We spoke to Christian Stephen, the co-founder and creative director of FS productions, who may have created the first ever virtual reality war-zone experience. Writer – Megan Townsend, Sub-Editor – TBC
360 video became an option on Youtube earlier this year, as google began to support video allowing us to look in any direction with continuous footage. If you haven’t taken a look yet at the format yet, click above and prepare to have your mind blown. (360 video viewing is not supported by Safari, so if its not working for you check your browser)
The format has mostly been used to promote products, Red Bull were one of the first to use 360 video in order to show the perspective of a race car driver, with Myth busters and Star Wars also jumping on the bandwagon with shorts this year.
Journalist Christian Stephen instead saw this format as an opportunity to change visual news, speaking to Voice of London he said he has grown tired of the traditional way broadcast news will show war-torn places: ‘People are shown 1-2 minute segments with whiplash editing and a force fed view of the situation on the ground. I’ve been doing it for years, and although powerful to many with an interest – the general consensus will usually end up being “another war somewhere over there”.’
‘I believe deeply in the power of the still image and also visual narrative story telling, however I wanted to try something different. Something risky. Something that would at least attempt to inject some more life into a story as drawn out and brutal as the Syrian conflict.’
Christian, from London and is the global editor of RYOT news as well as the co-founder/creative director of FS productions, he’s spent the last 5 years reporting on conflicts in war torn areas like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Central African Republic and Syria.
His latest ambitious project was a “virtual reality” experience of Aleppo, which has been in the middle of a deadly battle for the past few years as it lays directly between areas controlled by Syrian Government forces, Syrian Rebels and Isis. In addition Aleppo was once the most populous area in Syria, it is thought now to be the most dangerous war zone in the entire world.
Christian wanted to create a video that would allow viewers to actually experience what it is like to walk the streets of Aleppo, a city that has been crushed by airstrikes and sieges. Though of course this required him to enter the city himself, which came with a few challenges.
“I spent the first day of shooting with the VR being hunted by regime and rebel snipers. 9 hours of running from street to street trying to successfully capture each shot. The kit itself looks strange as its 6 gopros on a tripod, so setting that up and then leaving it in the street to record will of course give of the impression that I’m trying to set up an explosive or IED. Hence the snipers from above.”
In his footage (top-of-page) you can actually see the snipers positioned at the top of a dilapidated building ready to fire. Though he believed it to be worth it, insisting that 360 video used in the arena of war-time reporting and news coverage, could have really positive impacts on audiences:
“By using VR I wanted to give agency to the viewer. A haunting and intimate experience of what a warzone is actually like. To give the viewer a chance to explore the story themselves in order to inspire and encourage a kinship with the material. Again, an intimacy.
“I feel strongly that the new technology (that’s advancing at a dizzying speed) can serve a purpose higher than the tidal wave of what will be, generally, video games and porn. ”
Since his video went live earlier this year, a number of other news outlets have taken the form and run with it in their reporting. This includes AP and the BBC, famous for their traditional broadcast form of reporting, both using it as a way to map the “jungles” in Calais, however they haven’t gone as far as Christian and used the difficult equipment in an active war zone. Al Jazeera have come the closest by filming a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon using 360 footage.
The uniqueness of 360 is that it gives a very hi-def immersive experience for the viewer, with our easy access to things like go-pro’s it may become an everyday way of reporting, however software required to create it can be expensive costing around £700 for a single license.
However with big industry news broadcasters, Christian thinks this form is something they should explore:
“War is hell, but with VR it’s far more disturbing and chilling. War is the haunting silence after the bombs have fallen, punctuated by sniper fire. War should be feared, but it should also be explored.”