By Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
The Hoh Rain Forest is one of the largest temperate rain forests in the United States. Situated within the Olympic National Park in western Washington State, the Hoh is protected from commercial logging and is a haven for old-growth Sitka spruce, western hemlock, coast Douglas fir, big-leaf maples and black cottonwoods. The isolated region is far from main roads and development, making the Hoh one of the quietest places in North America.
This virtual reality Op-Doc provides an immersive experience into the Hoh Rain Forest, told from the perspective of the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. For the past 35 years, Mr. Hempton has been documenting the sounds of the Hoh and its many species, including Pacific tree frogs, Roosevelt elk, northern spotted owls, the red-breasted nuthatch and Pacific wrens. He believes silence is on the verge of extinction. Planes often fly over the Hoh en route to Seattle, emitting a dull roar that punctures the silence of the landscape. The Hoh is but one of many remote corners of the world being affected by noise pollution.
Mr. Hempton defines silence not as the absence of sound but the absence of noise from modern life. When we first heard of him and his work, we were instantly intrigued by the idea of creating a virtual reality experience to explore this notion of silence. As visual as the medium is, with its 360-degree cinematic canvas, our approach was driven more by sound than by images. How could we offer the viewer a chance to experience the Hoh through Mr. Hempton’s way of listening, giving the sounds their own voice? This question became our motivation.
Listening through a microphone taught Mr. Hempton to take things in with equal value, without judgment. We were struck by this approach, as it offered us the opportunity to be completely present in the landscape. When listening in this way, we were more connected to the space around us. We heard the intricacies of life — the creaking of trees, the cacophony of birdsong. We were attuned to nature in ways we had not experienced.
Our hope with this film is that viewers come away with a new perspective toward sound and the power of silence. The simple act of listening to the natural world can have a profound impact on our relationship to place and on ourselves by rooting us in a presence that we no longer take for granted.
Adam Loften is a filmmaker. Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is a filmmaker and composer. His previous Op-Docs are “Who Speaks Wukchumni?” and “Vanishing Island.”
Watch this film with a headset by downloading the NYT VR app.
Op-Docs is a forum for short, opinionated documentaries, produced with creative latitude by independent filmmakers and artists. Learn more about Op-Docs and how to submit to the series.