A new VR documentary allows viewers to experience the unfolding pandemic in a powerful, unforgettable and fully immersive way
Like millions of people, I’ve spent the last year immersed in news and politics—and obsessively following the terrifying spread of COVID-19 across America and throughout the world.
Thinking I would take a break from all that, I signed up recently to attend, in the comfort of my Oculus Quest 2 headset, the Festival of Virtual and Augmented Reality Stories, aka FIVARS.
As someone interested in movies and storytelling and technology, FIVARS seemed like a great opportunity to see the kinds of works filmmakers, artists and musicians are creating using the latest immersive technologies.
And I did see a lot of fun stuff.
But the most dramatic and affecting movie I saw—the film that hit me hardest—was Inside COVID19 which, beyond FIVARS, is now available on Oculus TV.
As the Oculus blog describes the movie:
When COVID-19 hit, Dr. Josiah Child was on the front lines, working to prepare the emergency departments at five different hospitals to weather the impending storm. Little did he know just how personal the struggle was about to become as he and his family contracted the virus. Inside COVID19 takes you inside his story, rendering a global pandemic in surprisingly human terms. And it’s available for free in the Oculus TV app on the Oculus Quest Platform.
Directed by Gary Yost and Adam Loften, Inside COVID19 is a 35-minute documentary that literally puts you inside hospital rooms and doctor’s offices—and in the car, the living room and next to the dogs on the bed as emergency room doctor Josiah Child battles the virus at home. If you have an Oculus, check it out there. Otherwise, read my interview with Gary and Adam and they’ll give you the YouTube link to watch it free even if you don’t have a headset.
Q&A with Gary Yost and Adam Loften, directors of Inside COVID19
There’s an urgency to Inside COVID19—with TV news bursts sprinkled throughout that remind us how fast the virus is spreading. At times it’s almost like the movie Contagion. How much was done in real-time and how much was re-enacted with the participants?
Since the 80s, when Errol Morris re-invented the documentary style with “Gates of Heaven” and “The Thin Blue Line” the traditional notion that docs have to be pure vérité has been replaced with a new style that leans heavily on re-enactment and having subjects speak directly to camera.
All of the news moments in our film are reenactments with the goal of re-creating the universal feeling of experiencing the escalating news. The observational moments within hospitals when Josiah is with patients and colleagues not talking directly to camera were filmed over many days waiting for these in-hospital moments to happen. The other story moments consist of Josiah and his family speaking directly to camera, retelling their intimate experiences with COVID19. We also filmed many observational documentary moments on the streets of San Francisco and some colleagues in Europe sent over footage from Paris and Venice during their lock down. We worked very hard to place the key news moments along with the observational cinema in the accurate timeline while retelling Josiah’s pandemic experience.
What do you hope this film will contribute to our overall understanding of the pandemic?
We believe the best path into any topic is through a personal story. The story of this pandemic is huge, but the medium of immersive video is intimate. When we have a personal connection to someone who’s suffered it orients us into the pandemic in a way that no other experience can. That moves people to take steps to keep themselves and their families safer because it’s not an abstraction anymore. Most people don’t know anyone who’s gotten extremely sick, and our immersive experience gives them a proxy for that in a profound way. Our main hope is that this film will help reinforce public health messaging and will also drive vaccine acceptance.
Because this is a VR documentary, we get a 360° immersive experience and feel like we’re actually in the room with participants—most notably with Dr. Child as both doctor and patient. How much do you think that kind of intimacy adds to the impact of the viewing experience?
With traditional 2D filmmaking, the viewer is watching a story unfold on a screen (that these days is usually very small), giving them lots of opportunities to be distracted by other things happening in their lives. With stereoscopic immersive 360° filmmaking the viewer is completely surrounded by the subject’s life with no opportunity to look away. This brings an intensity to the experience of witnessing Dr. Child’s life that has been so powerful that a few people have told us that it had almost too much impact for them… it was TOO intense. No other medium can do that.
