentionally utilized in Expedition Reef: long camera movements over several orders of magnitude without cross-fades and cuts. If we have just watched a cleaner fish during the dental care of a moray eel, we soon find ourselves in Earth orbit looking at the numerous coastal regions with coral reefs. Here, too, the producers score with realism and brilliantly animated graphics.

A film that explains well adopts didactic procedures. There are some in the film. While the circular inserts may create visual breaks and not really convince, the scene around the growth and spread of corals is just great. It evolves from a realistic view to greatly reduced details in the graphics with a low number of polygons. This is an ingenious transition to accelerated time. A reef in time-lapse.

In short, corals form stone from water. They often extend over many kilometers. The reefs in the immediate vicinity of the coast not only serve as a food source, they also protect against the direct influences of tropical storms. This is another reason why their existence is so important. But the reefs are endangered.

From the fifteenth minute on, human influence on the coral reefs takes center stage. Waste water, plastic waste, pesticides and global warming pollute the reefs. In the shallow waters of the Caribbean, the disease of corals is most visible. Just like in nature, the strong colors fade, the film changes to cloudy tones. This change has an emotional effect. A graphic trick – instead of realistic textures, letters of the genetic code serve as graphics – symbolizing the loss of biodiversity.

With human help coral reefs can survive and will continue to color our world. With this encouraging conclusion, we emerge with a greater sense of what coral reefs are about.

Music and voice are professional and appropriate to the subject. However, I would have loved it to be a little more dynamic. For minutes, the music recedes into the background of perception. Lea Salonga’s offstage voice is very balanced by the rich informational content of the text.

The reviewer naturally wonders what such a film is supposed to do in the planetarium. Does a documentary with underwater scenes and without stars even fit into the planetarium?

Absolutely! It is time to expand the content spectrum of the planetariums with such well-made films. I deliberately speak of film and avoid the classic word show. Visitors of all ages will not be spared the learning process of encountering an enormously increased range of topics in our domes. This makes active advertising all the more important for planetarium operators. Yes, if the film is good and is offered to the audience with its context, there will be no disappointment. I’d like to see more of such high quality dome movies.

12th FullDome Festival, May 25, 2018  [/three_fourth_last]


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