Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s multi award-winning documentary Clouds Over Sidra is a powerful demonstration of the 360 degree video format’s ability to engage emotions whilst addressing a serious issue. By allowing the ‘viewer’ to see through the eyes of 12-year-old Sidra, the piece explores the tension between ‘directed’ and ‘undirected’ narrative in its empathetic depiction of life in a Syrian refugee camp.
I think these notions of what we (the creators of these experiences) seek to convey, and what we leave open to discovery (or not), plays to a major concern when such technologies are utilised in immersive learning and journalism. Namely – to what extent do we allow our audience/learners the freedom to explore? And how much do we feel the need to ‘direct’ them towards (our own) desired outcome?
While not an explorable virtual environment (360 video allows you to ‘look’ around rather than ‘move’ around) the documentary works by completely wrapping the viewer in a visual landscape – with the mundanity and enormity of life playing out around them.
“Presence is still coming into a definition, but we know two things about it: It feels good, and it’s different from verisimilitude. With presence, you do get a profound sensation of space, causing you to forget you’re staring at a screen. Presence is fragile, but when achieved, it’s so joyful and sustaining that those who touch it tend to fall silent.”
– Virginia Heffernan, New York Times
Much more than a static or linear artefact, the documentary is structured around the editing of long scenes (or ‘situations’) with continuous flow conveyed through the young girl’s narration and Mckenzie Stubbert’s musical score. It is very much Sidra’s story that pulls you through the experience, and when her friends enthusiastically gather close around, you really feel their warmth.
There’s great potential for this format in education. Not only are the results effective, but the workflows used to create them are significantly less taxing than those used to create purely 3D digital virtual environments. Indeed flat 360 video (which lacks full 3D’s depth of vision) can be produced on pretty standard digital cameras (albeit in a pretty elaborate setup) with some freely available ‘stitching’ software.
360 degree video is more than simply a tool for cautious storytellers who are nervous about giving up narrative control or digital designers who think any form of ‘storytelling’ is restrictive. It’s a challenge to the traditional view of documentary media – adding ‘presence’ to a set of existing film tools to create powerful immersive experiences.
You can view Clouds Over Sidra for free:
- through the flat 360 web viewer (with a mouse) using an HTML5 compliant web browser such as Chrome
- or in 360 3D (using an Android or Apple device’s motion sensors) through the free Vrse app
Image taken from: a still from Clouds Over Sidra a virtual reality film created by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk in partnership with the UN’s advocacy at the World’s Economic forum in Davos