WF: Today we have a project from Flavia Oertwig, producer from Stuttgart, who began a documentary, decided to go Transmedia with it with apps to smartphones used by an audience, then decided to add a couple of VR clips, which has now transmogrified into a complete VR presentation of a 5 minute movie. This is still a work in progress.
FO: Yes this was an Italian-based documentary. I met the director during a lab in Nyon (Visions du Réel) , working on a documentary about migrants coming from Africa , and as you know in the last years there’s a lot of projects about this issue.
So it was a transmedia documentary and I entered as a German co-producer. We got development funding from the (German) FFA’s second German-Italian Co-Development Fund which we won, so I said “OK you try to raise the money for the documentary, and I get all the digital Crossmedia items”.
“Mare Nostrum” – I don’t know if you are familiar with this expression, it used to be the first rescue program from Italy for people crossing the Mediterranean.
And that is the subject. In a few words you have the synopsis – “Mare Nostrum” is a fact-based Crossmedia docu-drama, telling the odyssey of migrants from the African desert crossing the Mediterranean to Europe – using the most dangerous escape route.
Enriched with an immersive audience experience, “Mare Nostrum” is conceived as a cinema event to raise awareness, engage communities, create social impact – these are the most important aims that the project should achieve. And we thought the best way to do this is to use the framework of a cinema event during the two days every year devoted to immigrants – there is the International Refugee Day and an International Immigrants Day. So we wanted to combine an event with them.
We also wanted to bring the project to one cinema in each major European city, with 45 seconds of Virtual Reality, and we wanted to make very short clips to arouse interest in cinema audiences – as we all know it is not so easy to bring people to the cinema. And we wanted to market this film as a very innovative project – normally you are asked to switch off your phone in the cinema so we said “No, here you must switch your mobile phone ON”, so as to have a combination of information coming through the phone about the film.
So there was interactive material there for the audience.
We got a university on board who should have worked on the app, and we got some more funding from an association called “Migrants”, and we got Samsung on board to give us some equipment. But then we did not get any Italian development funding. So our problem became the budget since we wanted to take migrants telling their stories and then we needed to re-enact these stories.
So our budget was around €450,000 euros. Raising the money was taking a long time and so much material was appearing on the subject, that we were becoming afraid that people had reached interest saturation point for news about migrants.
That’s when we asked ourselves the question “Does a documentary really create empathy here?” – because that was our goal, especially to get young people to engage in the subject. So we thought what if we concentrated on a single migrant, crossing the desert, being locked up in a prison, because that is what happens when you reach the North African coast, approaching the stormy sea, overcome by panic because he doesn’t know how to swim, or not being able to open the hold doors on a sinking boat. So we thought such scenes should be constructed in Virtual Reality as short stories, (five in all), but it is not cheap and in fact the work has been getting more expensive. But our budget total would stay the same.
One good aspect is that recently the Funds in Europe are getting behind VR more. MFG (Baden Württemberg) was one of the first with a maximum outlay of €80,000. This would be enough for one VR short, but you also have to pay for the web-page and other extras.
As it increases in popularity, more VR funding seems to be on the way. But the market is still lacking in experts – there are however platforms like from newspapers (e.g. New Yorker -which has a whole page of apps; or the U.K.’s Guardian) or TV (Arte) which all have platforms where you are encouraged to participate with projects. Of course all these productions are very short – not only due to funding but also because up to now much of what can be watched can produce nausea after 5 minutes.
WF: Now with new cameras and better integration with CGI that seems better - the latency of the refresh rate of the pixels determines how much potential motion nausea one can expect. It can work up to 15 minutes now. (November 2016)
FO: But increased costs are connected with that – older cameras can hire out for very little, but state of the art cameras come at €2,500 a day. Indeed budgets are changing every couple of weeks, or so it seems.
WF: The high figure is for the 360 degree camera at 90 fps. And the new Sony camera can be incompatible there at 120 fps. So you want to watch for compatibility if you want to use a VR Playstation.
Basically at the moment you still have to produce for a dedicated hardware system. You can’t just take your 360 degree film and slap it into any system. There are some glimmers of positive co-existence however: Oculus Rift and Samsung for example. But for now it mainly means multiple masters if you want to expand your physical marketplace.
FO: So there’s a lot of players out there at the moment (November 2016), and the good thing is there is a lot of platforms to put content in. Normally the position in media is reversed – too much content and too few outlets.
Amazon, Google, Samsung – these are new players in the media marketplace who need product for their platforms, and for example where a company such as Samsung would be expected to shy away from social media, in fact they show interest and were ready with support.
FO: So what is Virtual Reality? “It is experiencing things that don’t really exist”. In ways that are different from paintings, movies, music or written stories, even though all these have their own virtual worlds.
VR is connected to 3-D computer generation; it is believable, interactive, and explorable. Those are the four key elements that distinguish VR.
What VR is about is the perfect illusion. And being there physically and mentally.
You can work in various disciplines, stretching from art exhibitions, or flight simulation through to military applications - such as missile assembly and bomb disposal, engine repair and so on - or even intercontinental eye surgery. VR has applications in architecture, and of course it is nice to try a car under different conditions before buying it. In entertainment it is always gaming.
Is VR good or bad for documentary? I believe you can do a lot with it, but it always ends with how you apply it. So returning to our project “Mare Nostrum” our aims were to help people feel how it is to be a migrant and what that means.
So together with the VR clips we are also developing a game where the player is in the shoes of the migrant and has to make choices: do you sell your best friend to pay for a boat passage, for example, what do you do when you are turned back at a border?
So using our development money we were able to make a short teaser for “Mare Nostrum” in VR that we tried out in two or three venues and it worked, especially with young people.
WF: What is basically happening is you take descriptive documentary and change it into personal experience.
FO: Directors have to learn a new way of working, and one of the best ways to learn is to go where VR is being made. For example, for shooting 360 degrees you need to place the actors differently.
WF: its not film making then. Classical editing does not apply as much to VR, for example.
FO: And as equipment gets cheaper VR is more and more a mass medium.
WF: You are either going to have completely new cinema spaces built to accommodate VR in cinema-going, which would involve interactive spaces or gearing towards the personal headset . Headsets will be the starting point, due to cost factors, and then we’ll see how things go with modifying buildings.
FO: One bad thing about such public uses is that you are going somewhere to be with a lot of people, basically to experience alone.
But there are cases where it really works. Up to now I have seen good documentary VR, because you are really there in that sense, and factual applications such as at exhibitions and art events can be excellent.
Sven Schnell (Make a Move, Producer, Stuttgart) from the audience : Story telling for movie people is not the same. I can see that lot VR content is genre – fear driven. You walk through a room and the house is falling down – that’s a classic example of where VR is now. Its visual effects environments where the story telling is part of the construction.
WF: There will be other story lines as things develop. Sex and horror are always at the vanguard – look what happened with the video cassette industry.
FO: Yes, content will take time to develop. As there are still some very banal issues to be fixed: the weight of the phone used for example - even there there are innovations 3, 4 times a year.
FO: Finally, you watch some VR and you should want to know what happens afterwards, to want more. That is the key way of integrating VR – whether social media, games or entertainment, it can be part of something bigger in Crossmedia.