VR Creator — Barry Pousman (Clouds Over Sidra, UN Media Specialist)

Barry in Palestine working on a VR piece for the United Nations.

JC: Please describe your current involvement in VR/360 video.

BP: I’m currently the co-founder of a VR startup, Variable Labs where we create immersive experiences to help people improve their ‘soft skills’ of empathy, conflict resolution and collaboration especially across cultures. We work with top tier companies and organizations educating leaders and senior management through cinematic, empathy-centered experiences on our white label-able 360º platform. I also help the United Nations create Virtual Reality experiences and screen them for world leaders. Recently we showcased VR films at the World Economic Forum at Davos and other high level political summits to help foster empathy in leaders who change the lives of millions.

JC: How did you first get involved in VR?

BP: I was first introduced to VR at the Vrse offices in LA. They taught me how to use their proprietary VR rig and showed me a VR experience they had shot, a one take of a man in his living room with his dog running around. After about a minute, the man picks up the dog and brings it close to the camera which made me feel like the dog was licking my face, completely forgetting that I had a headset on. It was a breakthrough moment for me where I realized the power of VR is putting people in spaces they aren’t in. I then flew to Jordan to film Clouds Over Sidra with Gabo Arora for the UN. We spent a few days in the refugee camp with the help of UNICEF Jordan, filming Sidra and her family as they went through their day in a sort of ‘tour’ of the camp they lived in.

JC: Clouds Over Sidra was a collaboration the United Nations and Vrse, which gave a major voice for documentary storytelling in VR. How did that project come about — did the UN come to Vrse or vice versa?

BP: The partnership between Vrse and the UN came about when Gabo Arora and Chris Milk were introduced at an event. Vrse had just developed this world changing camera and stitching software. Gabo, with the help of the UN, had access to incredible and unreported (or at least under-reported) stories. Together, they agreed to create a series of these VR experiences, giving a voice to individuals who live in the shadows as they’re affected by crisis around the world. To date, this partnership has led to three incredible VR experiences, Clouds Over Sidra, Waves of Grace, and My Mother’s Wing.

JC: VR filmmaking is pretty new and people seem to be learning along the way. How was your first experience filming in 360? Have you stitched and edited the footage as well?

BP: My first experience as I mentioned was filming Clouds Over Sidra. It was definitely a new way to think about shooting. Now we were composing shots that are 360 degrees, not just rectangles. Shooting VR, we can’t be in the room when the filming is happening or we would be in the shot. Now we can’t just put the camera anywhere, we had to place the camera where we thought our audience would want to be. And all of this on a very tight timeline and in a place with limited electricity. Plus nobody speaks great English. It was definitely an adventure in filmmaking, but we came out on the other side with over a terabyte of footage which the guys at Vrse worked to stitch and edit. Since then, I’ve dabbled in stitching and editing VR for a variety of projects and it’s no easy task.

JC: What equipment do you currently use for your VR projects? What have you learned about the technical process that’s different from traditional ‘flatties’?

BP: Currently at Variable Labs, we’re using the Triggar VR T4 rig out of Australia. We’ve worked with the guys at Triggar extensively and we’ve seen some great results with their rigs. They even have a pressurized underwater housing which we shot on for Kyle Thiermann’s Pro Surf Lesson for Discovery VR. There are a lot of similarities in the way we used to shoot, what I call, ‘rectangles’ but there are also marked differences. Focus, frame rate and ISO still matter, you still have to slate each shot, and you still have to think about what the audience will be seeing. But the 180 rule, the rule of thirds, and other film language techniques are no longer relevant with VR. There’s an emerging set of rules for this new language and it’s pretty exciting to see it as it shapes.

JC: What are some things that you need to consider as a filmmaker when storytelling in VR v. the traditional documentary style?

BP: For storytelling in VR, my favorite question to ask is, ‘Why does this need to be in VR?’ If you can shoot the story with a 5D, I’d say go for it. Most people are still watching rectangular media and if you make something that’s only VR for the gimmick of being new, it won’t get the traction you’re probably hoping for. With VR, utilizing your location as a sort of character in the piece is key.

JC: What is the future of VR for you?

BP: The future of VR is pretty exciting for me. I think the next 2 to 3 years will be a scramble to the top for hardware, software and content. As well, we’re already seeing a war for talent in the VR space. Then in 5 to 6 years, it will be as ubiquitous as televisions are today. Most people will have a way to view and interact with spherical content and we’ll be using it for education and entertainment on a daily basis. My guess is that houses will slowly stop having couches where people sit in a line and watch a glowing rectangle on the wall, rather a set of comfortable swivel chairs for a more individual experience.

JC: What ways do you think VR can improve in the next few years? Or what would you like to see in VR in the next few years?

BP: VR can pretty much improve everything in the next few years. I think of VR as a trailer for life, wetting people’s appetite for travel. I think VR is perfect for discovering other cultures, for learning why protecting the environment matters, learning history and science and so much more. I think VR will be a major part of our culture in the next few years. Of course, AR will also be a big force, but VR seems to be a medium that’s here to stay.

Immersive cinematic VR will be used in work settings too. The same physiological responses from real life (fear, anxiety, excitement, relief) can be triggered in VR, though of course to a smaller extent at present. So the ‘spine tingling’ feeling of participating in a collaborative meeting or negotiating a difficult conflict at work can be taught in VR. We see a lot of possibility for the use of VR in professional development.

JC: What VR projects are you currently working on?

BP: Variable Labs has a lot going on! We’re working on a few VR experiences at the moment including a new program to help women better negotiate their salaries. We are working with Fortune 500 companies to foster empathy and understanding around diversity and with organizations that are looking to change perception for people affected by current crisis. I’ll also be in Nepal at the end of the month shooting another VR experience for the UN and I’ll be presenting at a few Universities and VR conferences in the coming months.

JC: Any VR film/experience recommendations for my readers?

BP: If you’re interested in VR, I’d recommend a few ways to find out more. There are a bunch of VR podcasts that are pretty informative, Voices of VR is probably my favorite. There are also some amazing people writing about VR on Medium like Jessica Brillhart, Google’s Principle Filmmaker for VR. And if you like Reddit, the Oculus subreddit is where you can find most of the heated debates. If you’re more interested in how to do it yourself, I’d recommend the Making360.com pdf. It’s 200 pages (and growing) of tips and tricks for aspiring VR filmmakers. Feel free to follow Variable Labs on Facebook too. We try to post the best of the best in VR news every day. Good luck out there!

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