When People Become Pigs, Virtually

Illustration by David McWhertor

The future is here, and it’s giving us a better perspective on our present.

For decades, science fiction authors and artists have fueled our dreams of virtual reality with visions of technologies that free us to go anywhere anytime without ever leaving home. Leaving only our lives behind, we’d immerse ourselves in other worlds and narratives. We’d be adventurers without the baggage of actually packing and traveling. No need to make special arrangements, check off chores, or otherwise be bogged down by all the tedious tasks that consume our day-to-day. Sliding into the skins of alter egos, we could be heroes with nothing to lose–and nothing gained but fantasy fulfillment.

But now that VR has arrived, it’s not all about escapism. Slip on any head-mounted display these days and you’ll find the most convincing form of VR isn’t virtual at all–but video shot in 360-degrees. If you’ve ever experienced a Circle-Vision 360° film at Disney, you have some idea–but now take that idea to its logical conclusion: a personal spherical theatre that completely surrounds you, effectively placing you in the scene.

Though there are plenty of narrative 360° films floating around out there, the medium is especially compelling when the footage is shot on location in a documentary or journalistic style–it looks real because it is real. It’s an opportunity to see some other place in the world, possibly even through someone else’s eyes. As a writer and filmmaker, I was already intrigued by the prospect of exploring VR through the eyes of an animal when international advocacy organization Animal Equality offered me the unique opportunity to help them create a 360° film shot entirely on location in factory farms and slaughterhouses.

You might ask: Why would anyone ever want to watch that?

It’s a tough sell, I know. I didn’t want to watch, either, especially as an animal lover. But, I couldn’t turn away. Not with so many lives at stake.

Animal Equality sent me the staggering amount of 360° footage their team of undercover investigators captured inside pig farms and slaughterhouses across the U.K., Germany, Spain, Italy, and Mexico. My job was to go through all the raw footage and create an immersive narrative. I was eager to tackle this new challenge–even if it meant transporting myself to places I would never want to set foot.

I’d seen the labors of undercover investigations before, and I knew how impactful conventional hidden camera work could be–even if it’s easy enough for people to turn away, given that the grisly imagery is contained in a window on a screen. Watching the 360° footage was different, as there was no looking away from the very real, vivid, high-definition horror. It was like being there and bearing witness to the untold lives and deaths hidden behind walls with no windows. Going through all the footage was grueling and, as you might imagine, a bit traumatic. Even still, the more I watched, the more I knew everyone had to see.

As much as I already wanted to show the world through an animal’s eyes, I was surprised by just how much footage the investigators had actually managed to capture from a pig’s perspective, mostly from inside what the meat industry calls “crates.” There are the coffin-like gestation crates where each female pig is confined for the duration of her many forced pregnancies, and then there are the farrowing crates where each mother pig is immobilized (read: barred flat against the floor) while her babies are born in her excrement. The footage shot from inside these crates was not only eye-level with the animals but invoked a sense of scale. Footage inside the gestation crate made me feel like a pig in a cage. Footage from inside the farrowing crate made me feel as tiny as one of the sickly piglets forced to live in filth. I knew this was the film I wanted to make all along. The life of a pig through the eyes of a pig.

I went over and over the footage with the lens of a documentary filmmaker. I selected which sections of which shots to use and arranged them in the paper edit that would serve as the outline for the script. I then wrote the script in second-person–essentially casting you as the pig. Now, with 360° film in general, I might try to avoid insinuating the viewer into the scene, as film isn’t interactive. You can’t go where you want. You can’t explore. You can’t escape. But, neither can these pigs–and that’s the point. This might be your story for the duration of the film, but this is the ongoing story of every hapless pig born into the hell engineered specifically to exploit and kill pigs. The film takes you from the battery of crates at the breeding facility, to the fattening farm, and finally to the slaughterhouse.

In the end, the narration (voiced by No Doubt’s Tony Kanal and actor Peter Egan in the U.S. and U.K. respectively) tells you that “You don’t have to see the world through the eyes of a pig to recognize the cruelty and suffering. But, you can see an end to this.”

Spoiler-alert: This is where you get to be the hero.

360° film may not be interactive, but it can inform the way we interact with the world. Every choice we make and every dollar we spend has an impact beyond our own lives. As with so many views and practices of the past that are now frowned upon, we don’t always recognize what’s wrong with the world until we see things from the perspective of those most affected.

No one ever dreams of stepping inside a slaughterhouse. Not even the people who work there, except perhaps in their nightmares, as the work of rendering live animals into meat is dangerous, both physically and mentally. If you think that no one in their right mind would ever take such a job to begin with, you’re not far from the truth. Meat processing plants, by and large, employ people that are disadvantaged, the poor and underprivileged, immigrants and refugees, even federal prisoners on work-release programs. And as bad as it is for these people, it’s even worse for the animals who will never make it out alive or intact–animals who, of their own volition, would never dream up the violent horrors of industrial efficiency that claim their lives by the tens of billions each year.

It’s the last thing most people want to see or think about it. Yet, when asked, most of us insist that we do care about animals. I hear this over and over, and I believe that’s our better selves talking. The part of us that wants to take responsibility and make a difference–that wants to leave the world a better place than we found it.

VR has the potential to show us the way forward, as long as we’re willing to look. Once we’ve seen the world through the eyes of someone in need, there’s no looking back.

Released as the premiere entry of Animal Equality’s iAnimal 360° series, Through the Eyes of a Pig is changing the way people see pigs. The film has received coverage on various news sites, including Engadget and VICE channels Motherboard and Munchies. More recently, the film won “Best 360° Video” at the German Web Video Awards and was presented to Germany’s House of Representatives. In addition to being widely available on YouTube 360°, the film is touring college campuses across the U.S. and Europe.

This is just the beginning. I’m eager to continue shaping and sharing real experiences through immersive film, as it’s a compelling way to empower us to embody our better selves. We can be heroes–for a better world.

See for yourself. Through the Eyes of a Pig is best viewed right here and now on your phone via YouTube 360° or, even better, with Google Cardboard.