Q&A with VR storyteller Gabo Arora

Earlier this year, Foundry Fellow Ross Slutsky interviewed virtual reality pioneer Gabo Arora about his work and emerging elements of the VR landscape.

Gabo is a UN Senior Advisor and filmmaker, who co-created, directed, and produced Clouds Over Sidra, an award winning virtual reality short film on Syrian refugees. He also created Waves of Grace, which focuses on survivors of Liberia’s tragic Ebola outbreak, and has many other projects in the works.

ILPFoundry: What initially drew you to working in virtual reality?

Gabo: While working at the Secretary General’s office at the UN, I was trying to get people engaged with our issues by relying on traditional means, like working on reports and celebrity endorsements. I felt there was a revolution happening in technology, and that we were somewhat behind. When I heard about virtual reality, I couldn’t imagine a better medium to get people going places they couldn’t normally go to, and empathize with people they normally wouldn’t otherwise.

I believed in it in theory. It wasn’t until I got to see demos that I really saw it not only as the future of filmmaking, but also the future of advocacy.

ILPFoundry: How did you meet Chris Milk (major VR artist, CEO of Within)?

Gabo: I worked with Bono and his ONE Campaign on HIV/AIDS and other matters related to millennium development goals. In time, I became friendly with the band, and they invited me to a launch party for their new album. At that party, The Edge, U2’s lead guitarist, introduced me to Chris.

The Edge was talking to me about work U2 was thinking about doing in VR. When he said “virtual reality” I said, “oh my goodness. That would be incredible for our causes.”

The Edge’s eyes lit up and he said, “you know, Chris is here. He does a lot of that stuff. You totally have to connect.” He introduced to Chris and he said, “you’ve got to work with Gabo. You got to do something together for the UN.” I didn’t think much of it.

I got a very nice email from Chris the next day. He invited me to a loft on Bond street in New York, downtown, for a demo. I saw Beck’s Sound of Vision, which was a VR piece that he did. As soon as I took it off, I felt moved by the experience and captivated by the possibilities for using VR in support of importance causes. That’s what began our partnership.

ILPFoundry: I enjoyed watching Clouds Over Sidra on Google Cardboard. VR is so different of a medium to experience. On the production side, it’s hard for me to even imagine what this was like. Could you tell us what your production process is in terms of filming, writing and editing for virtual reality, as compared to other formats?

Gabo: The way we have worked it out with Chris is that I would direct on the ground with the director of photography. It was me and another cameraperson who were on the ground. Chris gave a lot of the advice on what would work best or wouldn’t work best. To be honest, we really weren’t sure of what we were doing.

I showed Chris an earlier work I had done on a viral video done in first person, called Keep The Oil in the Ground. That video takes you through the Amazon Rainforest. Chris said “That’s rad. I think you should get something like that in VR. Just make sure that you’re able to make sure whatever environment you’re creating is very compelling to think about the space.” I got notes from him and actually leaked notes from Warner Herzog on this.

I realized I needed to make it like a circus — if you see a 3-ring circus, you see there are many things happening at once. You almost feel like as attracted to one ring as you would another, and have a sense of fear of missing out. You can’t guide someone’s gaze a hundred percent. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to look. I just wanted to make sure that wherever we would be would be as interesting.

As with much of successful art (I count Clouds Over Sidra in this category), you don’t know why this mysterious thing has happened. I still watch it now and I’ve done Waves of Grace and get to see a film on Gaza. You capture a certain moment. A certain energy.

ILPFoundry: It’s hard to understand what this is like until you’ve actually used VR. What are the difficulties in filming that you didn’t anticipate? What sets it apart in terms of production from other media, besides the obvious of one lens versus 360? What are differences in filming that you didn’t necessarily anticipate?

Gabo: In film, you’re behind a camera, and you can direct people. You can get a better sense of how people are acting in front of the camera, or what they’re doing, or how they’re moving. But in VR, you have to hide. I can still look, but a lot of it was taking very long shots, rather than doing short takes. A lot of it was looking at the edit afterwards, and seeing and hoping that we had caught something we hadn’t been sure we were getting.

Sometimes that was on purpose and sometimes it was by chance. You’re shooting blind. You don’t really have a true sense of what you’re capturing, but that leads to joy and spontaneity in the way people interact with the camera that I think wouldn’t happen otherwise.

There are a few scenes in Clouds Over Sidra where the kids are walking to school and they wave at the camera and treat it like a person, because that’s what I told them to do. I said, “pretend like that’s me or your best friend. Those are their eyes. You know? You’re just saying hello to them as you’re on your way to school. You’re interacting with them.” I think that’s the kind of incredible feeling that people have is when these kids look at you in the eye. When someone looks you in the eye in virtual reality, it has a different impact than in regular film.

ILPFoundry: What are technical limits you’ve encountered in this medium? Are there inherent limits to VR you’ve encountered? Are there other obstacles in VR you expect technological improvements to eliminate?

Gabo: It can be a tough question. For instance, in my new Gaza film I started doing a moving shot because I think we understood how we can put the camera in a car without giving you motion sickness by going at the right speed. We knew how it would work.

We are getting better on the technical side, but, to be honest, it worries me. I like the slowness and constraints of VR. It allows for a type of cinema that’s more pensive. My worry is after we get over the technical limitations. Right now you can’t do jump cuts or close ups.

