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Nepal Is in Crisis. Will This Virtual Reality Film Make You Care? (Q&A)

"I think the future of visual news has to be in VR -- it's not a news anchor telling you what you're seeing. You're seeing it for yourself."

Ryot News

As we’ve previously examined, several filmmakers and academics are figuring out how to use virtual reality outside of gaming.

Re/code recently got a behind-the-scenes look at a documentary short film, made by the activist news site Ryot and narrated by Susan Sarandon, about the aftermath of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in April. In addition to filming in 2-D and assisting in humanitarian efforts on the ground, Ryot co-founder David Darg used a VR camera to capture 360-degree video footage of both wreckage and reconstruction.

We caught up with Darg and fellow Ryot co-founder Bryn Mooser to talk about their Nepal Quake Project and what VR can do for the future of journalism and humanitarian work.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: How long did it take to go from “this awful earthquake has happened” to getting the camera on the ground in Nepal?

David Darg: Bryn and I try and raise awareness, raise support, raise funds for nonprofits that are working on the ground. We often deploy on the ground with those nonprofits in a dual role: We’re getting our hands dirty, but we’re also there as journalists. When Nepal happened, like so many before, I immediately deployed to start helping as many people as we could.

Bryn Mooser: David has an alert on his phone whenever there’s a disaster, an earthquake over a certain size, a tsunami. Within minutes, he had bought a plane ticket to Nepal, and called me and said, “How do we get a camera?”

Ryot News

Darg: We were in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival, where Bryn and I were showing off “Confinement” (a previous Ryot VR film about solitary confinement in prison), and it happened the day after the festival. It just so happened that the guy who did that experience was in town. We told him to meet me at JFK to hand off with this VR camera.

Mooser: It was the craziest mad dash to get our friend, who was sleeping in and a little hung over. I called him 45 times, and he finally woke up. He rushed to the airport and David had about a 20-minute window, and they passed the camera off through security.

Having filmed other disasters like this in the past, how different was capturing the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake in VR?

Ryot News

Mooser: We’re humanitarians first, filmmakers and journalists second. You have these windows of opportunity where you want to get these stories out, so you can continue to keep the disaster front of mind for people and help them get involved.

Darg: Had we had access to the camera last year when I was shooting “Body Team 12,” we absolutely would have shot that in VR, for the same reasons that we shot [that way in] Nepal. Out of conflict and disaster, we’ve always struggled with getting people to connect and relate to the important story that we’re trying to tell. We want to harness VR to transport people to the places that we’re seeing.

Mooser: In Japan, after the tsunami, and in Haiti, after the earthquake, I wish that we had had VR. Part of what it can give you is scale, in addition to the empathy or compassion, the feeling that you’re right there. Scale is very difficult to capture today, in a 2-D way — Haiti in particular. You would take a picture of a wrecked building, but unless you had a crazy panorama, you couldn’t see that it was an entire neighborhood of a city that was collapsed. You couldn’t feel the scale of the devastation unless you were there on the ground.

On the business side of virtual reality, a lot of people are saying the first wave of these headsets is going to be targeted at entertainment — games and movies. Do you see that as a hurdle, that maybe the early adopters might not be the documentary audience?

Mooser: We’re responding as humanitarians to these places anyway. Whether we shoot it on VR or not, this isn’t a commercial — there isn’t any revenue on these projects. We’re not competing with a video game or movie. We’re not trying to have people buy our documentary as opposed to buying “Avatar” in virtual reality. What is exciting is that every single day, there are advances in the technology.

Darg: It is a bit frustrating, when people watch it in a 2-D format on the Internet [without] the full immersive experience. But I think nonfiction and documentary content is going to be one of the things that helps spur VR to growth. A lot of people who’ve watched the film were like, “Oh, I really get this now!” Whereas before they had associated VR with computer games, as sort of a gimmicky thing.

Mooser: Every new technology needs an “aha” moment. My mom didn’t understand Twitter until she read an article that said Twitter was being used by food trucks to say where they’d show up, and you’d know where to go — she went, “Oh, I get why Twitter is important!” and then she started a Twitter account. Using this for documentary and story — that could be the “aha” moment.

How many people were involved in the production of this video?

Darg: There were three of us: I shot it on the ground, a team member from VRideo did the stitching of the content, and then Bryn and I edited the content once it had been stitched together. And if you include Susan Sarandon, I guess four people.

Mooser: Yeah, you know, Susan has been working in Nepal for many years. I called her and said, “Can we get some voiceover?” Within an hour, she sent it back. For me, the most exciting thing is that there’s been this huge barrier, the cost of creating content. This film cost practically nothing to make, and we were able to turn it around within a week, from shooting to showing it to the first person.

Darg: Our goal is, next time, we’ll be releasing VR content the same day. The stitching happens in the field, we’re producing in the field, and I think the future of visual news has to be in VR — it’s not a news anchor telling you what you’re seeing. You’re seeing it for yourself, and it’s unfolding in front of you.

What was the reaction of the people in Nepal, who were directly affected by this tragedy, when you pull out this camera rig and start filming?

Darg: First of all, the rig is just six GoPro cameras arranged into a ball, and you put that on a really small tripod, so it’s not something that really sticks out. The interesting thing about a VR rig is, you place it and then want to get as far away from it as possible, and as quickly as possible, because you don’t want to be in the shot. People see you setting it up, and might be intrigued initially and look into it, but then I’d run away and let it do its thing, and after a while, people ignore it.

As a filmmaker, I’m really fascinated that it’s become the purest form of “fly on the wall.” It doesn’t involve a human directing the show. It’s just a piece of technology, a mechanical fly that you leave and walk away from and it does all the work.

Mooser: That’s what’s exciting about all of these new technologies: Cameras are starting to look less like cameras. The GoPro virtual reality camera looks more like an architect’s tool than it does a camera.

You mentioned earlier that this is different from telling a story of a natural disaster with a news anchor managing the experience. But you did choose to have the narration from Susan Sarandon and to intersperse 2-D footage. Why have those two things in this, and not just show the 360-degree footage?

Mooser: We’re trying to make a film, not just an experience. The technology has been limited in some ways to “oh, we’re in a forest” or “we’re by a waterfall.” That’s not really a film. This is our first film where we’ve experimented with combining these things, and having Susan do the voiceover helps push the story forward. It also adds a level of film quality, that this isn’t just a gimmick for gamers.

Darg: We’re learning this as we go. I think it’s difficult to just drop someone in a scene without narration. It’s going to be interesting to see how it emerges — is breaking news going to be VR, without an anchor? I think you’ll have to preface certain things, because you are transporting people to a completely alien environment, so it’s important to identify things, to talk people through it to some extent.

What sort of reactions have you seen to this film so far?

Mooser: About 10 percent of the people who watch it come out of it crying, some of them weeping so much that we wipe the lenses afterwards. To us, that’s the real win on this — or the fact that we’re doing this interview with Re/code about Nepal. That’s something that this audience might have forgotten about. Now we have a new way of reminding people what’s going on, so they don’t feel terrible about the world but rather feel activated. There are people who are still in a lot of pain, who have lost a lot, and this will hopefully keep people talking about it.

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