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Creating Awareness Through Immersion

by Art U News

Academy graduate Berti Benbanaste and instructor Kevin Kunze teamed up to create an interactive experience about the Paradise Camp Fire

By Nina Tabios

“What I personally remember the most was the chimneys,” Berti Benbanaste recalled. “All the houses were gone—only their chimneys were standing upright.”

It’s almost been a year since the Camp Fire swept through the town of Paradise, California. The insurmountable blaze swallowed over 18,000 properties, 153,000 acres of land, and claimed 86 lives, making it the country’s sixth deadliest fire ever and causing $16.5 billion in damages. And in an upcoming interactive experience called “Silence
in Paradise” by Benbanaste and his former Academy of Art University virtual reality instructor Kevin Kunze, they hope to show that the true devastation of Paradise is that it all could have been prevented.

“This was almost a month after the fire had happened. However, there was an eerie feeling for sure,” Benbanaste said, describing that day on site. “There were a lot of car scenes that I can’t get out of my head because inside, everything had melted. Alloys, the plastic, a lot of leftover cars. It was emotion-al and it was very vivid imagery.”

“Everything was toxic,” Kunze added of the area, whose water is now reported to be contaminated with elements that are linked to cancer. “It was like entering a war zone.”

Filming on the ground and in the air, the teacher and student duo—now filmmaking partners—trekked through burned plots, saw and heard firsthand from residents and first responders how this fire has turned their lives upside down. Even in VR, seeing Paradise’s vast destruction is jarring. Coupled with the re-al-time 911 dispatches from the initial fires, “Silence in Paradise” directs viewers through charred woods and properties, a feeling of abandonment weighing heavy on each scene.

“We wanted to be careful to not be labeled as disaster artists and be respectful of any residents returning,” Benbanaste said. “There are people that 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. So, ‘Silence in Paradise’ started that way.”

“We wanted to look at this devastation from a different perspective and give people a viewpoint that is very holistic and shows it as everything that it is,” said Kunze, who hopes the piece will help bring awareness around the issue. “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.”

Kunze and Benbanaste are hopeful that “Silence in Paradise” will be accepted into either Sundance or Tribeca Film Festival. It will be their first socially-driven immersive piece since they started working together last summer and any proceeds made will be donated to the California Fire Benevolent Foundation which offers assistance to those impacted by wildfires, including both residents and firefighters.

And for Benbanaste personally, “Silence in Paradise” may very well be the affirmation that trading in a cushy sales job for a creative career was worth the risk. After completing courses in web design, drone and virtual reality production classes in the Academy’s Continuing Education program, Benbanaste continued to keep in touch with his instructors, occasion-ally assisting School of Communications & Media Technologies’ Roger Apolinar’s drone classes. Kunze said he typically likes to hire students as his assistants and Benbanaste’s top-notch aerial photography skills made him perfect for this particular project. Of his instructors, Benbanaste said, “I see them as friends as well as peers and mentors.”

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

Benbanaste remembered when Kunze approached him about “Silence in Paradise.” His instructor’s exact words were: “We can start working on things that excite and move us.”

To learn more about “Silence in Paradise” and donate to the California Fire Benevolent Foundation, visit silenceinparadise.com.


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