World Bank VR: Immersing Audiences On The Long Road To Conflict Recovery
The Price of Conflict, The Prospect of Peace is a 360 VR series produced by the World Bank and Sydney-based creative technology agency S1T2, examining the impact of conflict in Solomon Islands, Bougainville and Mindanao in the Philippines. Thomas Perry, the World Bank’s team leader for Pacific Communications, explained to us the entire story behind the World Bank’s charitable experiments with this new medium.
VeeR: When did the World Bank begin creating VR content, and how has this contributed toward your mission?
Tom Perry: Early in 2016 some of my colleagues began the World Bank’s first foray into VR, including with March4Earth and with 360° cameras documenting life on World Bank-funded projects.
The Price of Conflict series was the first narrative-driven VR series produced by the World Bank. It was focused on using this new medium as a way of telling stories of life after conflict in East Asia Pacific.
VeeR: How did you choose the location/subject matter for Mindanao: Price of Conflict?
Tom: The people of southern Philippines have been through an extraordinary period of upheaval over a number of decades. For our team, the challenge was to tell a story that educates the global community on what’s happening in Mindanao, while still give people hope that interventions do make a difference. I certainly hope viewers feel that we’ve achieved that.
VeeR: What do you hope to achieve through these VR videos?
Tom: One key objective was to use VR to transport decision-makers from the relative comfort of meeting rooms in Washington and elsewhere to the true heart of these issues.
As I argued in a Medium blog about this, VR is potentially more effective than putting an executive or a decision-maker on a plane and taking them to a community to see issues directly. Because community ‘visits’ immediately create an oft-uncomfortable imbalance between the visitor and those whose lives are being interrupted. By going through that experience in VR, there’s no interruption of someone’s life; the viewer is a silent observer – albeit one who is far more deeply and emotionally immersed in that observation.
VeeR: How do you approach these communities and what changes have the VR videos brought to them?
Tom: We approach each project and film – and therefore, each community – differently, depending on the circumstances, and try our best to keep an open mind about the type of story we could tell. For example, for the Solomon Islands, we knew we wanted to tell a story of recovery from a long period of civil conflict; yet didn’t know specifically where or how we could – or should – tell that story. Whereas in Bougainville, I had visited the community of Konnou some six months earlier, and knew they had an incredible story to tell; yet during that first visit I simply didn’t have the time to do a story as rich and powerful as their justice. So when the opportunity came up to tell that story in VR; I jumped at it.
The most important element from the outset is that the whole crew has a genuinely open mind. Without it – by going in with preconceived notions of the story that should be told – you’d risk (a) telling a story that’s disingenuous to the realities on the ground, and (b) missing out on the deeper stories that will only emerge after trust and respect has been built on both sides of the film crew and the community involved.
And of course, that’s a continually evolving process; the lessons we took from our work on the Price of Conflict series have been valuable for our next VR project; a series on climate change that we’re working on with the Government of Fiji for the upcoming COP23 Climate Change conference in Germany in November. We’re just kicking off post-production on that series now, and we are very excited for people to see it and experience it later this year.
© World Bank/Alana Holmberg
VeeR: What are some unforgettable experiences when you face these people in your stories?
Tom: The process we go through with this medium is to really delve very deeply into the community’s lives before a single frame of VR footage has been shot. We want people to feel comfortable with us entering their lives; after all, it’s a big impost on their lives to have a crew of five or six people with a strange looking camera in their lives for a week.
And we want to ensure we can accurately represent their story and plan appropriate and compelling VR shots around that story, too. So we take a lot of time to get to know them and their story first.
VeeR: Any unexpected moments/words that touched your heart?
Tom: Each community we’ve worked in has really embraced this experience. Many have been justifiably skeptical to begin with, but then when we show them what we’re doing, and how VR works; it’s amazing to see that attitude shift.
When Timothy, whose story we told in our story from Bougainville, first watched our film from neighbouring Solomon Islands; he took a long pause after removing the Samsung Gear VR headset, before saying, “I am there; standing on the hills with my brothers and sisters in Solomon Islands.”
© World Bank/Alana Holmberg
VeeR: Do you think VR is a better way for storytelling than traditional photography and why?
Tom: It’s not necessarily better; it’s just distinctly different in the way the audiences engages with the medium. It’s different from the cinema, or television in that it’s a far more personal space.
Yet the medium is still very much in its early days, and the big challenge I see is ensuring audiences experience VR in as ‘pure’ an environment as possible; ideally with a quality headset, in a quiet space away from phones and distractions so that they can have that immersive, personal experience.
© World Bank/Alana Holmberg
VeeR: How many people are there on the production team? How long does it take them to complete a project?
Tom: Our crew is roughly seven or eight people, with a team of four or five on the ground for the shoot itself. For our series, we worked with Sydney-based S1T2, cinematographer Josh Flavell and photographer Alana Holmberg, who have all been fantastic collaborators to work with. Everyone is excited to make the most of this new medium to tell stories.
VeeR: What motivated you to produce “The Price of Conflict, The Prospect of Peace”?
Tom: The series aims to answer the question: what happens when the guns are laid down and the conflict is over? How do communities recover?
We aimed to share the personal stories of those in a few countries across East Asia Pacific whose lives have been marked by conflict, but are choosing not to be defined by that; they’re choosing different paths. By doing so – particularly through the deeply personal medium of VR – we hope that audiences recognize that the path to peace is a long road that’s neither straight, nor smooth.
VeeR: What are some of the challenges you had in VR filmmaking? How did you conquer them?
Tom: There are so many! There are practical challenges: how do you present text on screen and ensure your audience sees it (particularly if they’re looking in another direction), but then conversely; how do you ensure your audience isn’t spending their entire time reading? How long should shots last to ensure your audience has time to find/adjust to their surroundings but not go too long as to feel bored?
And one of the key psychological challenges in VR filmmaking is how to create an experience that is engaging and powerful, but not overwhelming. We’re telling stories of conflict which are inherently going to be tough to see and hear. So it’s about finding that balance: we want to move people, but we don’t want people to be overcome by it all.