There’s something about being stationary and slow that makes you care by more subtle means that I think is allowing for a greater challenge.

I think we are moving. I’ve seen some things now where people are using drones. I’m just not convinced yet. We really should play to the strengths of the medium that allow people to reflect. As you know, most shots in Clouds Over Sidra are between 10 to 15 seconds. They’re quite long. I think that works really well. The reason people respond to VR is their headsets eliminate second screen distractions like smartphones. You have to actually focus.

ILPFoundry: I’ve heard you are working on taking VR in a more serialized or episodic direction. Could you tell us a little bit more about what you hope to do with that?

Gabo: When I look at podcasts, or other short content, what makes it work is when it’s done, you want to watch another one. We’re looking at what it takes to get you to empathize with characters enough to want to follow them with experiences and hopefully pace that out in a way, much like Brothers Karamazov chapters were initially published on a weekly basis in newspapers.

ILPFoundry: Longer term, where do you see the business development side of this going? Where do you see the most potential for filmmakers or others to enter? What must be done to ensure the VR truly take off this time and that this isn’t the 90s all over again?

Gabo: I think compelling content of the highest order is what we need. It’s probably the singular thing that’s going to keep this going. That’s not where a lot of the investment is coming. Investors like the tech, they like apps, they like the cameras.

I think the push to make amazing content is what’s going to make this not the 90s. We really need to do something incredibly new and exciting. I always say the best model is if your cable company gave you an ad and said “rent our Oculus and see content of the highest quality for 10 dollars a month, and next month we have this amazing House of Cards-like series on VR coming out.” I think that’s what’s going to take it to the next level.

Whether it’s on, I don’t know what platform it will be on. Netflix is into VR and Hulu and even Within is doing really well. Content will drive everything.

ILPFoundry: It’s very interesting to me that you say that. I’ve also been thinking about carrier subsidies a lot lately. There may be definite value in having ISPs cover part of the cost of VR devices (like the $600 Rift or $800 Vive) in the same way AT&T used to subsidize the cost of the IPhone circa 2007.

Gabo: Yeah, exactly.

ILPFoundry: You also mentioned Netflix. They’ve been making an aggressive push on original content, and, as you said, are partnering with Oculus now. To what extent do you think that they could change their business model with VR? There’s always going to be the big money in the blockbuster films. Netflix is doing quite well financially, but they don’t necessarily have the budget of a dedicated Hollywood studio. They also don’t have the IP behind something like a Marvel movie. Do you see a potential for Netflix or other OTT players to move more aggressively in producing original content by independent filmmakers for VR? They have such a large documentary collection as is. Do you think that this could be a place where maybe instead of first run film, VR becomes an imperfect substitute for first run showings?

Gabo: That’s my real hope. When I can corner these guys, I try to really make them think that way. I still think some of them are thinking that way, but they’re relying on traditional names and really looking for big name actors and big name directors to come out. VR has allowed for a lot of new talent to have a voice that wouldn’t have had it otherwise. They should really see that as an opportunity to get something cost effective and cutting edge.

I don’t know. I’m thinking of Beasts of No Nation. That was very encouraging. Amazon and Netflix are the key drivers of so much of this. I’m constantly trying to whisper in their ear to tell them to take a risk.

I think people are being moved by it more than regular film. I may be biased about Clouds Over Sidra, but people come out of it and half of them are moved. They cry or they do something, or they remember it. It’s more than just the technology. This combination of elements allows for a certain experience. Brands should think about taking this to scale. I think if a movie like Clouds Over Sidra was more than just a cult VR hit and was taken to sale, there’d be a market for it. Everyone sees the power of VR — we get stuck on monetization, but we really need to get it out there and get the media excited about it. Everything else will take care of itself.

ILPFoundry: How directly should artists and developers dive into VR? Should they be producing content almost exclusively with VR in mind? Are there ways where they could do cross-platform work and maybe cross distribution to something like IMAX?

Gabo: People are looking into different ways of making it interactive or doing other things that would be very different. I’ve been getting many offers to do regular TV or traditional film. I’ve done a bit of it in the past, but I really believe in this medium. We’ve just begun and there’s so much to learn. If people come at it with humility and don’t treat it as a mere toy, I fully believe that it’s the next medium. People need to dive into this without hesitation.

ILPFoundry: Can you tell us about your next film?

Gabo: We’re continuing a series that highlights the plight of the most vulnerable people in the world and the grave crises of our time. Our ultimate aim is to get you to care about places and things that you wouldn’t otherwise engage with. I thought to myself, “what would be the ultimate conflict that requires this? What’s an inextricable problem where we can really see if we can make a difference?” For me, that’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that’s been raging for decades.

When I proposed this, everyone told me not to do it, but I felt compelled. We need to prove the thesis of this medium. It can not only help fundraise, but give feedback. We doubled submissions to UNICEF for Syrian children and helped raise considerable funds for the secretary general, and provided him with material to raise awareness at his conferences.

We wanted to take this from fundraising to peace building. The US premiere will be at the Tribeca film festival. We’re going to do a behind the scenes documentary to really see reactions and see if something like this can make a difference.

That’s the new film. It’s about a mother who lost two of her children in the 2014 Gaza war, she’s Palestinian, extremely resilient, and working to be a positive force for her family community.

ILPFoundry: Thank you for your time and insights.

Gabo: Thank you.

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