Journalists are taking their first steps into virtual reality. Innovation producers Charlie Newland and Owain Rich have recently taken the plunge at the BBC, and they discuss the challenges with Ryan Watts.
The idea of virtual reality isn’t new: Sega made a headset in 1991. VR as a storytelling device, however, is picking up traction in newsrooms and becoming more complex as the medium is explored. How many journalists can say they’ve had a bite of the cherry?
Interhacktives spoke to Charlie Newland and Owain Rich, Producers at the BBC and the filmmakers behind “Trafficked”, BBC World Service’s first foray into virtual reality. The eight-minute film introduces viewers to Maria – a single mother trafficked from Nicaragua to Mexico, and forced into the sex trade.
In an interview with the Interhacktives, Charlie and Owain discussed the story’s inceptions, whether the technical skills they have gained are essential for working journalists, and the first thing everyone says when they remove their headset and return to reality.
What came first: the story or the idea of doing something with VR?
O: The journalist that brought the story to us was from Mexico. VR is so new that certain stories work and certain stories don’t, and we’re trying to learn the rules of it. We wanted to find a personal story from a female perspective, and find something appropriate. [Filming in VR is] different to a standard filmmaking, where you’re going out with a camera and you get an idea of what’s actually possible: your levels of access, how you’d actually shoot everything. All these ideas pop into your head and you get an idea of what you’re making as you film it.
With VR, however, we didn’t know where the trap doors would be.
“With traditional filmmaking you can choose different camera angles, you can cover shots with audio, you can show the curtain blowing in the breeze, then cut to the door handle etc. But with VR you’re seeing all things around you at all times.”
C: We had a few different ideas. Considering the subject matter with “Trafficked,” it was really tricky because we couldn’t actually show anything explicit. We had lots of ideas before we could choose what we went ahead with and we were still conditioned by what we had access to, so we had to find the best avenue and to drill down on the best way to film
O: We were slightly overwhelmed with the idea of telling Maria’s story. How are you going to get a sense of her whole perspective? Who are you? Are you Maria? Are you a third person? It’s just an endless field of options.
— Charlie Newland (@charlienewland) December 8, 2016
C: You really have to pick where you focus the attention: Is it the fact she’s transported around [or] all of the eight years she suffered through? You try everything out and eventually you see what works.
O: The other difficult thing is choosing what to show and what not to show. Basically, there were certain things that were too graphic to show. With traditional filmmaking, you can choose different camera angles, you can cover shots with audio, you can show the curtain blowing in the breeze, then cut to the door handle etc. But with VR you’re seeing all things around you at all times.
C: VR is laid bare. You can’t hide.
How do you convey the seriousness of the subject best, in VR?
O: We didn’t need to show that much to get that sense of menace, and to connect to people emotionally. We don’t show any violence beyond Maria being struck near the end.
C: Which is what got us our “over 18” certification.
O: We could have shown all sorts of things, but we choose to have the guy just getting slightly too close for comfort [The first scene of the film introduces you to one of the traffickers.]
C: It was the one thing, given the medium, that we could play with: having someone breaking into your personal space, so we really exaggerated his presence.
O: That’s one of the challenges of VR: what to show, what not to show. We’ve got loads of options and the rules aren’t really written. We mocked up scenes, blocked out scenes, and tried lots of different scenes. But in the end, we had to scale things back.
C: We had a dream sequence scene for Maria panned for the start too, and were experimenting with 360 audio, but to tell the story we didn’t need that much. You don’t need to make it super complicated. We did a workshop before we started, and what came out was that it needed to be something that people wanted to watch. It’s not for entertainment, as such, but it needed to be informative. We ran it as an installation — it needed to be an intro to the subject.
“I don’t know whether it [VR] will go mainstream the way that people hope, but I think we would like to be there – just because of how it connects you on an emotional level.”
How important are the typical journalistic values when filmmaking in VR, with regards to ethics and accuracy?
O: Some of the dialogue was rewritten from the transcript to fit the timeframe, but the actual content of what is shown is based on pure fact. We conducted rigorous interviews with Maria herself several times, as well as people involved with her rescue and people who worked on the trafficking route. We had a lot of contextual information to work with.
O: Essentially, what we were making was a dramatised film based on real accounts, so in terms of the narrative, everything was there.
C: Even down to Maria being hit on the head, it was a dramatised version. We gathered as much reference material as possible. When you’re creating something, you don’t want to embellish the facts to make things seem more dramatic and dismal, but the film is still a stylised version of events, factually accurate.
How do you see the industry progressing, and what do you hope your role would be? In an ideal world, would newsrooms invest in these kinds of things?
C: Definitely — I think [VR] offers a new perspective. We forensically recreated a scene and you can walk around, and the emotion combined with the interactivity is definitely something we, as an industry, should be looking at. But it’s all down to the budget.
O: The strategy has lots of pockets of people experimenting. As a filmmaker, anything that gives me a chance to connect with an audience in a different way, that gives a different perspective, makes me pretty excited. I don’t know whether VR will go mainstream the way that people hope, but I think we would like to be there — just because of how it connects you on an emotional level.
How long did “Trafficked” take from start to finish?
C: About three months.
O: In terms of actual hours, it was probably much more than that. it was like six months work in the space of three.
C: The size of the operation and the work needed really depends on the story. If you’re thinking more short form, you can just create an environment, add a voiceover and have a little bit of interactivity. It is quite a scalable medium. Do you want to make a 60-second piece when the viewer has to rig up the whole headset to watch? You do earn an appreciation for both the pitfalls and the shortcuts.
“It’s not about having the coders in one corner and the journalists in another — everyone will have to meld together to make the best stuff.”
What was the feedback like at the installation?
O: People are often most surprised about the emotional aspect.
C: We had a 15 year old girl and a 60-year-old man experiencing the film together, and they were able to take the headset off and have a conversation at the installation. That’s really something. I don’t think there’s been something people have said repetitively, just that it was unexpected.
Have you gained any technical skills during the process? How important are these skills to journalists?
O: If VR does go mainstream, at least a cursory overlapping of knowledge with developers.The gaming industry is a huge industry – the tech has come out of kid’s bedrooms and into newsrooms.
When we started working with the Unreal Engine [ a tool used to create video games] we had to go pretty deep. It’s a whole other world of knowledge. There’s one leap to video, and another to interactive content.
O: And it is the future. It’s not about having the coders in one corner and the journalists in another — everyone will have to meld together to make the best stuff.
C: But should journalists be coming out of school with all the skills to make big VR projects? It’s certainly possible, but I think that it’s still quite unusual. You don’t have to be instantly trained in 3D modelling and sound design, but having an awareness of these skills will help you out in conversations with the developer.
You can read more about the ‘Trafficked’ project here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.