Making a virtual reality documentary for The World Bank

Creative technology agency S1T2 prepares to shoot 360 degree virtual reality experience ‘Price of Conflict, Prospect of Peace’.

The World Bank comes calling

In our most recent project, we challenged ourselves to use virtual reality technology to create a 360° interactive documentary for the World Bank called The Price of Conflict, The Prospect of Peace.

To produce the film, we sent a small team to the Solomon Islands to spend a week on the ground exploring the region. Our aim was to understand the difficulties faced by Solomon Islanders to then portray these issues in a manner befitting of the country and its people.

S1T2 Team with children from Solomon Islands.

With the help of World Bank representatives, we were introduced to many interesting characters including ex-militants and other locals that were victims of the civil war, and furthermore, gain intimate access to communities that had lived through the hardships of the past. This humbling experience encouraged us to develop a story that accurately captured the identity of the land, not only through the people we met and locations we found, but also, in the application of virtual reality technology itself.

Why virtual reality?

Filming the project in live-action virtual reality presented us with an opportunity to create an entirely immersive body of work that put the audience inside the film. Within this 360° environment the camera’s position became that of the viewer, effectively allowing us to control scenes as if the audience was part of the story itself.

We felt that this technology would be particularly effective in depicting the highly sensitive nature of content that would otherwise be unable to be shared. On the ground, we uncovered a very different way of life to that which the average Australian is accustomed to, and we felt it was critical to the film’s success that this uniquely different lifestyle was communicated properly in order for audiences to connect with the issues facing these characters.

Boat on the water in Solomon Islands viewed through Virtual Reality.

Using virtual reality allowed us to project this way of life onto the viewer to give them the chance to not only see it but also, take one step closer to feeling and experiencing the lifestyle as if they were really there. This made the struggles of characters more personal and authentic to the viewer as we could use virtual reality as a tool for to building empathy and completely immersing the audience in another world.

Technological limitations

GoPro 360 Heroes rig for Virtual Reality.

When filming a virtual reality documentary in another country, the problems you face are amplified due to the limitations imposed by the type of equipment currently available to the medium and the more complex filming process required. For starters, the format requires the use of a custom rig consisting of a multitude of cameras along with greater setup time per scene.

This added intricacy does not lend itself particularly well to merged crew roles and inevitably alludes to the necessity of a larger team where specific roles are designated to each person. In this project, while we were able to get away with a relatively small number of personnel – director, cinematographer and producer – it was a very challenging time for the crew and egos had to be left at home to be replaced with a broader sense of duty to the project.

The final tech kit

In consideration of budget and film environment, we chose to use a 7-camera GoPro setup for the project. Anyone that has attempted to film a commercial production with GoPro cameras, however, will know that relative to other cameras in the market they have some pretty frustrating drawbacks. This is because they are primarily a consumer-level product that has been adopted by the film industry for specific use.

Similarly in our case, even though they are one of the best camera hardware currently available for virtual reality productions due to their relatively low cost, portability, durability and quality output (1080p at high frame rates), they come with a whole bag of cons that needed to be resolved:

  • Battery Life – GoPro’s have extremely short filming battery life and you will be lucky to get over thirty minutes of footage before you need to charge or replace. As a result, you need to be particularly calculative in your approach to documentary filmmaking and create an efficient process for recharging batteries. In our case, we adopted a second kit which could be switched in as needed.
  • Remote Display – While GoPro has an official app it is clunky and seems to malfunction just when you need it most. Consider using an alternative method for remote display and even utilise an alternative GoPro camera for viewing. Remember in virtual reality  the camera sees all, so in a 360° scene, the crew has to be entirely out of shot which often means hiding in rooms, behind trees or flat on the floor.
  • Latitude – GoPro’s are particularly sensitive to light both if there is too much or too little, and as a result, this significantly restricts the environment and time of day which is ideal for filming. For our entire project, we filmed in natural lighting only and aimed to shoot only during key times such as sunset or sunrise.

The final camera kit equipment list we used on the World Bank documentary can be seen below:

  • 14 x GoPro Hero 4 Black
  • 2 x 7-Camera Custom Rig
  • 2 x Battery Pack
  • 4 x Portable USB Charging Device
  • 2 x Lacie Hard Drive
  • 2 x Apple MacBook Pro
  • 2 x Zoom H6 with 360° Microphone
  • 2 x Sennheiser G3

The experience

Part of the beauty of virtual reality is being able to capture an experience that can be relived in greater detail. As a new medium, however, the best ways to capture this experience are only now being discovered. On our last live-action virtual reality shoot with the Australian Wallabies we discovered that when working in a 360° scene it is best to block characters in designated quadrants to minimise issues in post-production stitching.

Quadrant positioning drafts for Wallabies Virtual Reality.

Rather than focus on a similar approach in this film though, we decided to introduce new techniques more fitting of a documentary-approach to filmmaking and tended to film as observers rather than choreographers. This was a frighteningly liberating experience as we were only able to completely review footage upon arriving back in Sydney after the production team had carried out an initial stitch.

Ultimately, it proved to be the right decision that provided a raw account of the Solomon Islands that did justice to the documentary format, however without the experience and insights learned from previous virtual reality shoots the outcome could have been horribly different.

Final thoughts

All-in-all we are extremely proud of the final product which the team has created and  hope that it will stand as a benchmark for storytelling in virtual reality not only in Australia, but around the world. We look forward to continue exploring the potential of virtual reality. If you’d like to watch this virtual reality documentary, come along to our Vivid Ideas event – Storytelling in a Virtual World.

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