Excited about Virtual Reality? I surely am. Because VR represents a new frontier in documentary filmmaking – seeing in all directions creates and immersive experience of ‘being there’ and enhances great empathy with the audience. Yet VR documentary is a genre very few filmmakers have been exploring.
No later than Dec 2015 the first VR Documentary Series started production. The series named ‘Holy Land’ takes viewers to the Middle East to observe the confluence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jaunt Studios and RYOT Ink Production are the creators behind the series.
“No other medium can allow you to feel as though you are touring the Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem from across the world,” says Cliff Plumer, President of Jaunt Studios.
Another example of a VR documentary is “Clouds over Sidra” by Chris Milk. The documentary uses VR as a great storytelling tool, and increases the point of view experience.
The story takes place in a refugee camp in Jordan where Sidra, a charming and sweet twelve year old girl has fled her home in Syria due to the ongoing crisis. She tells the story of the day-to-day life in the camp.
Watch Clouds over Sidra online: http://vrse.works/creators/chris-milk/work/the-united-nations-clouds-over-sidra/
Sidra says: “Many of the men say exercise because they want to be strong for the journey home, but I think they just want to look good in the mirror. A lot of them says funny sounds when they lift the weights”.
These descriptions are excellent and paints the story, but we don’t hear the “funny sounds” from the men. The documentary lacks the link between diegetic sound happening within the scene and the described story.
Sound is an incredibly effective tool in VR to improve the sense of presence that the viewer feels when watching a movie. You feel like you are actually there. Sound also guides the viewer by using psychoacoustic techniques. If you for example hear a bird behind you, you turn around and you see the bird right there.
The biological role of our hearing is to gather information about the environment, particularly about the spatial positions of sound. The effect can be achieved through Binaural sound techniques and by working with psychoacoustics.
The VR documentary Collisions takes the viewer right into the vast outback of Australia, in a particular place you cannot go unless invited. In the case of Collisions the technique behind giving the impression that sounds are all around you is made from Dolby alpha rendition. The software makes a microsecond delay in the sound played from one ear to another.
“You use sound to frame the viewer’s experience. There are trigger points to make you look up or behind you” says Lynette Wallworth, Australian filmmaker and creator of Collisions.
The human hearing is able to recognise very small time differences. If a sound event arrives somewhat earlier at the left ear than the right ear, the event is noticed left. The localisation of an acoustic source is made possible particularly by binaural hearing. The human brain evaluates the differences between the signals at the left and at the right ear and determines the direction of the acoustic source.
In order to produce VR films where the sound comes from behind as trigger points, you will have to stage the actions much more. It’s more like directing a theatre than directing a film explains Lynette Wallworth, creator of Collisions. “It’s closer to directing theater than directing film. We’re kind of hiding behind a door talking to someone through an earpiece”. Part of the authenticity in the genre documentary can disappear by staging people and real life situations. The modern media spectator are aware when staging is happening. Though more and more documentaries play with mixing fiction into the storyline. Both ways of storytelling are powerful but challenging to achieve at once.
Great storytelling potential
The potential for storytelling is amazing! VR captures the essence of our psychology and senses. Seeing in all directions helps the audience feeling present.
But it is a challenge to produce VR documentaries without staging people and their actions, which can lead to lack of authenticity. It’s up to the director to decide what is most important: People acting like their true self on screen, or embracing the VR experience to the fullest by staging and controlling the actions of people almost like a theatre play.
VR will soon hit in a big way, very possibly to become ubiquitous. There are billions invested in VR. By 2020 VR and AR together is projected to reach $120 billion. Facebook, Microsoft and Google are leading the pack investing tons in VR and it’s a big thing for brands too. ABC, HBO are at the moment looking at the storytelling potentials in VR and AR. As an example the HBO TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ has made their intro sequence available to watch in VR. This means that the future potential for virtual reality storytelling is amazing.
Let’s use this great opportunity to produce content that opens up to unseen environments and inspire a greater cultural understanding.
Written by Tine Pia Jensen. 2016.