March 06th, 2019 | by Mathieu Gayet

”Experiencing the trees memories” - Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee & Adam Loften (THE ATOMIC TREE)

The Atomic Tree is a journey into the memories of one of the most revered trees in the world—a 400-year-old Japanese White Pine bonsai that witnessed—and survived—the atomic blast in Hiroshima.

A culture of environmental and social issue filmmaking

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee & Adam Loften - We’ve been making films together for over a decade, with an emphasis on environmental and social issue documentary filmmaking. When VR first started emerging on the scene a few years ago we were intrigued about the medium’s potential and started experimenting with the technology, but it wasn’t until we found a story we knew could only be told in this medium did we understand its potential.

E. V.-L. & A. L. - In 2017 we directed and produced our first VR experience SANCTUARIES OF SILENCE. The piece explores the impact of noise pollution and takes you immersive listening journey into the Hoh Rainforest, one of the quietest places in North America. The piece premiered at New York Film Festival and also exhibited here at SXSW. With SANCTUARIES we experienced how powerful the medium can be for creating a multidimensional connection with the natural world and create an experience that builds respect for our environment.


E. V.-L. & A. L. - After creating SANCTUARIES OF SILENCE we were eager to continue experimenting with immersive storytelling. We had been exploring the idea of creating an experience told from the perspective of trees, and how their non-human experience was also part of our human experience, even if we aren’t conscious of it.

E. V.-L. & A. L. - We came across a book called THE SONGS OF TREES by David Haskell. In the book David tells the stories of different trees around the world, revealing the different connections between the human and natural worlds. One of the stories in the book is about a 400 year old Japanese white pine bonsai tree known as the Yamaki Pine. The tree survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima and is considered one of the most revered trees in the world. In the book David traces the story of the tree from its birthplace on the island of Miyajima to the Yamaki family in Hiroshima who cared for the tree for 350 years before the blast.


E. V.-L. & A. L. - We were captivated by the Yamaki Pine’s unique story and the idea that the tree held memories inside its rings, and felt this would make a compelling VR experience. David had seen SANCTUARIES OF SILENCE and was excited to collaborate with us and bring the trees story to life in a completely different way.

E. V.-L. & A. L. - Last spring we traveled to Japan and spent time in all the spaces where the tree had lived, capturing its memories and experiences. The piece is a mix of documentary footage from the cedar forests, temples and shrines on the island of Miyajima, recreations of the Yamaki family caring for the tree and animations capturing the atomic blast and visualizations of the trees rings.

A cognitive and sensitive journey

E. V.-L. & A. L. - Although the atomic blast is the climax of the piece, and the part of the tree’s story that has made it so famous, we were just as fascinated by the lesser known experiences. That it was born on an island of temples surrounded by the songs of prayers and how it was cared for by generations of hands over centuries. These experiences layered onto each other forming memories, just as tree rings layer onto each other forming wood. The pace and feeling is intentionally meditative, and although you travel through 400 years in 10 minutes it feels like one fluid and connected memory.

E. V.-L. & A. L. - We also wanted to tell the story in such a way that the physical, emotional and spiritual memories that are embedded in the Yamaki Pines rings echoed our own human understanding of memories, so we could experience the connection of the human and non-human worlds. It is told from the perspective of the tree, but through human eyes, as if you’re there with the tree on its journey - in the forest, in the temple, inside the atomic blast. We also journey into the trees interior, inside its rings, and I think that’s where we really invite people to step outside of the human experience and into the trees experience.


E. V.-L. & A. L. - It definitely offers freedom and new tools, but also some real limitations. The technology is still so new that you are often confronting challenges in executing what should be a simple camera move or creative idea. To us what is most interesting is the way you can take very traditional documentary storytelling techniques and yet because of the immersive medium and approach create a very experimental film. If we told this story as a traditional documentary film it would have been very hard to feel like you’re seeing or experiencing the trees memories.

E. V.-L. & A. L. - I think we are inviting people into a space that broadens their point of view. It is both a human and non-human experience existing together, relating to each other. Slowly over the course of ten minutes there is a subtle exchange as the trees point of view and the human point of view become more and more interwinted, more and more connected. We start and end the experience with the same shot, yet at the end of the journey your relationship to the tree has changed, has expanded and hopefully become one of connection and kinship.

Heading to SXSW

E. V.-L. & A. L. - We were at SXSW last year with SANCTUARIES OF SILENCE and had a great time sharing the experience. We were both surprised at how different it was to screening films in a traditional theater. It felt much more intimate, and the feedback was immediate. Even when you screen a film in front of a packed audience you only end up speaking to a few people afterwards, or responding to a few questions in a Q&A. But with VR you really get a sense of how each person is engaging with and responding to the experience, and you can speak with each person and get a real sense of what they thought. It is a funny mix of the latest digital technology interfacing with the oldest -- one on one old fashioned conversations.


E. V.-L. & A. L. - We’re currently working on a multimedia project about Indigenous language loss and revitalization in California.

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