Tents full of Ebola-stricken orphans. A factory farm where pigs are slaughtered wholesale. A young girl in Africa who has little time to study because she spends most of her day hauling water to her village. These are some of the experiences that virtual reality has brought up close and personal to brave viewers. What these types of experiences amount to is no less than a transformatory moment for documentary film. With virtual reality tools, documentarians can surround their audiences in the emotional experiences of their subjects like never before.
Virtual reality entered the documentary film world in a big way last November when the New York Times released a virtual reality app that can work with Google Cardboard (among most other VR devices). For a mainstream audience, the “NYT VR” app lent credence to virtual reality as a medium that could extend beyond gaming. It also brought an air of journalistic respectability to VR documentary films. The series producer for the New York Times Op-Doc’s section, Kathleen Lingo, would agree, and goes on to say that VR is “rewriting the rules a bit about documentaries.”
Lingo says this in response to the VR films she sees that are not only trying to tell a story, but to place the viewer in the scene with the subject. In this way, some of the documentary rules she sees called into question regard the cinematic structure of the films. For example, VR filmmakers have discovered that long takes are far less jarring to the viewer; standard shot lengths in VR films are often found hovering around 30 seconds, while many are several minutes long. Not to mention that, technically speaking, the threshold to achieve a sense of “presence”—the VR buzzword that means, essentially, the feeling of being there in the moment—is very high. To achieve presence convincingly, filmmakers need to be technically proficient enough to be shooting at least 4K video at 48 frames per second in stereoscopic 3D.
But, perhaps more impactful than these evolving technical standards, VR is attempting to deliver an emotional evolution to the documentary form. For VR documentarian Danfung Dennis, “VR is going to be the medium that can convey emotion in a very new way.” He believes that VR documentaries will “thrive in the hidden dark places where there is intense suffering.”
Consider his film, “Factory Farm,” which places the viewer in the terrifying and typically hidden suffering of a pig slaughterhouse—the dark reality that delivers how pork to your dining table. Dennis says that many viewers leave the experience emotionally stricken to have witnessed suffering in such an up close and personal way.
The concept of “bearing witness,” or of providing first-hand testimonial that an event actually happened, is a defining attribute of journalism. This journalistic principle has its root in the written testimonials of the print journalist, but with the advent of photojournalism and then video journalism, the concept has taken on a larger definition that encompasses the viewer’s role as a witness as well. It’s this principle that virtual reality has the potential to elevate to another level. “Virtual reality lets you bear witness in the first hand,” Dennis said, “You are no longer reading a story or watching a moment or reconstructing a scene in the mind—you can experience an event as if you were actually there.”
For Dennis, virtual reality is an “emotional medium” unlike any other—it will not only allow the viewer to “bear witness” to an event, but it could also inspire the viewer to connect with the subject on a deeper emotional level. With virtual reality, the fidelity of the emotion that can be conveyed is stronger than ever before.
In this way, virtual reality documentary journalism can become a very profound medium. Dennis says many of his viewers recall the events of his films, such as Factory Farm or American Bison, as memories. (Both of these films are available on Dennis’s ConditionOne app, and American Bison is available on NYT VR.)
This kind of emotional resonance expands the “bear witness” principle of documentary journalism even beyond simply including the viewer. In the near future, the viewer may go beyond witnessing the experience to being emotionally tied to it, forming it as a personal memory; and, perhaps, modifying his or her behavior as a result. With difficult subjects like war, disease, and animal rights, this can quickly become very intense stuff. Making challenging documentary films about distressing subjects will take, as always, courage; but, so too, might viewing them.