Jenna Pirog, virtual reality editor for The New York Times Magazine

Jenna Pirog, virtual reality editor for The New York Times Magazine.

Photographers and filmmakers may imagine that virtual reality is “the next big thing,” but Jenna Pirog, virtual reality editor for The New York Times Magazine, warns that the technology is best suited to certain types of stories. “I get many pitches for VR films and most of them all sound like really great 2d docs or photo essays,” Pirog told an audience at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph on Wednesday. Pirog  recommended one criteria to consider. “If you were bringing readers to this location to experience it first hand, would that help them understand it better? If the answer is no, then it might work better in other media.”

Pirog, speaking via Skype at a LOOK3 presentation on visual storytelling, offered her tips on what storytellers need to know to produce VR experiences. She says it took two months to make “The Displaced,” the first VR experience presented on The New York Times Magazine VR app in November. The experience took viewers to refugee camps in South Sudan, the Ukraine and Lebanon. The idea, she says, was to examine the issues facing the millions of displaced persons around the world by focusing on just three refugee children and using the technology of VR to help place viewers within the camps where the children are now living. Since the debut of “The Displaced,” the Times has produced eight VR experiences. “We managed to learn lessons along the way,” Pirog said. She presented the lessons as six rules for making successful VR.

Rule #1: You have to be into tech. Pirog said the equipment for making VR is ever changing. There are some cameras on the market that capture 360-degree images and are aimed at the consumer-level enthusiast (Pirog mentioned the Samsung Gear 360, priced at $350 ). Pirog said these cameras offered “a good place to start” to experiment, but noted that most VR is made with more expensive setups, usually using multiple GoPro cameras mounted on rigs to capture every angle on a scene. The post-production required to make seamless 360-footage is also labor-intensive, she noted. Currently, she said, most VR work is being done by production companies that have invested in or created their own rigs, and they are “hiring crews” to handle shooting and editing.

Rule # 2. Choose the right story. Pirog says that “The Displaced” was an attempt to give Times readers a more immersive and empathetic look at the lives of refugees than they could get through countless articles that had already been reported last year as waves of migrants fled conflicts around the world. In their VR production titled “Ten Shots Across the Border,” The Times used VR to go to the site on the Texas-Mexico border where a border patrol officer had shot and killed a teenager on the Mexico side of the fence. The VR experience allowed viewers to  look at the height and size of the border fence, and to consider allegations that the teenager had thrown rocks over the fence with the intent to harm border patrol officers. Pirog said this was “an attempt to use virtual reality in a more investigative way.”

Rule # 3. Place your camera and adjust your height to where your audience might stand. Pirog called this rule her “pet peeve.” In VR, the camera is a stand-in for the viewer’s eyes on the scene. “If it’s too high, readers feel like a seven-foot-tall giant.”

Rule #4. There is no longer a place for the filmmaker to stand. Pirog showed some behind-the-scenes footage of filmmakers setting up their camera rigs, turning the cameras on, then ducking, rolling or dashing to crouch behind the nearest sandbag, doorway or piece of furniture to avoid being caught on camera. “If there’s no place to hide, you become part of the story,” she noted.

Rule #5. Moving shots should be made with care and practice. In watching a VR experience, viewers move their heads to determine what they see. If the camera moves independently of the viewer, the effect can induce motion sickness. “I think it’s our responsibility not to make people sick watching our content,” said Pirog, who added that “If you can keep the camera very steady,” some panning shots can be used effectively without inducing nausea.

Rule #6. Audio is more important than the visual. Sounds alert the viewer where to turn to look for action. The Times is experimenting with 360-audio, which records live sounds from all around the environment where a camera is recording footage. The recording devices are expensive, and they are still experimenting to get the playback right, she said. “But done properly, it can feel very natural,” she added.

—by Holly Stuart Hughes

Related:

Should Photographers Jump on the Virtual Reality Bandwagon? (For PDN subscribers only.)

Five Technologies Shaping Photography and Filmmaking Today

GoPro’s Next Tricks: A Virtual Reality Rig and a Drone


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