Shooting in 360° in Honduras for Water.org

A short photo essay

In October and November 2015 I worked with Water.org to create a 360º cinematic Virtual Reality film to be featured at the launch of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

The film explores the many ways that access to clean drinking water can improve people’s lives. Instead of spending the majority of their day to find (often contaminated) water, families can do the washing at home and cook more safely. They’re far less likely to suffer from malnutrition. And a source of clean drinking water, which so many people take for granted, is related to higher school attendance because young girls can devote their hours to their education instead of searching for water for their family.

A girl in the village we visited, in her school

We spent six days in Honduras working with our friends from Mother London as well as people from Water.org, and their local partners, Cocepradil, talking to families about water poverty and filming how having access to water has affected their lives.

Candelaria, our home base

We often talk about making meaningful, immersive stories in Virtual Reality. Doing this, in a truly impactful way, is challenging though. My teams and I are often too busy dealing fighting fires and figuring out how to film something to dive deeper into the narrative possibilities of the medium. Shooting VR in the field is much more complicated than it sometimes seems.

While there is no way to be fully prepared for filming VR in the field, maybe some of these lessons we learned in Honduras will help you when making your own 360º Virtual Reality film.

Split-Screen

In discussing the initially with our partners we all agreed that we didn’t want to make a film that only shows what it means to not have clean drinking water. We wanted to show the benefits — and make this a positive story. So the idea formed to show someone’s life before and after they have access to that clean water.

Because we wanted to contrast having water with not having it, we decided to ask the woman featured in our film, Guillermina, to show us not only how her life is now, with a water tap in her home, but to show us how it used to be back when she didn’t have that tap yet.

Early split-screen test

This lead to the idea of fusing two 180º domes together, and create a comparison that any viewer could play with within the VR headset.

It helps capture two sides of the story and combines them into one intricately woven visual, exploring a person’s day-to-day life from two different points in time.

This before and after technique is a powerful way to show the impact of having clean water in our homes — something which is easy to take for granted.

Guillermina and her children collecting water from the river

This before-after effect would show two moments in time — side-by-side — giving us a glimpse into the lives of women and children who collectively spend 125 million hours a day collecting water, often from contaminated sources.

Emotions

With cinematic VR specifically, everything feels flat and far away — the beauty and emphasis of cinema is hard to recreate with no depth of field to speak of, and no close ups.

That means your project suffers aesthetically, but it also affects human communication and empathy. As a viewer, in terms of non-verbal micro-communications, you miss so much. And these small details actually mean so much more than we realise.

Newer cameras, like the Ozo, or the Lytro Immerge, are working on ways to solve the technical issues associated with things like depth of field, close-up shots, and depth perception.

Crew

To make great films, you need people who are not only familiar with the equipment, but who are experienced at dealing with all the things that can go wrong during a film shoot. However, experienced film crews are still grappling with what the process of making VR requires, and how it works. As well as the many complications that come with shooting in challenging climates and with non-profession cameras. So the trick is to be comfortable with some degree of chaos.

Setting up our camera in the river

The biggest struggle that people need to overcome is the idea that they should know everything. It is important not to feel frustrated because you don’t.

When we were out in Honduras we had a very open line of communication, and tried to constantly think ahead, together, not just about each of our own priorities, but all of our collective challenges.

Disruption

The people we met were wonderful, but more so than traditional documentary filming, they were really under pressure to accommodate us — VR filmmaking is a disruptive process.

The camera needs to be at the centre of all the action, and it films in all directions. It seems so obvious but it has far-reaching consequences. You can not slink into the background, in a corner somewhere, and keep your camera ready in case something magical happens. Everything is pre-arranged and carefully orchestrated — not the most natural or spontaneous way of filming.

One of the women we interviewed, making coffee

And spontaneity is important — in a film such as this one nothing should be staged or constructed. You’re trying to capture what would occur naturally, if your camera wasn’t there.

The mountains in the South of Honduras, bordering on El Salvador

But unlike traditional documentary filmmaking, shooting in 360º means that those on set are unable to hide or blend in. Because the cameras are filming the entire “dome” around them, a whole other layer of complication is brought to the table. So there’s essentially no ‘behind-the-camera’.

Among our valuable team on-set was our translator, Raúl. He provided a hugely important line of communication between us and our subjects — a way for us to explain to our hosts in the village what all this weird equipment was for, and what we were doing with it. His energy and sense of humour kept everyone light and happy, and created a connection between us and our hosts that was essential for the film to succeed.

Raúl and Dave walking back from the river, through thick undergrowth

Drones & Flying

Drones allow us to create 360 footage that makes it feel like you are flying. It is weird to not have a body, it is not a human perspective, but it does feel magical and it gives you — the viewer — a unique perspective.

Practically, it’s difficult to transport a drone to somewhere as remote as Honduras, and working in challenging weather conditions during the rainy season complicated this further. But because drone footage gives viewers a sense of distance, this was crucial in telling this story. It provides viewers with more context about the journeys people have to take to get access to water.

Our camera team setting up the drone for the football field shot

We created 6 different drone shots in total, all flying over the landscape around the village, all helping to explain some of the distances that are involved in getting water from a natural source like the river running behind Guillerminas house.

Using drone footage to give context by tracking graphics into the footage

Stitching & Post

It’s difficult to shoot and not be able to check your footage on location — especially when you have come so far. All of us want to see what we’ve shot, and know it looks good enough — not being able to do that is not only frustrating, it’s a liability.

Alister, part of our in-house VR post-production team

Live-stitching and streaming on-location are much discussed new technologies. But these are difficult to work with in such a remote location, and mostly require mains power which is unrealistic in places where often even just power is not accessible.

It will take time for technologies like this to be agile and compact, and reliable enough that you can really count on them. In the mean time, simpler setups are better because you there’s simply less that can go wrong.

Conclusion

Cinematic VR creates an experience that feels unbelievably real — this is it’s unique power. And this immersive approach to filmmaking seems especially suited for documentaries — the viewer is transported to a place they do not know, and can explore at their own pace.

It’s exciting to see all the different ways in which documentary filmmakers are experimenting with this new medium.

Water.org has been working to improve the country’s access to clean drinking water since 1990. They have helped more than 40 Honduran communities build their own safe water systems. Many areas of Honduras suffer from deforestation, which has led to water depletion in many communities. However, Water.org has helped 11,000 in rural Honduras gain access to safe drinking water, so that families no longer need to walk far distances to collect water.

You can read more on the project here.

All photos were taken by Tom Elliott, our DOP on the project.

I am a virtual reality and interactive film maker, working at the intersection of storytelling and experiential technology.

@anrick
anrick.com


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