Creating Empathy in Virtual Reality: 10 Takeaways

By Brittany Rostron

NYWIFT’s Documentary Committee brought together a panel of Virtual Reality producers and filmmakers who are conquering this emerging vehicle for storytelling in powerful ways on May 9th, 2017, with Creating Empathy in Virtual Reality: The Challenges and Success of Immersive Experiences. Moderator Pegi Vail prompted Bronte Lord from CNN VR and Doctors Without Borders filmmaking partners Melissa Pracht and Negin Allamehzadeh to discuss the challenges and successes of VR, and how they effectively use the immersive medium to engage viewers and impact change.

Here are the top 10 observations made by the panelists:

 

  1. Be unique. A guideline for broadcast journalists is often that you have to create a story in such a way that provides a compelling reason it can’t be told through print, a much cheaper medium. Bronte Lord adds, “This is exponentially more true with VR. You have to have an extremely compelling reason why it should be VR and not a flat video.”

 

  1. Practice, practice, practice. Learning to shoot in VR is really a matter of trial and error, particularly in terms of capturing the most impactful and/or effective shot. Negin Allamehzadeh admitted, “Every shoot you’re trying different things and getting different outcomes. It’s an ongoing experiment to learn how to frame up a shot in VR.”

 

  1. Extra direction. You may have to direct the scene a little more with VR because you can see every angle, and need to think about what people are doing in every direction. Melissa Pracht recalled shooting in Tanzania, when the film crew was followed around by a large group of children. She remembered needing to find creative ways to get the group out of the shot, with some exceptions. “We still needed some of them in the shot, so we couldn’t make whatever we were distracting them with too

 

  1. Precision is key. For example, with eye level placement, if you’re slightly off, the perspective can be extremely skewed. Lord explains, “A person could look like a giant, or an ant, or you feel like you’re sitting in their lap and it’s really uncomfortable.”

 

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The Doctors Without Borders VR experience Forced From Home
  1. Live in the moment. Allamehzadeh praised the format’s opportunity for spontaneity, noting that two of the most talked about moments in Forced from Home were “unexpected and unplanned,” a result she credits to working with VR.

 

  1. Find your audience. One key challenge of VR is reaching beyond the demographic of teenaged boys who overwhelming have the most VR headsets, usually for gaming purposes. Lord half-jokes, “I don’t know how many of them we’re going to get to watch CNN, but we’re trying.”

 

  1. Don’t (always) get crazy. The fact that some of the most talented and successful people working in VR are video game designers only augments the challenge of moving VR beyond its often “gimmicky” nature and reputation. “People sometimes can’t get beyond just wanting to use it to jump out of an airplane,” Lord opined.

 

  1. Aim for perfection. Unlike other media, it’s not so easy to “fix it in post.” Allamehzadeh warned, “There’s so little you can do to add pizazz to your shoot on the backend, you really need to do whatever you can to create the best possible shot in the moment.”

 

  1. No big leaders. There isn’t one company or channel that has the VR content market cornered right now. Unlike the strong preferences consumers have for their favorite cable or premium channel content, with VR it’s about the content. Lord explains, “The brand distinctions right now are murky which is kind of a cool thing.”

 

  1. VR for good. An exciting area that VR could prove particularly effective in is the not-for-profit sector. Pracht recollected an instance where some colleagues in Amsterdam offered VR headsets showing some of her shorter documentary pieces to passersby on the street in order to solicit donations. While not remembering the exact figures, Pracht recalls that compared to industry standard ROI for this type of initiative, it was “some ridiculously huge percentage of people who actually responded and then took action after seeing the pieces.”

 

NYWIFT produces more than 50 professional development programs like this one throughout the year. Our programming will resume in September – stay tuned to www.nywift.org for updates!

 

(Top image from The Nomads Series by Oculus)
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