Waves of Grace. All images via Vrse.works
Think of VR filmmaking and you'll probably conjure images of fantastical CG worlds where viewers get lost and escape reality. But the films of virtual reality production company Vrse.works challenge that notion. Released today is immersive documentary, Waves of Grace—the film follows ebola survivor Decontee Davis around West Point, a slum in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, home to 75,000, and a flash point for the 2014 ebola outbreak.
Made in collaboration with the UN Millennium Campaign and VICE Media, the film was created by Chris Milk and UN filmmaker Gabo Arora, and produced by Patrick Milling Smith and Samantha Storr. It's the second collaboration between the UN and Vrse.works. Their previous film, Clouds Over Sidra, immersed viewers in a Jordanian refugee camp, giving an urgent glimpse into the lives of the children—their schooling, their playing, their micro-culture—that live there.
Both are powerful and emotive pieces of filmmaking, and the transportive nature of virtual reality means the they're able to elicit a degree of empathy and agency that wouldn't be apparent in a conventional film. Once you take the headset off, it takes a moment to adjust, not just because a moment ago you were in a virtual Liberia, but also because you just shared someone's experience on a very personal, visceral level.
"There are feelings of intimacy and a sense of presence that can’t easily be replicated in traditional film," explains producer Patrick Milling Smith to The Creators Project. "We see VR as an important new way to tell stories and the storytelling possibilities are unrivalled in certain aspects. It comes down to being able to literally take people to places and situations. Making people feel like they are there and sharing a moment. In the actual story so to speak. VR is the ultimate empathy machine and that is the power that stories like Waves of Grace and Clouds Over Sidra need to really resonate and have true impact."
In Waves of Grace it's, obviously, a very engaging but also slightly strange experience as you're taken from a beach to a heaving marketplace, see aid workers get into hamzat-suits, or stand and watch a body get lowered into a freshly-dug grave. You come away with the images—like standing next to a bedridden child—reverberating around and nestled into your conscious and subconscious mind.
To learn more about the Vrse.works, the film, and the processes behind it, we emailed some questions over to Milling Smith:
The Creators Project: How do the filming techniques, and preparation, for a VR doc differ to that of a conventional doc? For instance, what sort of things do you have to consider narratively because of the numerous cameras and the nature of the post-production stitching process?
Patrick Milling Smith: The preparation and set up is different due to the nature of our camera rigs capturing everything in 360. There has to be an honesty to the filmmaking because you are showing everything that is happening but much like traditional documentary film making, success depends on the story and the characters. When you capture truth in any medium you have something that is impactful but in VR this is heightened and the result can stop you in your tracks and leave an impression that is very hard to forget.
Following on from that, can you briefly talk through the process of filming a typical scene in Waves of Grace. Is it important, say, for it to appear naturalistic while also occasionally having the people look at the camera to help draw the viewer in?
It is naturalistic because it is real. We are lucky at Vrse.works that we have a group of super brains creating specific cameras and rigs for each environment. Giving a sense of intimacy has always been a driving force from our Vrse creators and so in Liberia we had a rig built that enabled you to get very close to the subjects and one of the results is the feeling of looking in to people’s eyes. Unlike breaking the fourth wall in traditional film when someone looks at the camera, in VR you quite literally feel like they are looking at you and you alone. People often have to turn away when they can’t hold the eye contact. In traditional film when the fourth wall is broken the spell of the story often comes to a halt. In VR you feel like they are looking in to your soul.
The filmmaking for VR docs is a more stripped back kind as you can’t take a whole crew because they’d crowd the shot. It’s a kind of paradox that such a cutting edge technology is streamlining the filming process. What’s the appeal of shooting like that? Does it grant you more freedom? Does it allow for greater emotional resonance?
I think there is a power to the experience that allows the filmmaking to be more stripped down. By the 360 nature of what is captured you want to have a small crew so they are not in the field of view. Chris Milk described some shots as like "setting a bear trap" and having everyone get out the way and allow unfiltered truth and reality to unfold. The results speak for themselves with that. The camera rig is also intentionally quite small and so life can go on quite naturally without people feeling like they are suddenly going about their day on a film set. I would not necessarily call the process to making these films totally streamlined as there is a degree of finesse in finishing but it is certainly a freeing filming experience.
Is it cheaper to make a VR doc than a conventional doc?
Not necessarily. It is close to the same. There is a large degree of post production involved with the stitching and enabling an elegant and comfortable viewing experience.
How do you see VR impacting documentary filmmaking as a genre?
I think it already has impacted documentary film making. Clouds Over Sidra for example has been translated in to 14 languages and is being used as a very effective tool by the UN to create empathy and awareness. Gabo Arora of the UN coined the phrase ‘empathy to action’ which sums up the additional power of stories in VR. There is an urgency and immediacy that has a very profound effect on the viewer.
How do you see VR filmmaking developing?
I think the response to VR is undeniable. We have watched tens of thousands of people experience these films now and the response is palpable and there to see. The technology is there and now it is down to great storytellers and artists to take us on interesting journeys that we could never have experienced before. Great content whether it be gaming, live action or animation will continue to drive the audience.
And what is Vrse.work’s own future plans for the medium?
Our future plan is to continue to attract the best storytellers who like to dream and break new ground. The best practices in VR are being pushed every week by our directors and things that we did not believe possible when we started the journey are now the norm. I see that being a trend for quite some time. We are definitely at the infancy stage but even now the response and power of the work is arresting and exhilarating. For the directors and artists it is a medium that is utterly empowering.