“We wanted to transport the viewers into the heart of this man-made catastrophe to meet the people who are experiencing it. We hope that viewers come away with a better understanding of the causes of this crisis and how it affects people in South Sudan,” the team - Evan Wexler and Marcelle Hopkins, Benedict Moran - told PBS. PBS released the series together with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, and with support from the Ford Foundation and MINY Media Center by IFP.
Before the full film titled "On the Brink of Famine" was posted on Frontline's Facebook page, two 360-degree videos were released last week, which together got almost 2,5 million views. One goes into South Sudan’s largest displaced person camp, inhabited by more than 120,000 people. The other captures the entire inside of a plane delivering food to remote locations, before going on the ground to see the enormous amount of bags falling from the sky.
"That was a really cool shot that would not have been possible in traditional video," said Moran, one of the journalists/filmmakers who has previous experience as an aid worker in the region. "The 360-degree view helps viewers really understand the physical difficulties in delivering aid," he told the World Editors Forum.
“On the Brink of Famine” takes you inside South Sudan in 360° to meet people battling a man-made hunger crisis. Experience the front lines of a famine in the making, in this VR documentary by FRONTLINE and The Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
Posted by FRONTLINE on Thursday, 3 March 2016
Moran gives us some tips on their approach to the narrative art of VR, which may be useful to journalists still learning the new language of 360-degree and VR video.
Simplify the storytelling - After putting a preliminary 15-minute edit through the test, the team came to realize that the audience has trouble understanding too much detail in VR. One of the things that helps to fine-tune this narrative art is to simplify the storytelling - without losing context and accuracy - says Moran. “We believe the visual is so stimulating, that it takes a long time for the person to understand what is happening around them. If you bombard them with audio, narration, and too many facts it jumbles up.’’
Ten-minute maximum - That is not only Facebook's technical limit for 360 video, but there is also a common perception within the VR community that after ten minutes, viewers get uncomfortable in a headset environment. Moran believes filmmakers will start experimenting with longer documentaries as they become better storytellers with this medium, and as people get used to watching VR.
Facebook's audio limitations - Audio is really important part of VR to direct the viewers’ attention to where you want them to look. For example, in the scene where the plane flies over, you will be able to hear that it is coming from behind you and turn your head to see it. Surprisingly, Facebook 360 currently only supports 4k mono audio to avoid audio to shift as users explore the video, limiting the usage of these types of cues. Background music can be recorded in stereo.
Using narration - "You get a really good feel of what’s happening through the visuals,” says Moran, who explains that VR is self-explanatory; the place and the environment are a story in itself. Narration was only used to explain some key facts, as the team relied on traditional filmmaking techniques. “We wanted to have characters tell their own story as much as possible.”
Privacy concerns - It is highly impractical to get consent sheets signed by every single person walking passed the camera. Many people don't recognize 360 cameras as such, and may not even realize they’re in the shot. “We never tried to hide our intentions, we were working with authorities and community leaders to make sure that we weren’t crossing any lines.”
Time-consuming - On the production side, the VR process definitely takes a lot longer than shooting conventional video, according to Moran. If you’re shooting with seven camera’s, you need seven batteries, that all need to be recharged every night. You will also use seven SD-cards, generating more footage to ingest and back up. Then you need to stitch the images together. Also, when one camera fails, none of the material is usable.
See also ARS Technica's video taking you behind the scenes of making "On the brink of famine".
One of the goals of this project was to make VR more accessible to independent journalists. The going rate for high-end VR productions for some of the main US companies is about $100,000 (€92,000) per minute, which is really expensive and out of reach for most companies. The technical aspects are complicated, but definitely doable with a good combination of two or three filmmakers.
The VR film will be made available for Oculus later this month.