For the first time in history, virtual reality can give us an opportunity to more efficiently and sustainably change public perception. VR is a powerful medium for empathy building, allowing the audience to feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. We caught up with Catherine Feltham, VR filmmaker at WaterAid, to discuss her work on 360 films and VR experiences for social change and impact.
Raindance: You’ve managed a variety of film projects for charity campaigns and most recently ‘Aftershock’ has been a great success. Could you tell us about the reactions you’ve been receiving?
Catherine: Aftershock is WaterAid’s first project in 360 video and it’s been a pretty exciting journey! We are still in the rollout phase with the project and are constantly learning from it. Before we set out to create Aftershock, which was made in collaboration with HSBC through their eight-year global Water Programme, we felt strongly that we wanted to create a film that would be viewed and ‘experienced’ within a headset rather than online as a 360 film. Therefore our campaign is all about giving people the opportunity to experience the film and our work, whether it be in their own living room using a free Aftershock cardboard headset, or at an event or festival where we’ve installed Samsung Gear VR headsets.
We worked hard at creating an experience that was playing to the strengths of the medium from the outset and this has paid off in the reactions we’re getting to the film. For example, by using methods like eye contact to give the viewer intimate connection with Krishna, our central character at the start of the film, people have responded with comments like “very impressive, immersive and brings you right into the community.”
By experimenting with perspective and point of view we attempted to increase the audience’s understanding of particular situations, for example, by placing them at the centre of a community meeting or looking down steep paths that women have to carry water up to get it to their homes. By doing so we have gained empathy from our audience and been able to provide them with insight into what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone else.
“Watching the women bring the water up the hill was my favourite scene. It really showed the tricky terrain and the challenges to get the water to where it is needed.”
By giving the viewer access to an environment they have most likely not experienced themselves (a community damaged in devastating earthquakes) and letting them learn about a story behind the headlines of such a disaster, we have been able to demonstrate how progress is taking place in communities like Kharelthok and also showcase WaterAid’s approach of working in partnership – from local partners and communities to the organisations that fund our work. Through the HSBC Water Programme, we have reached more than 1.6 million people with safe water and 2.5 million people with sanitation over the last five years. The Programme also provided vital support to our long-term earthquake recovery efforts in Nepal.
“A key takeaway for me was that it’s possible to create change, and that working with communities is key.”
One of the most rewarding parts of distributing Aftershock has been seeing its ability to connect with such a wide range of audiences. We’ve managed to engage with all of WaterAid’s target audience segments, from school children and young people, to digital natives and global citizens to parents, partners, industry and grandparents! It’s also been interesting to observe how you can hold someone’s attention for nine minutes in a headset, at a time where attention span online is trickier to hold.
We’re excited over the coming months to learn more about the different supporter journeys we can take people on after watching Aftershock.
How efficient has the project been in increasing engagement in contributing to charitable causes?
There’s no doubt that VR and 360 videos have been helping charities and NGOs increase engagement in the issues we’re working to raise awareness of. The medium allows us to bring our supporters closer to our work than has ever previously been possible as well as offers an exciting way of reaching out to new audiences, perhaps those less traditionally interested in international development or charity. In addition, it is a really powerful way of communicating with sector professionals, potential partners and donors, and at influential events as we have seen.
“Much more immersive than I imagined. Really brought everything to life in a way that I didn’t think would be so vivid. Insightful and one of the best ways I’ve seen a sustainability story told.”
The medium also enables an element of participation from those you are filming with which excites me, as it allows communities and partners a greater stake in the storytelling process. By working closely with Krishna on how to tell his story viewers have commented on the authenticity they feel from hearing him tell the story and seeing candid moments like when he’s at the shop with friends, for example.
I think the challenge now is in understanding how to create suitable supporter journeys for audiences of VR and also being able to continue to excite and inform new audiences once you’ve got their attention. In addition, working with partners like HSBC on projects like this creates huge opportunity for reaching wider audiences. We look forward to working more with them this year on this project.
What are the next projects you would like to work on in 2017?
That’s a tough one! I’d love to see some strong examples of AR being used for storytelling in 2017. It feels like it’s been a bit of a buzz term for a little while without many examples behind it so I’ll be watching that space.
In terms of VR, WaterAid has committed to continuing to promote Aftershock for the majority of this year as we’ve noticed that these experiences have a much longer shelf life than a typical film as they can be used with so many different audiences and for a range of reasons. The film can be used to specifically talk about our work in Nepal, or more broadly to introduce someone new to WaterAid and our approach. We want to ensure that as this is our first project we really get the most back from it and test it in different ways before diving into another big production so that we can take our learnings from the project and apply them to any future VR/360 projects on this scale. That being said I think there are some exciting quick turnaround content opportunities with the Samsung Gear 360 camera I’m keen to explore, as well as the more interactive elements with the new controller for the Gear VR.