Near the end of Waves of Grace, a virtual-reality documentary about a Liberian Ebola survivor named Decontee Davis, there’s a moment: Davis is on a sunset-soaked beach, gazing out towards the ocean. She’s smiling beautifully, serenely. But then, for a few seconds, her face crumbles, as if suddenly remembering the family she has lost. Composure briefly gives way to near tears, but then, with a speed that speaks to the resolve and spirit we’ve seen throughout the film, a smile as warm as the sun above her returns to her face.
It’s profoundly moving, symbolic of the conflict of emotions at play. But what helps make it especially moving — even tear-inducing — in a VR space is how it’s shown to us: in a movie-like close-up that puts us intimately close to Davis, as if we were there beside her. It’s not a common creative choice you’ll find in many VR docs, which can rely on little more than set-down 360-camera GoPro rigs that simply capture environments without much ambition. That close-up in Waves of Grace illustrates not just the immense potential of virtual reality documentaries, but also hints at the future some filmmakers are building as they go along — filmmakers like Gabo Arora, founder of United Nations VR, who co-directed Waves of Grace with VR storytelling pioneer Chris Milk.
The Poetry of the Empathy Machine
Virtual reality is often described as an “empathy machine” — especially around social causes — thanks to its ability to immersively connect you with the perspectives of people and places you’d never otherwise experience. Arora, who began with virtual reality in 2014, says he doesn’t believe VR is just by default an empathy machine; instead, it’s one you have to activate to ensure that the audience connects with an experience that way.
Accomplishing that, for Arora, means not just finding the right stories — like Davis’ in Waves of Grace, or the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan in his previous film, Clouds Over Sidra — but also telling those stories in the right way. “It’s like a poetic experience to give you a new and fresh perspective,” he says. “All that information through voiceover? It doesn’t communicate everything.” And VR documentaries have an obligation to communicate even more to their audiences. “You need to see something, and feel something, that’s a little bit more interesting,” says Arora. The path to creating interesting documentaries in VR, however, is like any other creative ambition – it must overcome some challenges.
VR Documentary Requires New Rules
Documentaries may be an old form, but virtual reality requires the reinvention — or evolution — of many of its rules. “It’s harder than regular cinema,” Arora says, “because we don’t have the same tropes and the same toolbox around what we do in order to move your attention along.”
That was especially true when he first began working with VR a couple of years ago. The early rigs Arora was working with struggled with stabilized images, camera movements, and yes, close-ups. Even telling a story with several scenes edited together posed new challenges. “I remember we were thinking, ‘How do we make transitions between the scenes?’” he recalls. “It seems completely second-nature now that we would dissolve, but then, we weren’t really sure what that would feel like, how many seconds were needed, or whether it would all be disjointed.”
Discovering foundational rules have led, in a short time, to improvements. “We are slowly figuring out the drama, and what can work,” says Arora. Back-to-back viewing of Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace alone reveals the dramatic leaps both Arora and VR docs have made, and the ways they’re already evolving — including another core part of documentaries.
A Different Way of Working with Subjects
One of the fundamental parts of documentary filmmaking is also part of adapting to virtual reality: working with subjects. A big reason for that is because VR docs are typically dependent on long shots lasting several minutes. That demands planning shots out with subjects. “You have to really lay out the scenario to them, and hope for the best that they are able to do it,” Arora says. “It’s a little harder, because they have to repeat things a lot, and it’s hard for them, because sometimes they’re not 100% sure if they are doing something right.” And because filmmakers can’t be in 360-shots, they also can’t easily be on hand to help.
That means the whole process requires a little more work, faith, and coverage. “You just have to do it in different ways, and angles, and try hard to make sure that when you get back to post, you have as many options as possible to create something good.”
Learning how to work with and capture a subject isn’t all that will help elevate VR docs. It’s also what we see in that close-up of Davis in Waves of Grace: a visually creative filmmaking choice that pushes beyond simply conveying information about a subject. It taps into something deeply human inside of us — the way all great art and filmmaking can. That’s something Arora is always in pursuit of. “What I try to do is have one particular scene that I find to be more of a crafted, constructed, poetic metaphor,” he says. “We really want to speak to your unconscious. It’s important to do that. I think it makes the piece more transcendent.”
The Future of Virtual Reality Docs
Transcendence is something Arora aspired to with Waves of Grace, so that it could stand out and be taken seriously at film festivals or in the art world. But transcendence isn’t only something he wishes for his own films — it’s something he wishes for more of in others’ work, too. “For some reason, some documentary and non-fiction stuff falls into the realm of being static, and not necessarily as engaging artistically. I wish that more people would keep trying to push that forward in VR,” he says. “Not just, ‘Oh, you’re there. That should be enough.’ I actually don’t think that’s enough. I think you really need a lot more craft when you’re thinking about different techniques.”
For more from Gabo Arora, check out his bio and portfolio at Here Be Dragons.