This year’s Green Film Festival inspires us to preserve our wilderness through 70 film screenings that expose pollution, climate change and overexploitation of resources as well as through a VR workshop that lets viewers get up close to wildlife.

In the workshop this past Saturday, Drew and I from River Studios demoed our in-house piece “Overfishing” and Condition One’s “In the Presence of Animals” to the eager-to-try and curious audience. 

"Overfishing" is an animated infographic that sheds light on the dire truth that all types of marine species are collapsing in the next 50 years. It calls people to support politicians to end overfishing. 

“In the Presence of Animals” shows beautiful stereoscopic live action shots of wildlife animals like the bison, grizzly and the majestic jaguar with minimum narration. It visualizes these animals vanishing into thin air because “they can’t push us out” as we humans can.  

After thirty minutes of exciting demos that we had to end apologetically, River Studio’s Creative Director Ewan Johnson and Condition One’s Lead 3D Stereoscopic Video Artist Jason Reinhardt sat down on a panel moderated by Tim Bradshaw from Financial Times to discuss what is means to shoot and tell a story in VR that create social impact.

View our panel in 360 image shot by Ricoh Theta. 

While coming from two starkly different backgrounds of animation (Toy Story, Madagascar) and documentary/TV (The Man in the Arena, UFC 78: Validation), Ewan and Jason both noted that they shifted to VR as they perceived virtual reality as a powerful medium of storytelling that can “suspend beliefs” and “transport people.” Here is an abridged transcript that captures some of the highlight Q&A’s from the panel: 

Tim: Can you give us a little background about the VR pieces showcased today? 

Ewan: We adapted Uli Henrik Steckenbach’s 2D animation to VR in a 6 day sprint leading up to the Global Citizens Festival. We wanted to use space to communicate ideas. This VR piece is computer generated in real time, meaning that the environment responds to you as you look around. As a studio, we believe that a narrative with some elements of interaction is magical. 

Jason: “In the Presence of Animals” is a product of 9 months of traveling and filming. Condition One strives to compel social conscience with VR. We believe that if we make people feel like they’re there, it will incite them to change. 

Tim: How do you want people to feel in virtual reality? 

Ewan: When you are creating virtual reality, you have to ask, “Do you want the viewer to feel like a first person or an onlooker or observer?” You definitely don’t want them to feel like a spider stuck on the wall. 

Jason: Yes, you’ve got to address the issue of the viewer not being able to speak or move in virtual reality and make it natural for the viewer to be in VR. 

Tim: What is the difference between traditional camera and VR camera? 

Jason: Traditional camera guides you from point A to B to C and tells people what to feel, whereas VR camera makes your attention turn inwards as you have agency over where to look. 

Tim: What is the biggest challenge of shooting in VR? 

Jason: Not knowing what you have till you get home is a big problem when you have 6 Go Pro cameras that shoot videos in 360 degrees that don’t line up perfectly. 

Ewan: You can get around the issue of “photo-stitching” with monitoring systems, live stitching previews and learning to stitch properly. 

Tim: How do you direct people’s attention in VR? 

Jason: Interactivity and spatial audio cues. People are good at picking up where the sound is coming from. 

Ewan: As I spent the past twenty years framing shots in Pixar and DreamWorks, my friends asked me why I was throwing all that experience out by going into VR. In VR, you are shifting your mindset from setting the frame to seeing the entire world as your palette. You ask, “How do you use motion, sound, and light to guide people the right way?”   

In the "Overfishing piece," we take you from one spot to the next when we drop you down from the boat into the net underwater. Even if you are looking behind you and not at the net, your eyes end up in the net in front of you as you follow the fish into the net. 

Traditional production techniques also apply in VR when you go from fast cuts with strong focus points to cutting to a shot where viewers can take a breath and explores the immersive world. 

Jason: "In the Presence of Animals" is a former case where you have a clear focus on the animals in each shot and you cut fast. 

Tim: How do you ensure comfort or reduce motion sickness? 

Ewan: As a director, you need to constantly think about how people are going to perceive where the camera is. For example, in our "Riding Shotgun With Collete," we put the camera right where the passenger's head is so it feels like it's level-headed. 

Jason: Motion sickness is induced because of the difference between what your inner ear feels and what you see. You can strap electrodes behind your neck to simulate the acceleration your inner ear feels as you are watching things inside VR.

Tim: Are we asking people to put more things on their head? 

Jason: We think that a virtual reality content consumer is a specific type of a person who is more empathetic, likes discovery and will give that extra energy to put on a VR headset. On the other hand, a person with a 5 second attention span is not going to get much out of VR. 

Tim: How do you move people through physical space while they are in VR? 

Ewan: There is this thing called "Chaperone" in room-scale Vive that overlays the physical world into your VR experience when you are about to walk into something outside the 15 by 15 grid. 

You can also design your environment. For example, in our "White Room," you have a ledge and a mountain behind it 5 feet in front of you and a physical wall 5 feet behind you so you keep to the given space. 

There's also teleportation mechanism to make the environment seem bigger than it actually is. 

Then, you can use cuts that cause you to walk in slight circles but you feel you are walking straight in an infinite space. 

Tim: What will have the most social impact on virtual reality? 

Jason: I think VR will gain momentum from immersive games that gain a lot of traction. 

Ewan: Everyone has Facebook and YouTube, and they already boast 360 feature. Once you access 360 on these platforms, you want to get more immersed and will gradually upgrade experiencing VR from web to cardboard to GearVR to Rift. 

The Green Film Festival's "Keep It Wild" VR Workshop was a truly engaging, informative and inspiring session. Attendees saw how VR has the power to improve our connection to the real world. VR can be used as an effective communication tool to channel messages surrounding issues they care about to policy makers and vice versa. 

Please email ask@river.co to inquire the next screening of “Overfishing.” You can download “In the Presence of Animals” in the Condition One’s app inside the Oculus platform on the Samsung GearVR. We also recommend downloading Discovery VR’s mobile app from the app store and watching content under the “Racing Extinction” category to learn more about wildlife preservation. 

Special thanks to Drew Olanoff and Gemma Bradshaw for putting this event together; to Tipatat Chennavasin, Alex Sink and Aashna Mago, the original members of River Studios who worked together on "Overfishing"; and to Upload VR's Will Mason for writing a spectacular article about it when it was first shown to the public.