The 3D animation is also very powerful. It freaked me out about Covid all over again. How was that created?
From the very start we wanted to illustrate how the pandemic is manifesting on so many levels—the human scale for sure, but also the microscopic scale and the planetary macro scale. A virus is invisible to the eye, and to most it’s just an abstract idea, but 3D animation is perfect for illustrating exactly this sort of thing: processes that are either too small or too large to show with video. Our animator Andy Murdock has over 10 years of experience creating scientific animations for National Geographic, and our storyboard was ambitious! In two months, we had to produce seven minutes of 6720x6720 3D/360° animation designed to accurately represent the complexity of the SARS-CoV-2 virion’s lifecycle in one of our epithelial cells. By detailing these incredibly intricate processes with clearly understandable animation, the microscopic story seamlessly weaves with Dr. Child’s experience, along with the larger global spread of the pandemic. Josiah’s and all of our experiences of the pandemic are interconnected, and illustrating the macro and the micro is a reminder that it’s a bigger (and smaller) story than what’s represented by any one person’s experience.
Knowing all you know about the pandemic, what are your thoughts on states like Texas that are now eliminating mask mandates and allowing businesses to reopen at 100%?
When we released Inside COVID19 the US death toll was 200,000 and now, just 3 months later, it’s more than twice that with over 500,000 US deaths… the greatest death toll in the world and a per capita death rate that’s 5X the global average. We’re marking a big milestone this week; the one-year anniversary of the shutdown. There are three highly efficacious vaccines approved by the FDA and widely available now, which is essentially the single biggest medical miracle since the advent of antibiotics. We haven’t seen anything like this level of scientific accomplishment since the moon shot in the 1960s and some people still don’t get what a big deal this is… and how lucky we are. We currently see that there are certain states that have made politics more important than science, politicians making decisions that are contrary to good public health principles. Perhaps if those politicians could put on a headset and experience Josiah Child’s story with Inside COVID19, they’d act in a more responsible manner.
What’s the best way to watch Inside COVID19? If people don’t have an Oculus, where and how can viewers seek this movie out—and in which formats?
The main struggle with 360 video today is access to VR headsets. This and all of our experiences were designed to be viewed within a headset and watching them on a flat screen is like watching an IMAX film though a toilet paper tube. You can do it but you lose all of the immersion and intimacy you experience in the headset. The art and magic of traditional film is the chemistry between wide shots, medium shots and closeups and the order in which the director presents them. In a headset you reframe and zoom-in using your eyes the same way you do in reality and when 360 cinema is presented on a click-and-drag flat screen you feel far away and disconnected from the content because all of the footage presents as the same extreme wide angle shot.
With the caveats above, if you must watch in a browser or on your phone with the YouTube app (which allows for a “magic window” porthole into the film or even in a Google cardboard-style holder), here’s an unlisted YouTube link to the 360 video:
You’re presenting at a free online event with NYC Media Lab on March 10th. What will you be discussing there?
In addition to a conversation about Inside COVID19 we’re going to discuss how we are living in the midst of a mass ecological and cultural extinction moment that actually helped cause the pandemic. The goal of WisdomVR, our educational nonprofit foundation, is to create a living library of immersive cinematic documentary experiences and ultimately an open source, global educational platform. We began in 2018 by capturing the wisdom of elders while they’re still with us and each WisdomVR documentary is accompanied by a study guide to provide context and space to reflect on the experience. As we scale up, we will also develop a free training course so anyone, anywhere can create WisdomVR experiences in their own communities and share them with the world. Immersive documentaries, as realized with these VR filmmaking techniques, have become a new art form allowing unmediated experiences of people and places while preserving them for generations to come.
As communities across the globe experience unprecedented change, the medium of 360° video is an opportunity to preserve and share the precious stories, languages, ceremonies, arts, and ancestral skills of cultures everywhere.
Follow: @wisdomvr on Twitter
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