In 2016, director Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientiology, The Prison of Belief) made Zero Days, a feature-length documentary about the United States’ use of computer malware named Stuxnet to sabotage a nuclear facility in Iran.
Zero Days VR was created as a companion film by media studio Scatter, who adapted the documentary into something very different: a 20-minute VR experience that visualizes the story by immersing viewers in the point-of-view of the virus, while also offering segments where you can listen to a digital representation of NSA whistleblowers that Gibney interviewed. The experience isn’t unlike being incepted into the world of Tron – an entirely unique visual and guided tour of circuit boards and pixels. But for all its visual flair, it never loses sight of its fascinating subject matter.
While documentary is no stranger to VR experimentation, Zero Days VR is still something very different. We spoke to the VR film’s director, Yasmin Elayat, and its technology director, Elie Zananiri, about how they approached the project, the challenges they faced, and where they see VR documentaries headed.
Why VR was right for the story
Even as virtual reality has become significantly more mainstream, it’s not uncommon for some cynics to write it off as a gimmick – a gratuitous way to tell a story. But Scatter is proof that, for many, it’s not an indiscriminate or shallow choice. “We only will approach something that we think cannot be told in any other way,” explains Elayat about what they take on with virtual reality. “When we start a project, we ask ‘Why VR?’ and ‘Does it make sense in VR?’ and ‘How can we make it something that truly speaks and shines in this medium?’”
Adapting Zero Days for VR addressed all those questions easily. “It’s a story that’s about very invisible, intangible topics like cyber warfare and the Stuxnet virus,” says Elayat. VR could, as she puts it, “take people to those places where they can’t normally travel,” and bring to life subject matter that could benefit from visual immersion. But just because they were looking to tell the story in a modern way didn’t mean they wanted to compromise the story itself. Maintaining the integrity of Gibney’s journalistic approach and interviews was a key goal, and reflective of Scatter’s ambitions as storytellers and filmmakers. “We are interested only in real peoples’ stories and real talk; things that we find are most relevant to today,” says Elayat. “The goal is to translate the real world around us in the experience,”
Translating the original Zero Days into virtual reality wasn’t without its challenges. The decision to pair visuals with narration meant the voices of the interviewees would become disembodied; not talking heads, so much as headless talking. “We were worried that would be the thing that would get people stuck – wondering where these faceless talking heads are coming from. You don’t know who these voices are, and why you should believe them,” says Elayat. But they found that resolved itself. “They speak with such authority, and we validate what they’re saying so that you don’t question the source and the expertise of these voices.”
What they were saying was also a potential issue. Because much of the information is dense and technical, paired with the dazzling visual world Scatter created, there was the risk audiences would be too distracted to listen. “There were a few big concerns, and one of them was definitely about the sophistication of the topic tied to the visual material,” says Elayat. Pacing became a big part of the solution. Because the experience was entirely “on rails” – the viewer has no mobility of their own, but is guided through it – the filmmakers could control the speed to affect greater absorption. “Early on, we decided to not make it interactive and actually make it on rails, so that you just follow the camera through the scene, and then everything gets explained to you, and it’s a linear experience,” says Zananiri. “We wanted to make sure that the viewers got to hear and see everything, and that they had enough time to see the whole piece.”
“We approached it like editing a film. We had a timeline and we had pauses in specific places, and we wanted to make sure that we would have enough time to experience each environment, enough time to listen to what was being said and to make the link between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing,” says Zananiri. Elayat and Zananiri also knew that constant movement can be notoriously tricky in VR, as it often risks inducing nausea in viewers. “If you don’t have an anchor, or you feel like you’re floating in space, or you’re not controlling it, it’s disorienting. It tricks your brain. It can cause nausea,” says Elayat. So they made sure to keep the rail experience moving steadily in a way that would better allow acclimation. “Because there is this constant slow movement that guides your gaze throughout the whole 20 minutes, you get used to it and you anticipate what’s coming next,” says Zananiri.
Not all the interviews in Zero Days VR are headless talking. One of the main events of the film is how the collection of anonymous NSA whistleblowers is visualized as a blonde woman (played by an actress), represented in a pixelated digital form created by DepthKit. The woman was also used in Gibney’s feature-length documentary, but in the VR adaptation, “The Informant” (as she’s referred to) becomes an even richer tool. “The theme of the whole piece is this interconnectedness between the digital and the physical worlds,” says Elayat. “So the visual aesthetic and the range we were playing with, with her form and how she sometimes feels like she’s breaking apart, or sometimes appears pretty real, was us playing with this bigger theme of the entire piece.” In that way, it’s a wonderful mirroring of theme and content – something that Scatter very much intended – and illustrates the potential of VR storytelling.
On the power of VR
For all the technology and troubleshooting involved, what was most important to Scatter – and will remain so moving forward, as they plan to create more non-fiction work – is never neglecting good filmmaking. “First and foremost, I see us as storytellers,” says Elayat. “Programming and animation are just the right tools for the job to tell the story.” But that shouldn’t sell short the potential they see in VR to tell compelling stories. “It’s a great way to make something that’s unique, that’s captivating, but also intuitive at the same time,” she adds.
That is the promise of the medium moving forward as a documentary-filmmaking option. “We think that there’s a whole new exciting medium that should be explored in documentary,” Elayat says, and she knows that it’s not just Scatter that will define what can be done with VR. “Everyone has the future that they’re seeing, and everyone is helping shape that future and adding to that dialogue.”
Top image from Zero Days VR. All photos Courtesy of Scatter Productions.