Q&A: Zahra Rasool, Editorial Lead at Contrast VR

We spoke with the editorial lead at Al Jazeera’s immersive media studio about her job, her mission, and her path to storytelling in VR.

The Idea: What is Contrast VR?

Zahra Rasool: Contrast VR is Al Jazeera’s immersive media studio. Our mandate is to use new, upcoming technology to tell powerful, compelling stories. The way I like to talk about our editorial mission is that I want to be able to take the most pressing issues that are going on in our world today and create immersive experiences around them…to give you a more authentic and in-depth view of the situation.

A lot of our material is coming from developing countries. We’re telling the stories about the challenges in these communities, but we’re telling them through people in the communities who are actually trying to bring about change, believe in the future, and have hope for the people.

How do you identify which stories you want to pursue using VR and your advanced technology tools?

[Contrast VR] officially launched in April. At that point, I wanted to create six original pieces that would set the standard for what immersive storytelling would look like — not just within the Al Jazeera network, but within the news industry in general — so these are bigger-budget projects, films or documentaries or experiences we work on for a couple of months. We’re trying to do something different with every project.

The first one we created was I am Rohingya. We follow the story of Jamalida, a refugee in Bangladesh who fled the violence and persecution in Myanmar. What’s unique about the video is that we’ve infused 360 animations within the video, so the animations happen all around you.

The second piece, which we haven’t released yet but we premiered at the Vancouver Film Festival, is called Oil in Our Creeks: it’s a story of environmental degradation in Nigeria [told from the point of view of a 25 year-old girl who] takes us into her community and shows us the devastation that was caused because of the Shell oil spill. We divided the 360° screen 180°-180°: on one side we capture the live-action footage, and on the other we’ve used animated art by a really talented artist, Angela Haddad, to show you what the village looked like before the oil spill.

What are you working on right now?

[Another part of our editorial mission] is our investment in knowledge transfer and training. We train not just producers and journalists within the Al Jazeera network, but we also invest a lot in training filmmakers and creators within the developing world. The first initiative we did, we partnered with Samsung for something called “My People, Our Stories” [which provided eight Arab and African filmmakers with the cameras and training to create 360 videos about their communities, which were later distributed by Al Jazeera as a series]. We are hoping to do a similar initiative in South Sudan, and we’ve been in talks with the UN to do something similar in Yemen. We want to be able to scale this idea of how you can use immersive media to train the people within these communities to tell their own stories so we can make the storytelling more authentic and coming from the people themselves.

We also have a few original projects on the pipeline. We’re focusing on what other mediums we can use to tell compelling stories. We’re looking at volumetric video, augmented reality, and more interactive VR where you can make certain decisions or take certain actions within the story.

You mentioned that your team trains other teams within the Al Jazeera network. Can you tell us a little more about this?

Al Jazeera is a huge network. We work with several of its teams and departments — most specifically Al Jazeera English and AJ+, and we’re starting to work with Al Jazeera Arabic — on documentaries and programs. We train their producers and journalists to use 360° cameras — that’s where we’re starting, because this is all very new to a lot of people. We train them to use the cameras and they go in their departments to do some 360° stories for us. We also work with freelancers to produce weekly 360° videos. We have one 360° video that goes out on the Al Jazeera English Facebook page per week — that’s where we’re trying to build our audience. Videos [that are published there] are created primarily for social platforms: Facebook 360° and YouTube 360°.

What’s the thinking behind that distribution strategy?

Al Jazeera has a massive audience. But this is an audience that, only after the creation of Contrast VR, has been introduced to this nontraditional storytelling. The idea is to acquaint our audience to a different form of telling a story, and a way to do that is to provide them regular content that they can get used to.

You seem to have a lot going on! Can you tell us a little about the composition of your team?

I’m actually really proud about it because our editorial team is all women and mostly women of color that come from all over the world. I’ve worked in this industry for a few years, and it’s quite male dominated — just like a lot of other industries — but particularly because this is at the intersection of tech and media. When I was hiring, I was really cognizant [of this] and about wanting to have content that is international, reflects different views, and has a fresher perspective — and that needs to be reflected in the team. There’s always so much talk about the lack of diversity within the media industry, and that cannot be addressed and we cannot start to solve it unless we’re thinking about the people that we’re hiring.

It just happened that so many of the really talented people that were coming to us [during the hiring process] were women. So we have this team that is all women-led. We currently have two producers, one editor, and one intern, and then we have one project lead that works on the technical side of things.

How did you specifically kind of get into 360 storytelling and VR technology in journalism?

My background is in journalism — I went to journalism school and got my Master’s in documentary filmmaking. And then I worked for Fault Lines, an investigative documentary show for Al Jazeera. After that, I was working on my startup called Gistory, where I got really fascinated in the digital space and how you adapt storytelling for digital platforms. A company, RYOT, in Los Angeles saw the work I was doing and they were looking for someone to manage their editorial and to work specifically in the VR space. I had never heard of VR before when they approached me, but thought it would be really cool, as well as a challenge. So I joined their company and was their managing editor there, but focusing on editorial using VR. Within a few months, the company got acquired by The Huffington Post and then I was doing the same work within The Huffington Post. And then Al Jazeera contacted me to work on Contrast.

And finally, what’s a cool thing you’ve seen from a media outlet other than your own?

I think a lot of the really innovative stuff is happening outside of the news industry, within the gaming industry. There is a lack of really good, compelling content, like documentary films, in VR. Rarely do I see something where I’m like wow, this could really have an impact. The Guardian, The BBC, and The New York Times are doing good stuff and there are pieces that they’ve done that are really cool — recently I saw a piece that The Guardian did that stood out to me — but the reason I’m really passionate about this is because I see that there is a lack of good editorial content in news storytelling.

This Spotlight was originally published in the November 20th issue of The Idea. For more Q&As with inside intel like this, subscribe to The Idea, Atlantic Media’s weekly newsletter covering the latest trends and innovations in media.