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Nov. 13, 2015, 8 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:   ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   November 13, 2015

Virtual reality journalism is still so new that it’s not yet clear what works and what doesn’t on a broad scale. There are anecdotal bits of evidence, but no sure best practices. Nonetheless, a new report out from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, VR production company Secret Location, and PBS’s Frontline aims to draw some recommendations and conclusions from the production and release of Frontline’s first-ever VR documentary, “Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey.”

“Ebola Outbreak” was produced in cooperation with the Tow Center and Secret Location. It launched on Google Cardboard in September, on Samsung Gear VR on Wednesday, and on Facebook in 360-degree video on Thursday.

Virtual reality’s value for journalism is largely hypothetical” at this point, the report’s authors (Taylor Owen, assistant professor of digital media and global affairs at the University of British Columbia; Fergus Pitt, analyst and fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism; Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of Frontline; and James Milward, founder of Secret Location) note, simply because so few projects have been done.

The team considered a number of different existing Frontline documentaries as candidates for VR treatment. They ruled out “Being Mortal,” the film that followed Dr. Atul Gawande:

Despite the likely emotional power of being “in the room” and the potential to demystify a hidden experience around end-of-life interactions, we ultimately rejected the option because we couldn’t figure out an ethical way to be present with a bulky, ugly camera while maintaining the intimacy and sensitivity necessary for the director’s established fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking.

The full-length “Ebola Outbreak” documentary was a better candidate, but there were still challenges:

Dan Edge, the director, was a filmmaker with experience incorporating innovative digital processes into his productions. The locations throughout West Africa were significant to the story and unfamiliar to many audiences. Nonetheless, the story still presented challenges. Secret Location would have preferred that a cameraperson with 360-degree video experience work alongside the director. That wasn’t possible. In fact, shooting conditions were extremely difficult all around and fast communication between those in the field and the experts in Toronto proved impossible.

The team also had to decide which hardware to develop the film for:

The tradeoff when considering hardware is between providing a very high-fidelity and stable experience on expensive, unwieldy equiptment [like Oculus Rift] and a more variable, slightly lower-quality experience on cheaper, less cumbersome equipment [like Google Cardboard].

They ended up choosing Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR because they “offer the greatest ease of use and accessibility to the growing VR audience,” with head-mounted displays on mobile phones.

Among the team’s findings:

“Virtual reality represents a new narrative form, one for which technical and stylistic norms are in their infancy.” Filmmakers can’t rely on traditional documentary techniques:

“For example, directors cannot quickly cut between angles or scenes (a primary technique for shaping the audience experience in traditional video) without severely disorienting users. There is practically no 360-degree archive footage directors can draw upon. The camera cannot be panned or zoomed, and if a videographer wants to light a scene for narrative effect, the lighting equipment is difficult to hide.”

There are two ways to get around this — directing action around the camera or using supplementation. For “Ebola Outbreak,” “scenes made entirely from computer-generated graphics introduce the story; set up the context of each immersive, live video scene; and close out the experience. The producers also layered 2D video clips into the 360-degree scenes.”

Equipment is challenging “because the necessary cameras are either DIY, prototype, or very high-end and proprietary.” The team went for DIY, using a rig of 12 GoPro cameras (as did the New York Times Magazine with its recent “The Displaced”). There’s still no “workflow or suite of products that integrate well” for shooting, editing, and viewing, so things had to be custom-designed. It’s also difficult to plan ahead because VR technology is evolving so fast.’

The process, not surprisingly, is expensive. The report doesn’t say exactly what it cost to create “Ebola Outbreak,” but:

“The cash costs of this project were significant. Secret Location charged $55,000 for labor, and another $19,515 for the camera hardware, design, and development. This included substantial, additional in-kind contributions. For Frontline, the project added approximately 25 percent to the production cost of its regular TV documentary, which covered the additional filming, travel to the edit, director’s time, and an editorial team to oversee the project. All parties contributed significant in-kind efforts, which did not show up on the cash budget.”

And, the report’s authors caution, VR journalism is not likely to be a profitable enterprise any time soon.

“if the best cost comparison is with high-end TV or console game production, it is likely that currently producers and commissioners will need to produce high-end journalistic VR without an expectation of direct cost recovery from audiences or advertisers.”

You can read the full report here.

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