Viewing WWI in a new way: Using VR to commemorate the Battle of Passchendaele
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the most notorious battles of the First World War that saw an estimated 550,000 Allied and German troops killed, wounded or lost. Around 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were missing; 50,000 buried without being identified, and 42,000 never recovered from the Belgian fields of Flanders that turned into an ocean of mud. In remembrance of those who served in the battle, The Royal British Legion, a British charity founded by WWI veterans, has brought the realities of the battle to life with VR. In this interview, the Digital team from The Royal British Legion shared with us the story behind this film series.
VeeR: Could you briefly introduce what your organization does?
A: The Royal British Legion provides lifelong support for the Armed Forces community – serving men and women, veterans, and their families. Formed in 1921, it is at the heart of a national network that supports the Armed Forces community through thick and thin – ensuring their unique contribution is never forgotten.
The Royal British Legion is the UK’s largest armed forces charity and supports a community of approximately 6.2 million people. Our national network supports them by bringing together volunteers, staff, members, the public and other charities. Support is delivered through life: during Service (both in and out of conflict), after returning home and long after Service.
The Royal British Legion provides lifelong support for serving men and women, veterans, and their families
VeeR: How was the decision made to use VR to commemorate the Battle of Passchendaele in VR? Why this medium instead of traditional photography?
A: Our 360 video content is designed to allow people to experience what life was like for soldiers during the First World War. This year marks the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele and this is what initially inspired our Passchendaele 100 project.
Our decision to use VR was driven by a desire to engage with younger audiences through unique and engaging content. The history of Passchendaele has been documented in a variety of ways, including photography, diaries, interviews and archive footage. Each of these is compelling in their own way, but it is challenging to present these in an easily consumable way on digital platforms.
Using VR techniques allowed us to combine all of these elements into single pieces of immersive content that could be easily shared and viewed across a range of digital platforms.
A: During our research stage, we discovered there was a wide range of information about Passchendaele, not only regarding the battle, but also about subjects such as nurses, life behind the front line, and the contribution of soldiers from Commonwealth countries such as India and the West Indies. We were keen to cover these subjects to ensure we represented the unique contribution that these people made. They are also lesser-known aspects of the battle that we felt would add intrigue to our campaign.
We felt our content would be better received by our audience if it was broken up into clear themes, and therefore we decided to break information up and use it to present the story of the battle from different aspects.
“Passchendaele in 360 – Over The Top”
VeeR: Which episode took the most effort to make and why?
A: ‘Over The Top’ as it was the first one we made and we were testing the format. Each video had its own unique challenges – especially as we looked to give each its own kind of aesthetic and editorial spin, but that one in particular laid all the groundwork for what came after. We had to experiment with how much we did with spatial audio, how much of the field of view we had material happening in, pacing, tone, content, duration etc. It was a real testbed for what came after but obviously had to stand on its own as an engaging piece of content. That took the most ‘hands on’ work from everyone.
Army Cadets were also invited to preview the VR content
VeeR: What messages does this series carry, or most importantly what do you hope to achieve with it?
A: Our series of 360 videos aim to encourage people to view the First World War in a new way. By using a combination of photographs, diary excerpts, audio interviews and archive footage we have created a unique and immersive experience that brings the realities of the Battle of Passchendaele and the First World War to life. We hope that the content allows people to learn more about the battle and that it highlights some of the lesser-known facts about Passchendaele, such as the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers.
VeeR: What was the biggest challenge during the production for this series, and how did you overcome it?
A: Editorially it was just the wealth of research. We needed robust history and engaging archive so there was a huge job in finding material before we even got to translating that into immersive 360 experiences. Then it was just making sure each had a distinct enough story (and visual identity) to stand apart. The nature of the archive meant black and white mud was a recurring visual feature, so we had to work to make sure each experience engaged and immersed you in different ways.
Photography, diaries excepts, audio interviews and archive footage combined to create the immersive 360 videos
VeeR: After making this series, how have your visions for the future of VR application changed?
A: Creating this series has illustrated how using VR provides an opportunity to combine a range of traditional assets (images, video, audio, text) to create unique content.
Passchendaele 100 is the first time The Royal British Legion has used VR and since launching the campaign we have seen good levels of engagement. Based on this it is a technique that we think we will continue to look at using in the future. Having been successfully applied to a campaign focussed on Remembrance, we hope we can find innovative ways to use VR techniques to increase engagement with other key parts of The Royal British Legion, such as the wide range of support we provide for the armed forces community.
Shooting & editing tools used: Adobe’s suite of creative tools with Mettle’s Skybox plug-ins
Learn more about Passchendaele at: www.britishlegion.org.uk/passchendaele100