Virtual reality storytellers open a window on the world, immersing people in a range of perspectives that strike emotions and spark social change.
In 2016, immersive 360-degree videos will be found at every turn, popping up on YouTube, Facebook feeds, internet-connected displays and a variety of high-quality or low-cost virtual reality headsets. While much of the technology it takes to make these so-called VR videos is new, video makers and viewers say it’s the impact on human feelings and imagination that make the videos so powerful.
Many 360-degree video makers broke new ground in 2015, ranging from the New York Times to pop music stars like Noa Neal and social change filmmakers like Al Maxwell. The visual medium is poised to peak curiosities and draw out human emotions like never before. These 360-degree video makers say the technique is bringing a deeper understanding of life in a constantly changing world.
“This new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own,” said New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, describing 360-degree video documentary film called The Displaced.
Viewable on a smartphone, hands-free using Google Cardboard, The Displaced follows three of the 30 million children displaced from their homes due to war. The video’s ability to be manipulated by viewers, who can tilt the perspective up or down, pan left or right and even spin round and round, pulls people into understanding human struggles of the world’s growing refuge crisis.
These videos are shot using multiple cameras recording all angles of a scene simultaneously. The panoramic footage captured from a fixed position can be viewed on internet-connected devices. Viewers using a smartphone, tablet or all-in-one touchscreen PC can tilt and move their device to adjust the point of view. On desktop PCs, viewers use their mouse to click and drag the video to see new angles.
“Not everyone immediately understood how the 360-video worked, but after explaining or showing them on my phone they were blown away as they turned and turned while watching the video,” Neal said, describing fan reactions to her music video Graffiti.
“In the context of social change, VR’s capacity to emotionally connect audiences with someone else’s plight is unquestionable,” Maxwell said.
His film, The Great Green Wall, is about an African-led project to grow an 8,000km line of plants and trees across Africa (use your mouse on the video above to navigate the full 360-degree view).
Once completed, Maxwell said it will be the largest man-made structure on earth and a new wonder of the world, providing food, jobs and a future for the millions of people who live in a region on the frontline of climate change.
“VR encompasses your visual and auditory senses so completely, it becomes almost visceral,” said Maxwell, whose film takes viewers into the life of a young girl living through desertification of her homeland.
“There’s a term in VR called ‘presence,’ where you consciously accept the reality presented to you. If you are the main protagonist within a story, then whatever events are happening to that character will feel very personal, because you will be viewing through their eyes. Done properly, you will feel like it’s happening to you, good or bad. That can create a very powerful sense of empathy, which traditional film cannot match to the same extent.”
Maxwell has hit the walls of limitations inherent in this nascent filmmaking technique, but remains optimistic about the future of 360-degree video.
“Right now, it’s at the stage where film was back in the 1900s with silent movies: lots of experimentation, small audiences and clunky technology,” he said. “But a decade from now, there will be established filmmaking rules, unique IPs and the audiences to consume them.”
In 2015, 360-degree video making proved to be transformative for storytelling. As the technologies and techniques become the norm for filmmakers, viewers who can step into stories will have their heartstrings pulled in all directions. Filmmakers like Maxwell are sure to stir empathy inside viewers, enough to make them participate in social change.
Photos by the Great Green Wall Project.