Immersing yourself in new storytelling technologies

Digital content producer, BBC Academy

If you want a term that covers the use of virtual reality, augmented reality and 360 video in factual productions, “immersive journalism” does the job pretty well.

That was the subject at the Orama festival in London, with journalists and producers discussing how this emerging field is changing non-fiction storytelling.

On a panel called New Tools, New Production Methods, three producers talked about what they’ve learned in making VR and 360 journalism, and gave advice on what journalists and documentary makers need to think about when creating immersive pieces.

From left: Colin Warhurst, Hugo Ward, Francesca Panetta, Ed Chizhikov

Moderated by Colin Warhurst of the BBC Blue Room, the panel gave a comprehensive view of VR and 360 as they’d experienced them. They were: Francesca Panetta, executive editor, VR at the Guardian;  Hugo Ward, series editor, The Economist & C4; and Ed Chizhikov, head of 360-degree content​, RT (formerly Russia Today).

So how did they first get into VR and 360?

For Hugo, it was when he was working on a video about the use of VR in treating post-traumatic stress disorder at a clinic in Los Angeles. When someone showed him the experience in a headset, “it just blew me away,” he said. “That was what made me think this is a medium that’s here to stay.”

After working in news for eight years, Ed said one of his cameramen got excited about 360 and convinced them they needed to try it. RT was one of the first organisations to use YouTube’s 360 capabilities and they even set up a separate Facebook page for their 360 content. “As a news organisation, live transmission is very important to us. Live 360 is the future of 360,” he said.

How do you plan an immersive journalism piece?

Hugo worked with VR company Visualise to do a 360 video in Osaka, Japan: “as a documentary director, I didn’t know anything about 360,” he explained. 

Visualise had the technical expertise, such as how to stitch 360 video together in post, while Hugo brought his director’s eye to it. In one instance, he realised that the person carrying the 360 GoPro camera wasn’t lit well, so they found a strip light to tape to the pole.

“All of a sudden this shot changed entirely because the guy you want to focus on it lit up. There are 360 experts out there, but we’ve got to be honest and say we’re at such an early stage, we’ve got to be open to learning from everyone, and everyone is bringing something different to it.”

But sometimes you can’t get a 360 cameraperson or crew to help you. For RT’s groundbreaking 360 video from the International Space Station, Ed explained “It was fun to tell the cosmonaut he needed to operate the camera. He was saying ‘I’m an engineer, I know how GoPros work!’ But then he realised he needed to do many different things.”

For Francesca, it’s all about the planning: “we think a lot about the story. The first thing we do is figure out is who you are and why you’re there. We’ve made four pieces so far [on solitary confinement, the Arctic, London’s Victorian sewers, and from a baby’s perspective]. In three of these pieces, you [the user] have a role – you’re a baby, you’re an urban explorer, you’re an inmate. We’re interested in the experiential potential of 360, not so much the observational documentary perspective. So we spend a lot of time storyboarding up the script and have quite a solid idea of the story structure before we start building the visuals.”

One important consideration for Francesca’s team is whether you ‘move’ the viewer within the experience, as they prefer to avoid cutting between different scenes. Going into a virtual world isn’t the same as watching a regular video, as the viewer feels embodied somewhere else.

They experimented with different movements within the virtual environment, from gliding on rails to moving side to side and backwards, as well as the pace, to see whether the viewer would feel sick. “These are things that gaming has been experimenting with, but documentary-makers and people from news industries are much less familiar with.”

Inside the International Space Station with RT

What kit is needed for immersive journalism?

When Hugo’s team was in Osaka, they wanted a lighter rig like the 360 GoPro. When they needed better quality, they used a Sony AS7 360 rig, but lost some of the versatility.

Similarly, Ed said that his team has tested almost all the 360 cameras out there, but for live-transmission news stories they use small cameras. For produced pieces, they use higher-end ones.

What has new technology enabled in terms of storytelling?

Ed was happy that they were able to film in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria before ISIS devastated it.

Colin observed that 360 can capture places that may disappear in time, which makes it “like a digital museum capturing historic relics.”

Francesa pointed out that in the advertising world, a lot of 360 is focused on “gimmicky” experiences like skiing or skydiving. “They’ve understood very quickly what’s unique about the medium. How can we use that insight, but within documentary and nonfiction and news that is interesting for us? I’m really interested in experiences you can’t have otherwise.”

Solitary confinement with the Guardian

Challenges in immersive storytelling

Hugo’s biggest learning points were around the transition from directing traditional documentaries to 360. Because the crew usually needs to be out of shot in 360, and he didn’t have a monitor or headphones, he didn’t have as much control as he was used to. “Later in the cutting room you realise we didn’t get that shot very well, or we should have done that differently, or the audio didn’t work here. It’s about being on top of the process as much as you can, because you lose an element of control in production.”

Francesca warned about trying to do too much with VR and 360, particularly around audio narration.

“You absorb less audio in 360 because we’re inviting people to be distracted. In filmmaking, you can say ‘Look at this, I want to tell you about this.’ 360 is saying ‘Distract yourself as much as you want.’ In the user testing we’ve done, the amount of visual and audio details that someone can recall from the story is pretty minimal. So what is it you want someone to take from that experience? I would be economical with how much you’re trying to get across, in terms of storytelling.”

Ed points out that the multiple platforms available pose huge issues for producers. “We use YouTube and Facebook and our own apps in Android and iOS, and Samsung Gear VR. Next we’ll have Google Daydream,” he explained.

As RT publishes each video in six different languages, and does different versions for YouTube and Facebook, that’s a minimum of 12 versions for one 360 video project, not including any ‘flat’ versions that are requested as well, which puts a heavy load on producers.

One problem is that we live in a world of multiple devices – we watch TV while also browsing on our phones and tablets. “What I like about VR is that it’s a one-screen solution. You’re looking at it and you’ve got nowhere else to go,” said Ed.

But another problem is that the users on each platform are different – YouTube viewers are there to watch videos, but are surrounded by a lot of choices so may click away after 30 seconds, he explained.

“On Facebook, the average video shot length is seven seconds. People won’t watch 15 or 20 second shots, they get bored. So you have to open with a strong shot, then a powerful second shot. In GearVR, it’s completely different, it’s 15-20 seconds minimum for a shot. So we’ll save the most powerful shot until the end.

"That’s why I think people should have their own app. In your own app, you’ll have real results. And if the person doesn’t want to see that video, he’ll go and watch another one you’ve made.”

Hugo pointed out that at the moment, 90% of the people watching immersive content aren’t using headsets, which was a huge problem. Ed agreed that was why all the platforms needed to be engaged with, and that while it was a lot of work, it was interesting to see what different audiences respond to. For example, he found out that RT’s Arabic audience “is crazy about Antarctica” while their Spanish audience “loved a piece we did about salsa dancing in Moscow.”

So while it sounds like there are many difficulties in producing immersive journalism, from planning to production to platform choice, all the panellists agreed that this is an exciting storytelling medium that’s here to stay.

“The best time to start is right now,” argued Ed. “You’ll make mistakes, but mistakes have to be made in VR right now. Just try it – it may not be a mistake after all, you may create something new for the future of VR stories.”


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