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Academy of Art Alum, Instructor Depict Paradise Fire in Virtual Reality

Academy of Art University alumnus Berti Benbanaste and former instructor Kevin Kunze have teamed up to create an interactive experience portraying 2018’s Camp Fire in California. Titled Silence in Paradise, their collaboration aims to show that the destruction could have been limited or even prevented.

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Disaster of Historic Proportions

In November 2018, the Camp Fire swept through the town of Paradise, California.  The blaze consumed more than 18,000 properties on 153,000 acres of land. It claimed 86 lives and was the nation’s sixth deadliest fire ever. Damage totaled $16.5 billion.

Visiting the Scene

When Benbanaste and Kunze went to the site of the fire, they were stunned. “What I personally remember the most was the chimneys,” Benbanaste recalls. “All the houses were gone—only their chimneys were standing upright.

“This was almost a month after the fire had happened. However, there was an eerie feeling for sure,” he says. “There were a lot of car scenes that I can’t get out of my head…everything had melted—alloys, the plastic….

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“It was emotional, and it was very vivid imagery.”

“Everything was toxic,” Kunze adds. Water in the area was contaminated with substances linked to cancer. “It was like entering a war zone.”

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Filming on the ground and in the air, the filmmaking partners trekked through burned plots. They heard firsthand from residents and responders how the fire turned lives upside down.

Capturing the Disaster

Silence in Paradise incorporates real-time 911 dispatches from the original fires. The production directs viewers through charred woods and properties, with a feeling of abandonment inhabiting each scene.

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“We wanted to be careful to not be labeled as disaster artists, and [to] be respectful of any residents returning,” Benbanaste says. “There are people who do a great job documenting, but there must be a call to action. Why did you go there and why was it important for you to go there? I think those questions need to be answered.”

“We wanted to look at this devastation from a different perspective and give people a viewpoint that is very holistic,” says Kunze, who hopes the piece will help bring awareness to the importance of wildfire prevention and containment. “People can actually take a look at it in VR headsets and get this experience that is really out-of-body. In that way, it’s more impactful.”

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Silence in Paradise is the first immersive piece Kunze and Benbanaste developed since they began working together. They’re hopeful it will be accepted into either Sundance or Tribeca Film Festival. Any proceeds will be donated to the Cal Fire Benevolent Foundation, which offers assistance to those impacted by wildfires.

A Purposeful Redirection with the Academy

For Benbanaste, Silence in Paradise affirms that trading in a cushy sales job for a creative career is worth the risk. After completing courses in the Academy’s Continuing Education program, Benbanaste kept in touch with his instructors. He assisted in School of Communications & Media Technologies instructor Roger Apolinar’s drone classes.

Kunze says he often likes to hire students as his assistants. Benbanaste’s top-notch aerial photography skills made him an ideal partner.

Of his instructors, Benbanaste says, “I see them as friends as well as peers and mentors.”

And of the project, he says, “I think it paid off. My individual efforts—remaining friends and continuing to do work with my instructors—was due to the nature of the [instructors], how nice they were. But they also saw an opportunity in me. And I think when you have passion and knowledge on something, you find people who are doing similar things around you.”

Original article by Nina Tabios of AcademyArtUNews

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