A VR guru tells all…
…OK, not everything, but a lot of cool stuff. Yes, Marcelle Hopkins talks about VR.
I spoke with Marcelle Hopkins, an independent VR journalist, in early September 2016, several days before she joined The New York Times to become executive producer of 360 News. This interview, which was conducted by phone, has been lightly edited.
Bob Sacha: Tell me about your journey from broadcast television to VR.
In 2006 I was changing careers from international human rights to journalism and joined The Documentary Group, started by Tom Yellin, which was working with ABC News. I worked there about a year and then I joined Al Jazeera TV.
After I had been working in daily news for some time [note: she worked at Al Jazeera for 7 years], I started to miss long form. I became interested in interactive storytelling and web documentary projects and started to work more on documentary projects with Al Jazeera.
I was impressed with “Snow Fall” and saw that long-form multimedia storytelling was a game changer. I didn’t even own a TV when I worked at Al Jazeera; I was bored with TV. I watched TV 8 to 10 hours a day at the office, but that’s not how I chose to consume news.
I was itching for more creativity in how we were presenting stories and started thinking about interactive documentaries. I left Al Jazeera; I didn’t know what I was leaving for — I didn’t have a job.
In January 2015, I saw “Clouds Over Sidra.” I remember the first time I put on a headset: It was in Gabo Arora’s [co-creator of “Clouds”] apartment in New York City. It was mind expanding and it changed the way I thought about interactive storytelling.
I knew my next project was going to be about South Sudan. I had a professional interest in covering that evolving story, and when I saw “Clouds Over Sidra,” I decided I wanted to tell the story about the famine in South Sudan using VR. So I recruited a team, working with Benedict Moran and Evan Wexler, and then got a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute.
Bob Sacha: What made you think the South Sudan famine story was a good match for VR?
There are some surprising things about the famine in South Sudan. I was always taught that famine was caused by drought: It doesn’t rain, so crops fail and there’s no food. But what I knew from covering South Sudan is that there is plenty of rain. They have an agrarian society where 85 percent of people grow their own food. There are two separate plantings and two harvest seasons. So there’s no reason for people to be hungry.
I thought if we could bring people to that place and they could see for themselves how green it is, how much farmland there is, people would understand that this famine is a result of a decision made by some people to wage war, which displaces people and cattle. People might understand that this famine is completely man made.
VR serves the aspect well. We have this image in our heads of what famine looks like: I remember the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, all desert and sand dunes. The visuals of South Sudan are different, with immense marshlands rich in natural resources. So actually bringing people to that place through VR was a way to change their understanding of that story.
Bob Sacha: What did you learn?
I knew nothing when I started. Everything I learned was from working in the last year and a half.
I learned VR is good at some things and VR is bad at other things.
VR is good at conveying intimacy, emotional and spatial awareness. It’s good at conveying scale and it’s good at presence.
We found VR is not good at giving context and backstory in general. For a nuanced story like how civil war affects hunger and how a political crisis can convey a humanitarian crisis, there are a lot of layers to be explained, and that’s hard to do in VR.
For instance, a big part of the story we tried to tell was about the civil war, but we didn’t have any battle scenes. Instead we came to tell the story of the war through survivors of the war, by hearing stories of people who survived.
At a displaced persons camp, we met a woman who told a story that happened a few weeks past, how she was attacked by the militia and their houses were burned down. But viewers would look around and they didn’t see fire — it was confusing to people.
Other things that are tough in VR include explaining who is who, what happened when, the history of political events that led to the conflict. We found that people were overwhelmed by being immersed in the visuals, and so they were not paying attention to facts being delivered through audio or text on screen.
Bob Sacha: So how did you solve that problem?
We narrowed the scope of reporting in the VR film and accepted that certain parts of the story, particularly complex things, could not be conveyed through VR. We created a companion print piece about the stages of famine and how it’s measured, to tell those stories in text.
You need to decide what part of the story you want to tell in what medium and base that on which medium delivers that part of the story in the best way possible.
This approach is new to a lot of journalists, especially journalists at legacy media who have been trained in words and who are masterful storytellers with text and also with photos. But you have to think about the story and how narrative techniques are different in VR.
Bob Sacha: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your experience with VR?
I don’t think I’m an expert but I hope to be an expert one day.
The #1 lesson I’ve taken away from my experience, and the lesson I give to people who are interested in starting, is that we have to experiment and take risks. Because we don’t know how to use this medium, we need to try new things.
Bob Sacha: What did you learn from the CUNY Journalism J+ class and your other teaching?
I learned that a lot of storytelling skills and techniques are transferable, so we don’t have to throw everything we know out the window. There are things we know that make good stories: strong characters, building tension, an arc, getting good audio. We can carry these over from other forms of storytelling into VR.
I’ve seen this most acutely working with good professional storytellers, in classes with longtime journalists and also with artists and educators. They bring a lot of storytelling skills to class, and it’s nice to see how they transfer skills to this new medium and don’t have to leave those skills at the door.
Bob Sacha: What’s the hardest thing to convey to students, to journalists?
The hardest thing to convey, not just to journalists and students but to anyone, is what it feels like to experience VR. You can talk about VR all day, and they’ll never know until they put on a headset. They have to experience it — it’s hard to convey the experience through talking.
Bob Sacha: Any last thoughts?
We need more people working on this. The only way we’re going to solve these difficult challenges is by getting more minds in the game.
I want to leave everyone with the invitation to try experimenting with the medium of VR so that we can all figure it out together.
Thanks to Marcelle Hopkins for taking the time to share her experience. BTW, I think in terms of journalistic VR, Marcelle Hopkins IS an expert.
This interview with Marcelle Hopkins is part of my yearlong adventure learning VR, which is captured in a Medium post filled with triumphs and challenges…but mostly challenges.