A new VR film tells the story of a young Liberian woman’s struggle during and after the ebola epidemic. But Waves of Grace also shines a light on the significant role virtual reality can play in the future of news and current affairs.
“VR will be a welcome option to the editorialised opinion news cycles that are so prevalent at the moment, and tremendously empowering to the viewer,” says Patrick Milling-Smith, co-founder of Vrse.works, the VR production company behind the project.
“When you spend a few minutes in this spherical 3-D environment, with binaural multi-directional, sound your brain is tricked into feeling like you are actually there,” says Milling-Smith. “With that comes a great power to evoke deep feelings of empathy when the experience has some truth to it. The smallest moments of humanity have an added significance and weight.”
The film is a collaboration between Vrse.works, the UN Millennium Campaign and Vice Media, and Milling-Smith says it’s an example of how virtual reality can enable the viewers to see, hear and ‘feel’ a news story unfolding in real-time. VR can give an audience the chance an unprecedented opportunity to bear witness. “When it comes to VR filmmaking’s ability to take people to places they would never be able to go or even think about, the opportunities seem endless,” says Milling-Smith.
Finding the right story through which to engage the audience in the fight against ebola was key. “People are blown away by the freedom and scope of the technology but truly and profoundly moved by a good story,” Milling-Smith explains. “At first we were looking for a main character in Liberia that had been affected by ebola but not necessarily a survivor. We were also going to follow a few kids in the community to hear their story and eave them together with the main character.”
The story is told through Decontee David, an ebola survivor who uses her immunity to help others affected by the disease. By immersing the audience in Decontee’s experience, Waves of Grace allows the viewer to share her experience of illness, recovery, mourning, and perseverance. And it is the simplicity of having one person’s struggle as the primary focus that gives the film its undeniable power.
Launched earlier this year by Milling-Smith, fellow producer Brian Carmody and digital artist and director Chris Milk, Vrse.works’ aim is to push the boundaries of experiential media and use custom-built tools and technology to curate new and original immersive experiences. The company’s content to date includes a VR special for Saturday Night Live to mark the show’s 40th anniversary, VR coverage of last December’s New York rally protesting against police brutality, and Clouds Over Sidra, a VR film about the Syrian refugee crisis, again for the UN, which has so far been translated into 14 languages as part of a UN campaign to spread awareness and raise funds.
Milling-Smith says the production partnership with Vice Media was a natural fit. “We have a long-standing friendship with the Vice Media execs and with Waves of Grace we needed some help,” he says. “Vice felt like the perfect partners–not only champions of the whole project, but a cultural fit for the ambitious nature of it, and also serious about the VR medium.”
Looking ahead, the only obstacle to VR becoming an established part of the news and current affairs documentary-maker’s toolkit is the speed at which the VR market grows, it seems. And that, in turn, will be dictated by the quality of storytelling.
“The big push from the hardware companies for VR headsets is coming now and the various low price point cardboard mobile head sets are very strong,” Milling-Smith observes. “The way to guarantee and speed up adoption of VR is to tell compelling stories and creative exceptional immersive experiences.”
Waves of Grace, launched September 1 and is available on the Vrse app through iTunes, Google Play, and the Oculus VR store.