Why VR Can be Your Best Storytelling Tool
International journalists-turned-VR filmmakers NowHere Media share tips from the field.
As a traditional non-virtual reality filmmaker, I have long been fascinated with the VR form, but it seems like there are smaller audiences, greater technical challenges, and less money in this medium, so for these reasons I have never ventured into it. However, two old friends from journalism school, Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran have blazed a trail into this nascent industry through their multimedia studio NowHere Media—and I was fortunate enough to meet up with them at Berlinale to learn more about their amazing work in VR cinema.
NowHere Media just returned from Fallujah, Iraq, where they are producing a room scale experience as part of the Oculus VR for Good program. They don’t only work in hostile environments, but do frequently explore taboo human rights issues. Their recent VR experience, Is This Love? about intimate partner violence in India was shortlisted as a finalist for the Social Impact Media Awards and, more importantly, NowHere managed to strike an unprecedented partnership with the Delhi metro allowing for installations in several metro stations in the city. Over 10 days, more than 5,000 people saw the piece.
“With VR, we were able to transport our audience to the center of the story.”
Both Gaedtke and Parameswaran were talented journalists prior to embarking on their career (Felix as a photographer and Parameswaran in radio), but the pair is now firmly rooted in the wonders of full-time VR work. When we met, the Berlin-based pair shared their latest adventures in VR filmmaking and some of their learnings along the way.
NFS: Tell me about when and why you formed your company.
Gayatri Parameswaran: We started out working collaboratively as journalists and documentary filmmakers back in 2011 and we founded the NowHere Media in 2014 shifting to more multimedia and long-form reporting. But the ‘real’ shift came just under two years ago when we discovered the potential of VR and fell in love with it.
NFS: What made you decide to focus exclusively on VR?
Felix Gaedtke: For many years now, we have been reporting from hostile environments. We covered conflict and human rights issues in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Central America, India, Myanmar etc. We also worked under other physically challenging conditions in the high altitudes of the Himalayas or in the Arctic circle. Bringing back photos or videos or even in-depth reports from these places was amazing. But with VR, we were able to transport our audience to the center of the story, to a place or environment they would otherwise never get to experience. It gives them the agency to explore for themselves as well as presence in another place. Interactivity is also something that makes VR very attractive to us, depending on the story we are working on.
“Even an iPhone can be turned into a photogrammetry tool.”
NFS: What kind of equipment would a VR filmmaker need to get started?
Parameswaran: That really depends on what you’re trying to achieve. One can start with a fairly simple 360 camera, if you’re looking to produce a 360 video. Cameras like the Samsung Gear are getting cheaper and cheaper. Another option is also to rent professional cameras for specific productions such as a Nokia Ozo, or for a smaller budget an InstaPro 360 or something similar.
But VR can be more than “just” 360 video. Even an ihone can be turned into a photogrammetry tool. There is also the possibility to rely on game engines such as Unity or Unreal to develop a virtual environment to tell stories, or combine several or all of the above. In general, the techniques as well as the gear are getting outdated very fast. So I would recommend anyone wanting to get into VR filmmaking to read up what is there, be creative and just have fun learning new skills. I learn something new almost every day in the field and that it is one of the reasons why I find VR storytelling so exciting.
NFS: You have been all over the world making VR films; what is the craziest place and why?
Gaedtke: We just got back from a production in Fallujah, Iraq. For several reasons, this has been to most challenging experience we worked on so far. One, we were working with photogrammetry, stereo billbording and 360 video—a lot of technical things to do for our small crew. And on the other hand we were trying to do this in a war zone. We constantly got stuck at checkpoints with all of our suspicious gear.
Parameswaran: Security of course was an issue and most of the time we were moving with a unit from the Iraqi army, which was very pushy (for obvious reasons) not to stay out too long after sunset. It was difficult to explain the locals what we were doing exactly. Like in any conflict, I have worked in, the most difficult part was it to hear so many stories of misery, of people who have gone through so much. At the same time, this is also the part that keeps me going. Why? Because when you see someone, with a life much more difficult than most of us can imagine, having hope—that makes me hopeful.
“Everyone is still learning, and if we learn together, everyone will profit from this.”
NFS: What advice do you have for aspiring VR filmmakers?
Parameswaran: Have fun, read a lot, exchange ideas and collaborate with others. You cannot do everything yourself. You need a team of people specialized in their skills. The scene is growing very fast but everyone is still learning and, if we learn together, everyone will profit from this.
NFS: How has VR changed in the past year?
Gaedtke: I believe the technology is changing very fast. That means filmmakers and storytellers are able to use these tools much more efficiently. For e.g. volumetric motion capture is becoming more and more feasible. Haptics, although not really there, will soon be a reality. Moreover the sophistication with which storytellers are using these skills is getting better and better. Compare festivals like Sundance a couple of years ago and now and you’ll see the difference.
NFS: You have done a ton of work for nonprofits. How does a VR experience help a nonprofit get its message across?
Parameswaran: NGOs often want to achieve specific goals with their campaigns. They might want to target specific decision makers, diplomats, CEOs etc. To bring a high fidelity VR experience to an extremely targeted audience is very strong. A VR experience can sometimes move them to an extent that it that an impact on their decision making.
UNICEF reported that they doubled their donations with a VR experience.
NFS: Which technology developments in VR are helping you out the most now?
Gaedtke: Having better pipelines for 360° production—stitching is getting easier and better with every year. The quality of the cameras is also getting better. I’m waiting for the day when we can have really high resolution 360° experiences. Wouldn’t it be amazing to wear a headset and not be able to see these ugly pixels!? Not a very new development, but I am excited using photogrammetry for storytelling at the moment.
NFS: How long will it take for VR to go mainstream? And what is stopping this from occurring now?
Gaedtke: More and more headsets are being sold each year. I think there are two factors to this. One: The chicken and egg thing with the content, if are only a few people watching content there is no budget for more and therefore there is not enough content to attract more people. The second point is about the technology, even the high-end headsets still require cables, and computers and are for many people still difficult to set up.
"UNICEF reported that they doubled their donations with a VR experience."
NFS: What capabilities does VR filmmaking have that regular filmmaking doesn’t have?
Parameswaran: That is a difficult question. A good regular film, even a book for that matter, can be immersive and take people to another world. What makes VR experiences special is that you can trigger more senses and you can do that in a different way. You can give the user the agency to explore a story for themselves in a very personal intimate way. As VR filmmakers you don’t think in terms of frames and for us the camera has a role. That might all sound very strange to traditional filmmakers, but I think for example theater directors have always had the challenge to make the audience interested in one area of the stage, this is very similar to what VR creations have to take into account.
NFS: Who is a spectacular VR filmmaker that you recommend we watch?
Both: This is so difficult, but we personally like the works of Nonny de la Pena, Zach Richter, Gabo Arora, Felix and Paul and many more.