Playing with Reality

Virtual reality and 360-degree video provide immersive experiences that are particularly suited to documentary and news reports.

Virtual Environment Reality workstation helmet and gloves, 1989

Virtual Environment Reality workstation helmet and gloves, 1989 | NASA’s Ames Research Center | Public Domain

Virtual reality allows viewers to take a more active role in the story. The change of point of view and immersive capacities of this new technology offer enormous potential for documentary narratives. Nonetheless, few projects have explored these tools so far.

2016 was the year in which virtual reality and 360-degree video came into their own. Innovations include changes to the point of view, allowing viewers to choose where they want to look: up, down, left or right. This is an important development that significantly increases interaction and the feeling of being in the midst of the action. Viewers take on an active role in the narrative, becoming users instead. Although as Josep M. Català, academic director of the UAB MA in Creative Documentary and expert in expanded documentary says, “‛user’ is not the most appropriate term, the problem is that we still don’t have a better one. What we have now are post-viewers, who no longer passively watch images, but collaborate with them, expressing mental processes through their bodies and gestures. These are not just mental processes in the sense of our usual understanding of the mind, they are bodily processes as well. So the post-viewer is not somebody who uses a device, but somebody who collaborates with it, thinks and acts with it. From this point of view, which is absolutely necessary, new media offer new ways of thinking. Whether or not they are used in this way is another thing altogether, but the possibility exists.”

A team from the MA at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona is behind one of the first virtual reality documentaries produced in Spain, which explores the sinister story of Enriqueta Martí, dubbed “the vampire of the Raval”. La vampira del Raval is a twelve-minute piece made by five students and coordinated by Jorge Caballero, one of the teachers in the programme and an expert in the field. Caballero is interested in 360-degree video because of the spherical nature of the representation of reality and the theatricality of the medium. “In 360 everything works more like a choreography than a film,” he says, “which is why it feels like a radio serial and the objects are arranged in a very theatrical way. Space becomes very important in the story.” The feeling is reminiscent of early screenings of films by Thomas Edison or the Lumière brothers, in which an object moves towards the camera and creates the illusion of passing right through it. Català believes that “the 360-degree format allows us to combine two media – theatre and film – more incisively than film now does, But a more direct comparison can be made with installations, We could say that in VR and webdoc, the essence of documentary shifts from film to the realm of installations and big data, without losing the dramatic, emotional side.”

Fighting to stay in NYC's Chinatown | Clàudia Prat | Fusion
Fighting to stay in NYC's Chinatown | Clàudia Prat | Fusion

Román Gubern, a historian and thinker who is finishing a new book that includes a chapter on virtual reality and 360 video, believes that “the expanded visual field affects spectacle rather than narrative, which is based on chain of causality.” The fact is that this new medium forces us to use a new language, to invent new kinds of mise-en-scènes, new approaches to planning and to working with the characters. Usually, you have to turn on the camera and hide… Or delete the camera operator later. Clàudia Prat, a New York-based journalist and filmmaker who works with media outlets such as AP, The New York Times, and Univision, is a pioneer in the field of 360-degree videos. She explains that “the interviewee is sometimes alone, speaking in front of the camera. The team is hiding… Sometimes I leave the camera running in places where I think something might happen, and then I look through the footage to see what’s there.” From the journalistic point of view, it offers new and interesting possibilities. “I give viewers the opportunity to explore the images themselves… I think it is more transparent, more honest,” Clàudia says, although she also admits there are risks. “It is a double-edged sword. It can be a very powerful tool for journalism, or it can trivialise the telling of reality, so that the stories and charters become part of a kind of video game,” warns Raul Gallego, a journalist and filmmaker who works with Channel 4 News and Associated Press, and is also starting to produce his first VR and 360 projects.

“We want to take our society into the lives of people who survive wars, of those who remain trapped beneath the bombs and those who manage to escape only to return and risk their lives in dangerous routes or to the tough lives of refugees,” says Amaia Esparza, Communications Director at MSF Spain. The NGO, which  has a long track record of trying to explain and transmit the difficult situations in which it works,  has recently presented two 360 degree works on the exodus of Syrian refugees and on the humanitarian crisis in Southern Sudan. “Immersive reality takes us into the world of emotions and feelings, which is what makes us human,” Amaia says,

The potential of VR and 360 video is huge and still largely unexplored. “We are in the stone age of virtual reality. Technologies require a period of adaptation,” says Bernat Aragonés, a post-production expert at Antaviana Films. He can see the current limits of a technology that does not yet always offer high-quality playback or consistently satisfactory sensory experiences. Bernat thinks VR will take off in video games first. “There is no clear business model yet, there are no returns… For years, there has been more innovation in the domestic sector than the business sector.” The market appears to be leading the way, with the design and sale of new glasses, cameras, and all sorts of devices to record and play 360 and VR. Even so, it seems that “the industry is not giving a balanced response to the culture and interest in virtual reality and 360,” says Arnau Gifreu, head of InterDocs Barcelona and an expert in the field. “Funds are needed for projects… We are now starting to see results of a TV3 and TVE co-production for webdocs, but there is still a long way to go.” Television networks and digital media outlets in Spain are clearly lagging behind the innovations and opportunities to produce new audiovisual content.  The New York Times, for example, has already been offering a daily 360 video for some months.

The Sound of the Rangers Gets a Tuneup | The New York Times
The Sound of the Rangers Gets a Tuneup | The New York Times

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