The story begins on a cold winter morning in New York where a small group of people are meeting in a windowless room in an unremarkable corner of UN headquarters. It is the job of these people to communicate humanitarian issues, and in a world on fire, they have their work cut out for them. They have gathered to watch a Virtual Reality film called Clouds Over Sidra about a Syrian refugee camp. It is February 2014.
Like everyone else in the room I have heard a lot about Virtual Reality (VR), but this is the first time I have watched a VR film. I am a journalist turned filmmaker and have been telling humanitarian stories in words, pictures and film for 20 years. I have worked and filmed in the Za’atari refugee camp before and have made, or helped to make, several films about the plight of Syrian refugees. I know what to expect. Or so I think.
Six minutes later I lay the headset back on the table and take a deep breath. I’m stunned by the way Gabo Arora’s film has dragged me into the heart of his story and I’m daring to think that this could be the storytelling tool that I’ve been waiting for. It feels like both the end and beginning of a journey. It feels like a glimpse of the future.
Fast forward 18 months and I’m sitting in an airless refugee tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. On one side of me sits Nokia’s beautiful Ozo VR camera and my long term cameraman and friend Thomas, and on the other side, former Iraqi refugee-turned-aid-worker Warda and half a dozen young Syrian refugee girls. We are passing round a Samsung Gear headset loaded with a short animated film about dinosaurs to try and explain VR to them.
Click play to see what happened when they watched VR for the first time …
A long time before I’d ever heard of VR I read somewhere that “the evolution of storytelling is inseparable from the evolution of technology.” I made a note of it at the time and promptly forgot about it, but it was a thought that kept coming back to me during the shoot of our VR film, Life in the Time of Refuge.
I had been warned by friends who had been in the VR game for a while already that shooting in VR meant throwing out pretty much everything you think you know about filmmaking and starting over. “You have to hide to be out of shot … You can’t follow the action … You can’t frame the shot because everything is in shot … And whatever you do, be very careful of movement, because even the slightest movement can make the viewer feel sea sick …”
So when Thomas suggested one morning while we were filming by a lake in Finland that we set up the camera in a boat and “get a shot in the middle of the lake,” that sounded like trouble to me.
Click play to see what happened when we tried …
For sure, it’s way more difficult and time consuming to shoot documentary stories in VR, and the run ’n’ gun style of observational documentary is nigh on impossible (at least for now).
Not to mention the challenges of shooting in areas where insecurity is high and people are suspicious of strange people, doing strange things with strange looking bits of kit.
Click play below to see what it was like shooting a VR scene close to the Lebanon/Syria border …
A s it turns out — and, as I had been warned — much of shooting VR is about jettisoning the things you love about filmmaking and embracing the things you thought you didn’t like. Things like voice over.
Remember Robert McKee’s words of warning to a paranoid Nicholas Cage in Charlie Kaufmann’s Adaptation?: “God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.”
I thought that too many of the humanitarian VR films that I had seen to date were too reliant on voice over, and that the story needed a chance to develop alongside its characters. With my snooty filmmaker hat on, I saw voice over as the last refuge of the scoundrel so when we started the project I was adamant that we should avoid it.
But as we found out, the bottom line is that in VR so much of the director’s ability to let the narrative take its own course is taken out of the equation by the fact that the director and cinematographer are hiding behind a grave at the crucial moment. So in the end we bit the bullet and embraced some ‘flaccid, sloppy writing.’
But you know what, we think it worked out pretty well …
Click play to watch the 360 version of our film on Facebook …
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