Virtual reality as a new kind of documentary

Child wearing Virtual Reality Goggles in Classroom.

Virtual reality documentary series

Earlier this year, we had the privilege of sending an S1T2 team to Southeast Asia to film a virtual reality documentary series with World Bank. The Price of Conflict, The Prospect of Peace allows viewers to experience firsthand the pasts, presents and futures of those living in the heart of the Asia-Pacific.

Travelling to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, Konnou in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), and Mindanao in the Philippines, we shouldered the difficult task of telling the stories of those who call these places home. In each of these places we found landscapes scarred by conflict, populated with people working humbly towards peace.

Virtual Reality team shooting in the Solomon Islands.

It was these people and their stories that motivated us to create a series that stands testament not only to their suffering, but to their ongoing survival. For us, each moment represents not only a story to be told, but a story to be experienced. The series is about the very real lives being lived in each place, and the hope that each of those lives holds for the future of the region.

Surrendering to the medium

Filming in 360° in these remote, conflicted areas presented us with a unique opportunity to experiment with virtual reality as a documentary experience. Capturing every aspect of the environment forced us to remove ourselves from the film more completely than in any other style of documentary. Forget not being in the shot, our crew couldn’t even be near the camera.

S1T2 team member reviews virtual reality footage during filming for World Bank VR.

Hard as this surrender to the medium may be, it does something incredible to the documentary experience. For example, in every film the viewer at some point finds themselves face to face with a character in an otherwise empty landscape. In these moments, the limited directorial presence (both physically and metaphorically) affords both the character and the viewer a new kind of power over the story being told.

In these moments, breaking the fourth wall takes on a new significance that arises not from self-awareness, but self-consciousness. There is an awkwardness to these moments of interaction that sharply reminds us of the humanity behind the technology. This is where the beauty of these interactions lies; not in the redistribution of power, but in the vulnerability it creates. No longer do we have a film crew to mediate our interaction. We are here, together, just the two of us.

Young girl eats rice in a dark room during filming for World Bank virtual reality experience.

Saying less with more

Being able to achieve this kind of intimacy comes as a direct result of the virtual reality medium. Telling stories in virtual reality taps into the human desire to be within the story by allowing for a much more immersive experience. By giving the audience access to the 360° environment, we create an illusion of physical proximity. This illusion then translates into a feeling of authentic closeness which demonstrates the power of virtual reality as a medium of fostering empathy.

S1T2 team filming virtual reality documentary with GoPro 360 Heroes Rig.

Yet as a tool for building empathy, virtual reality is not perfect. The immersion that makes it so effective actually creates one of the biggest problems: just because you can look everywhere doesn’t mean you should. Instead of providing a fixed frame of passive viewing, the 360° nature of virtual reality throws the audience into a more active viewing experience. They now have access to an overwhelming amount of sensory information, and the freedom to explore it how they wish.

However, as much as audiences may feel that the virtual reality experience is unmediated, the artist’s hand remains. This is, after all, a creative project that must come together into a cohesive story. Indeed, the choice to use virtual reality doesn’t change the core problems of documentary. The directorial aims remain largely the same: find ways to script audience interaction so that the story received is the one being told. 

Scripting 360° of interaction

In the 360° experience of virtual reality, it’s important to allow the audience space and time to take in their surroundings. Scripting these kind of experiences is tricky, because it requires constant awareness of where the viewer is likely to be looking. Most of the time, we tried to work within a roughly 180° frame for each shot, as this mimics a more realistic social interaction. We then guided the audience towards this frame with a number of natural behavioural cues. 

S1T2 team sets up 360 virtual reality shoot for the World Bank.

The movement of characters through a scene was perhaps the most direct way we scripted audience interaction. For example, when introducing Andrew to the Solomon Islands experience, we capitalised on natural reading habits by having him enter from the right, where the viewer will have finished reading moments before. Walking from right to left, Andrew draws the viewer through the scene, creating an organic path for them to follow that respects their desire to move while focusing their attention.

It was also important to directly indulge in the 360° frame at times. Scripting these interactions often involved using sound cues to naturally direct audiences through the space. For instance, having someone speak while out of the current frame gives viewers the opportunity to move throughout the scene with the clear objective of finding who is speaking. The use of voiceovers was also useful in these circumstances, as we’re able to continue to convey auditory information while the viewer is free to explore the space in their own time.

Bougainville locals testing the virtual reality documentary.

Subtitles in virtual reality

Throughout these interactions, the ability of characters to tell their own story to viewers, in real time, is crucial. And given that we’re telling stories from areas and circumstances so vastly different from those of the target audience, subtitles are a must. This brings up a familiar documentary issue: how can we integrate subtitles into the frame.

Examples of subtitles in virtual reality taken from Price of Conflict World Bank VR.

Unfortunately, when working with an adolescent medium such as virtual reality, these kinds of concerns are neglected in favour of the more pressing issue of how to actually film the piece. While we were able to integrate subtitles into the overall aesthetic of the series, we weren’t able to eliminate the constant negotiation between text and visuals that plagues the user’s experience. However, as the technology develops, we’re hopeful that more focus will be devoted to integrating textual translation and visuals into a more cohesive whole.

Step into the future of storytelling

Overall, we feel honoured by the opportunity to tell these important, meaningful stories in such an immersive way. We’re excited for the future of documentary virtual reality, and hope that “The Price of Conflict, The Prospect of Peace” series will stand as a benchmark for what can be achieved.

You can check out the series for yourself on our Youtube channel. And if you’d like to learn more about the project, give the case study a read below.

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