AFI DOCS Filmmaking Forum on Virtual Reality

Attended by Larry Gleeson as part of the AFI DOCS 2016 Filmmaker Forum.

On day four of the AFI DOCS Filmmaker Forum, I attended the panel, “Virtual Reality: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Headed?” Before and after the panel headsets were made available for viewing the latest and best nonfiction VR projects. The panel was made up of VR makers, industry insiders, journalists and an academic. Patricia Aufderheide, a University Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. and founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact, moderated the panel. Other panel members included Emma Mankey Hidem, a budding filmmaker who filmed most of the 360 degree video at 13 different college football stadiums for an exhibit “Virtual Stadiums,” Brad Lichtenstein, an award-winning filmmaker and president of 371 Productions, Amy Nichols, Chief Executive Officer of bThere 360 Degree Video for Business, Gina Scarpulla, Supervising Producer for Discovery Communications, and Mitch Gelman, Senior Fellow, Media and Technology, at the Washington, D.C. Newseum.

Aufderheide opened the panel by introducing the panelists from left to right and began by asking Hidem how her work was being perceived. Hidem responded saying her “feedback has been really good. People say they are connecting with the work on a human level.” Jumping over Lichtenstein, Aufderheide posited Scarpulla and gushed about Discovery jumping into the VR realm in an experimental way and quickly “becoming a pioneer with it.” Aufderheide went on to add that it seemed to her a natural progression as Discovery “has been inspiring curiosity and exploring the world, bringing people up close and personal to these experiences with whales, sharks, lions. How could anyone ever kill these beautiful animals? Scarpulla responded with disclosing Discovery has released its film, Racing Extinction, from The Cove’s Louie Psihoyos, and it is currently in 220 countries worldwide and is streaming everywhere on YouTube and Facebook. Scarpulla and Discovery’s creative in-house agency produced eight virtual reality reality experiences, including Fight to Save Threatened Species and Protecting Ocean Anchor Species, for the film’s December 2015 global premiere.

Coming back to Lichtenstein, Aufderheide invited him to tell the audience a little about himself. Lichtenstein shared he came from a documentary background and his first foray into VR was Across the Line, a seven minute film documenting a person accessing abortion amid hostile protestors. The film opens with less than two minutes of driving to the location with another three minutes of footage as the person navigates her way through the hostile, shouting protestors and the remaining footage is in the examination room. Lichtenstein concluded by adding the film was shot in a verite’ style.

Amy Nichols of bThere spoke next informing the room she was on the distribution end of VR filmmaking. Nichols eloquently stated streaming the content and accompanying ads is possible in any platform after a trial and error period where she and her company engaged in significant troubleshooting and problem solving sessions to make an original 4K footage available in VR a “reality for streaming.”

Rounding out the speakers, Gelman shared some poignant aspects of VR via a slide show highlighting the positive aspects of VR and the challenges of VR. According to Gelman, a few of the positive aspects are that VR takes storytelling to the next level and VR is a growing market. A few negative aspects of VR are it is a new narrative structure and the costs of using VR are still cost prohibitive. Gelman also spoke candidly about the Knight Foundation’s report, “Viewing The Future: Virtual Reality In Journalism.”

After all the panelists had their opportunity to speak, Aufderheide opened the forum up for questions from the audience. The first question posed, “Where are we headed?” Every panelist had the same answer, “We don’t know.” The second question asked the panelists, “What is your greatest fear?” The greatest fear in VR is bad content. Consumers won’t buy it. In closing, Aufderheide cited legendary Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s greatest fear surrounding VR that it will take away the director’s vision. Nichols responded by saying a Director’s Cut is being developed that slowly brings the viewer back to what the director wants to show.

All in all,  Day 4 of the AFI DOCS Filmmaker Forum “Virtual Reality: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Headed?” proved to be an illuminating and highly informative session on the emerging technology and its practical applications in the world of documentary filmmaking.

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