You are there: UNICEF and third sector VR for good
In 1988 there were 350,000 cases of polio in the world and in 2014, only 359. By 2016 that figure had dropped to just 37 cases worldwide and today polio remains endemic in just three countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. But while the figures are small, polio remains incurable though it is easily prevented with a simple vaccine.
UNICEF and Rotary, a global network of volunteers dedicated to tackling international humanitarian challenges, are united in the fight to end polio. To this end, they recently teamed up with technology innovation agency Inition and actor Ewan McGregor to release a 360° film aimed at ending polio forever. The film, You are there: On the road to making polio history, debuted on World Polio Day, October 24 2016.
Ewan, who is also UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, takes viewers on a journey into Kenya to meet 9-year-old Job, one of the last children in the country to contract the disease. Asking viewers to join with UNICEF to do whatever it takes to immunise every last child against it, he says; “You will even be able to say, ‘you were there’”.
And this is largely the point of the exercise. To take the viewer right into this Kenyan community, to see the struggles of Job as he tries to run to keep up with his friends and the work of Sabina, the vaccinator who works hard to promote the vaccination to African families. It aims to create an empathy and inspire support for UNICEF’s work. UNICEF has worked with virtual reality since 2015 and recognises that immersive experience can be a powerful advocacy tool.
“The central idea of the project was to create a ‘making history’ moment,” says Peter Collis, Head of 360/3D Film Production at Inition, who co-directed and filmed the piece. “We wanted to make it an engaging piece of content, to take people on a journey, to tap into the power of what VR can do. Big charity donors are often taken into the field to see the work their donations are supporting first-hand. We asked the question, how can we give more people that experience?”
The project became a close collaboration between teams at UNICEF and Inition. And while the initial idea was to showcase the very important information and statistics around the disease and its eradication, Peter reveals that this approach doesn’t always work in emotive pieces. “We had to find a balance, a way of telling this very human story while also demonstrating the hard facts.” This was achieved by blending animation and graphics with live action and interviews in a very compelling way.
Meeting the technical challenges
Inition was one of early adaptors of 360° film creation and its project The Virtual Orchestra, a collaboration with the Philharmoic Orchestra and the Southbank Centre brought them to the attention of UNICEF. “We had one of the few cameras that could film live action in full 360° in stereoscopic video at the time”, Peter explains. “We started off with a Go-Pro off-the-shelf camera that we stripped down and rebuilt, adding a bespoke lens system and creating a custom 360° 3D camera rig that was incorporated into a digitally-printed rig designed in-house.”
The kit was so portable it allowed Inition to film from the centre of the Philharmonic orchestra on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. And it was that portability that attracted UNICEF. Eventually the team found themselves packing it up and flying to Kenya.
“It had been a slight challenge getting the kit set up in the Royal Festival Hall,” admits Peter. “And the stage did become very hot as we were filming. But that was nothing compared to what we encountered when we got to Africa. We had to build a whole cooling system for it.”
Learning on the job was key, he reveals, and while a certain amount of preparation was done in advance of the trip, most of the work was done on the ground after arrival. Locations were often dictated by local political situations and while the team had been interested in traveling to the Somali border to film there, in the end it proved too dangerous to access.
“We were keen to keep production values high, even when filming in the field,” Peter explains. “We knew we could produce good quality photography and positional sound, the camera system we built could do that. The challenge was building it all again in Africa.”
VR for good: surmounting the third sector challenges
The team at Inition explain that their brief was to document what was happening on the ground and follow the health workers in the sector. Accessing remote areas was essential on this film shoot which was scheduled to run for five days. The final split between content that was storyboarded and planned for, and content that was opportunistic, captured on the fly, was about 50;50 says Peter.
“We found the 9-year-old boy whose story we tell in the film but obviously we had to have discussions around how harrowing his story should be. We wanted to tell the story of somebody affected by polio, but we didn’t want to make it so harsh that the viewer wanted to pull off their headphones. I felt that in the end we made an interesting story about a little boy, showing his isolation from his community and his friends.”
It’s a common challenge in the VR world where the viewer is completely immersed, where they can’t escape or look away when faced with uncomfortable facts. That challenge is of course also its strength, demonstrating the impact such a project can have on the emotions, which is particularly of value for the charity sector in seeking to raise awareness of often difficult situations. But at the end of the day, says Peter, we wanted the story to feel genuine, we didn’t want to milk it. And because the nature of VR is so attention-grabbing, it’s not necessary to be so heavy handed.
Questions of balance also occurred when deciding how much of Job’s personal circumstances to reveal – how much poverty do you show for example? How much do you show him struggle to run? There is a lot of discussion in the third sector currently about using VR in this space and creating immersive worlds that make for uncomfortable viewing.
“We don’t want to cheapen peoples’ experiences by saying, now we know what it feels like for them,” says Peter. “We may use VR to understand their story better but we’re certainly not living their experiences.”
Jessica Driscoll, VR producer for the film has this to add: “Being able to show in VR the hard work and dedication of UNICEF and volunteers, and that it takes a whole community to eradicate polio has been a unique insight. Creating an emotional connection was really important to us in producing this film, and by seeing intimate moments in a home and a snippet of a child’s school life we hope we have achieved this.”
UNICEF says: “Through VR we are now able to demonstrate global development challenges by bringing the most marginalised and vulnerable children into the conversation.” Obstacles to progress in the sector as a whole however include technology and content production costs in today’s cash-strapped environments, particularly when measurement of ROI can be problematic. But as costs fall in the future, this situation is likely to change.
The power of VR
As part of its debut on World Polio Day, October 24, the film was premiered to Easyjet passengers flying from London to Portugal, through VR headsets. Young passengers on the flight claimed the experience was very cool, with one nine-year old saying “I felt like I was actually there with all the children and I want to do it again.”
“UNICEF’s new Virtual Reality film about polio gives people the chance to step into another world and see what life is like for children affected by the disease and shows why we need to do everything we can to stop it.”
— Ewan McGregor