How A Documentary Show Produced Its First 360 Video

Recently, we collaborated for the first time with 101 East, Al Jazeera’s flagship Asia-Pacific current affairs and documentary programme. Together, we worked to produce a short 360 video to complement their larger 25 minute program on children jockeys in Mongolia who race horses to maintain an ancient tradition.

One of our aims as Al Jazeera’s immersive media arm is to become a dynamic creator and partner, establishing relationships with the larger Al Jazeera network and collaborating across platforms.

For a look into how one of these partnerships might work, we asked the two co-producers, Drew Ambrose from 101 East, and Viktorija Mickute from Contrast VR, how a team that does traditional documentary programmes collaborated with a team that specializes in using technology to tell stories. It was Ambrose’s first 360 video, so we also reflect on what he learned throughout this process.

Horse Racing in Mongolia, the 360º video collaboration between Contrast VR and 101 East. This short film complements the larger documentary episode, seen below.

Born To Ride, 101 East’s 25 minute episode that is the counterpart to the shorter 360 video.

This the first collaboration between 101 East and Contrast VR. Can you tell us about the Mongolia project and describe how this collaboration worked?

AMBROSE: I had planned to make a 25 minute program about Mongolian child jockeys for 101 East. Given it was picture rich and based in an interesting location, I thought that it would also make for an interesting 360 video. We had been talking with Contrast VR on how to collaborate, so I successfully pitched the 360 video to both teams. After, I wrote a storyboard focused on just one character (typically in a 101 East episode, we interview and prepare scripts with up to 11 characters in them). I chose a trainer because I wasn’t 100% sure that children would be talkative enough to sustain a VR episode. In the field, I was lucky enough to work with Peter Bittner, a freelance documentary filmmaker based in the capital Ulaanbaatar. Fluent in Mongolian, skilled at 360 shooting and bursting with energy — he really inspired me to do a good job.

MICKUTE: Drew’s enthusiasm about immersive storytelling was such a vital part of the project. This turned out to be a great example of combining great journalism and technology. 101 East provided the story, contacts and experience in producing a piece on the ground, while we guided Drew through the process of using a new technology and new medium to tell a story. We also hired the 360 filmmaker that accompanied Drew along on the shoot.

After the film was shot, 101 East sent the footage to our Contrast VR team in Doha to stitch and edit. This is where I stepped in as the video editor, overseeing the post production of the story. I had such great material to work with as the team proposed a script as well, which I later adjusted to the 360 medium. After editing, we worked with 101 East to cross promote the 360 video, publishing across both of our social channels.

Was this your first experience in 360 video?

AMBROSE: Yes. Out of fear — I watched a huge number of videos by rival media organizations to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Despite my inexperience — thankfully Peter and Doha based producer/editor Viktorjia Mickute were totally across 360 video. In Kuala Lumpur, our engagement producer David Deen had already made a couple as well so I could bounce ideas of him.

Courtesy of 101 East.

Can you describe any differences in producing a 360 video versus a regular linear video?

AMBROSE: I’ve made over 40 regular linear documentaries across the Asia-Pacific for Al Jazeera. For me the big difference is that a linear story is focused on conflict, issues and how to make something sustain an audience’s interest for over a long period time. Whereas, a 360 video feels more like a window into someones world. I’d say that for filming a sequence of overlay in a conventional documentary, you look for a range of shots to make that sequence. Some of them are very wide and very tight. Whereas in 360 video, you look for a range of spaces and actions that are interesting and try to capture them using one or two different shots. Some of the scenes I shot for the 360 video would never work in a conventional documentary and vice versa…

MICKUTE: Even though some parts of the 360 filmmaking process are similar to the traditional one, we need to think slightly different while putting together a 360 video piece. It’s about immersion and experiences, where every shot pulls a huge weight in the crafting of the narrative. In this case, I had to think about how to cut down all of this great footage and focus it, choosing the right shots that would provide the information and context for a viewer immersed in the story.

Can you describe any similarities?

AMBROSE: Storyboarding wise — both a regular linear product and a 360 have to be thought out carefully from start to finish. I don’t do it on the fly. What is the shot that is going to arrest the audience is a consideration for both. You have to instill a sense of place in both linear and non linear with a good set up shot. Sometimes I’d use interview techniques in a similar way. For example, I use the question “describe to me what you did just then” in both products to get the character to describe what he did in the shots.

Did you have any key takeaways after producing the video about 360 video?

AMBROSE: Keep it simple. Be open to changing your shots if you see something interesting in the field. Write down a list of shots that you have taken before you do the interview — and ask your questions based on what has been shot of your subject…because talking about things that aren’t in the scene doesn’t work for 360 video.

Courtesy of 101 East.

Do you have any upcoming 360 projects in the pipeline?

AMBROSE: I hope we will collaborate more in the future… I really enjoyed working with the Contrast VR team in Doha. I think 360 components work for a lot of documentaries that we do because we travel to really remote and interesting corners of Asia. I think they shouldn’t replicate what is shown in the original documentary — they should compliment each other.

How do you see Contrast VR and 101 East continuing to work together?

AMBROSE: I think it would be good if a 101 East producer like myself was embedded in the Contrast VR team for a week or two to see how they work. A lot of the time I was working blindly and would learn a lot from watching them stitch shots together… seeing what works and what doesn’t in editing is crucial to capturing better footage in both linear and non linear perspective. We now have a 360 camera to use at 101 East. I’m sure myself and others will be using it to experiment. This story I did in Mongolia was a first person narrative but it might be cool to experiment with different kinds of storytelling — perhaps including the 101 East crew capturing material in the shot. We travel to remote Pacific islands and super populated Asian megacities — both are great settings for future coproductions.

MICKUTE: I am sure we will have more projects together. Having produced such a successful first piece, there is no reason not to continue creating more high quality immersive stories from different parts of Asia. We are very excited to be able to give viewers an option not only to watch a linear longer documentary piece made by their beloved Al Jazeera’s program 101 East, but also to experience the story in a different way through the medium of 360.

Originally published at on August 31, 2017.

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