Archive focus: Footage goes 360

VR and 360-degree viewing experiences are creating tantalizing possibilities for integrating archive content into evolving forms of storytelling, but when mixing past and present, new concerns emerge. (Pictured: The Bomb)
June 16, 2016

The proliferation of screens is stimulating avenues for creativity, but there is a downside for some. Life can also seem like it is moving along a one-way street, from window to window or screen to screen.

To break audiences out of this rectangular world, the Tribeca Film Festival programmed the 360-degree live experience The Bomb (pictured) as the closing night film.

Directed by Smriti Keshari, Kevin Ford and Eric Schlosser, the 55-minute film is an experimental companion piece to Schlosser’s book about nuclear weapons, Command and Control, which Robert Kenner also adapted into a traditional feature doc of the same name.

The film mixes archival footage with animations by Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood to place audiences in the center of a non-linear account of the history of nuclear weapons, from 1945 to the present day.

Using rarely seen footage Schlosser amassed while researching the book – as well as broadcast and archival sources – the filmmakers pulled out thematic visual patterns to draw an emotional narrative around the global arsenal of 15,000 nuclear weapons.

At Tribeca, The Bomb was projected on a massive 360-degree, floor-to-ceiling screen rig created by London-based studio United Visual Artists as the rock band The Acid performed a psychedelic soundtrack.

“I had really been thinking about getting people inside of a film,” Keshari explained to realscreen days before the Tribeca premiere in April. “We’re in a time now where more and more of what we consume is through all these screens in this one-directional way. It’s an experience that is seemingly more fixed so I wanted to create a live experience to give this subject the gravity that it deserves.”

Keshari is not the only docmaker with an itch to move in more than one direction. CNN, the Associated Press, Sky, The New York Times, Discovery Communications and National Geographic Channel have launched 360-degree video and virtual reality (VR) production divisions.

Experimental tech is also becoming a staple of festival programming. The Bomb led a 23-project strong VR and interactive line-up at Tribeca, while Hot Docs launched a dedicated space for VR/interactive and programmed theater-based doc experiences. Recently, Sheffield Doc/Fest hosted its first Alternate Realities Summit and Exhibition.

As filmmakers and journalists explore new storytelling possibilities, a big question mark remains around how archival footage shot in traditional letterbox aspect ratios can be represented in immersive environments.

A reversioning language for expanding 2D-shot video for VR has yet to be created, but beyond technological limitations, producers are brushing up against ethical lines, particularly when it comes to incorporating or recreating archive for VR.

“Before the technology gallops any further, it’s time for an ethical reality check,” the Associated Press’ standards editor, Tom Kent, wrote in a blog post last August. “Viewers need to know how VR producers expect their work to be perceived, what’s been done to guarantee authenticity and what part of a production may be, frankly, supposition.”

Earlier this year, the Associated Press partnered with California-based chipmaker AMD to launch a VR and 360-degree digital portal. The news wire has produced Rush Delivery, an experience that took users inside a packaging facility from the POV of a package, and worked with LA-based media company RYOT on a project that takes viewers into a migrant camp in Calais, France.

When a journalist pitches a VR story, director of interactive and digital news production Paul Cheung asks why that particular story needs to be reported in 360 and applies a set of ethical and standards questions. What if a VR story idea required reversioning archive?

“It really depends on how we reversion it,” he explains, adding that he could see the AP doing a before-and-after comparison or annotated video. “Unless we have really accurate detail, I highly doubt we are going to recreate the past.”

The AP might be wary of re-enactments, but CNN is not. In March, the cable net produced a pair of VR videos pegged to the doc series The Eighties. One featured a recreation based on behind-the-scenes archival footage of CNN’s 1986 Atlanta studio during the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and the other used footage of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989.

Both videos were produced with VR app Timelooper using green screen, actors and a set created using CG. In the Challenger video, viewers scroll around the studio and watch as anchors and producers react to the original footage, which is displayed on CG monitors scattered around the set.

By contrast, the Berlin Wall video opens with present-day footage of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate before fading into a recreation and then four rectangular screens that surround the viewer with the original footage.

“We wanted to demonstrate that what we recreated was as close to the original as possible,” says Jason Farkas, executive producer for CNN VR. “Whether it’s in VR or fixed frame, our challenge is to meet the intensity of the original footage.”

Ethical concerns also shaped CNN’s creative decisions. For the Berlin Wall video, producers also cut to archive to make it clear that they were not trying to trick viewers. Additionally, CNN ensured the word “re-enactment” was visible no matter where a user looked, as per the company’s guidelines for VR.

While recreating the past in VR using CGI and graphic packages is a popular option, it is limited to producers with decent budgets. VR camera rigs are increasingly affordable, but a post-production team that can build an environment from scratch is not.

Gil Pimentel, a consultant and former NGC exec, is working on a VR project for an environmental conservation non-profit. Unable to afford a pricey underwater shoot, he has been licensing footage from VR travel guide company Ascape and other companies prepping VR footage shot to spec.

He believes the ability to overlay archive into footage shot on multiple angles of a specific location that has remained unchanged could be another work-around for VR producers on tight budgets.

One example Pimentel gives of an unchanged location is the National Mall in Washington, DC, which, he says, could be used for a VR recreation of the 1963 March on Washington civil rights rally that culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“The question is, can you incorporate archival footage in a way that doesn’t look hokey?” he says. “It would be interesting to superimpose frame-matched historical footage and let that background fade out, or treat it in a graphically interesting way so you get a sense of immersion in the experience without trying to be literal.”

LA-based studio RYOT – which The Huffington Post acquired in April – has been a leader in VR thanks to projects such as Seeking Home for the AP, the solitary confinement experience Confinement for HuffPo, and The Nepal Earthquake Project featuring Susan Sarandon.

Last fall, the studio overlaid archival photographs from 100 years ago to show the impact climate change has had on Alaskan glaciers for the Sierra Club PSA, Jared Leto Tour Guides Alaska’s Melting Glaciers in 360°: Act In Paris.

The video is typical of how non-360 footage is portrayed in virtual reality: from within a rectangular box.

RYOT Huffington Post CEO Bryn Mooser calls the push to integrate archive more seamlessly into 360 video “the most exciting challenge in VR.”

Unlike his colleagues at the Associated Press and CNN, Mooser does not see ethical obstacles around adapting archive for VR, if it’s done in the interest of representing the truth.

“It’s the artist’s job to break the rules and challenge ideals included in the ethics of storytelling,” he says. “Leave the hand wringing to the academics to debate what they think is right and wrong.”

  • This article first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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