Video & Filmmaking


How the UN is Using VR to Show Life After Disaster

March 29, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Photo by Barry Pousman/Courtesy of Here Be Dragons and UNVR

The VR experience is available via the UNVR app. Photo by Barry Pousman/Courtesy of Here Be Dragons and UNVR

“Ground Beneath Her,” a new VR experience released by the United Nations, explores the continuing effects of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal through the daily life of Sabita, a 14-year-old Nepali girl. The sixth VR film created to highlight UN programs, “Ground Beneath Her” was co-directed by Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz with help from Here Be Dragons, a production company specializing in VR. Arora is a filmmaker who helped launch UNVR.org, the UN’s platform for immersive, 360-degree VR presentations. He’s also an advocate for using VR to evoke empathy for people coping with conflict or natural disaster. “I think you can do that [with] a great 60-minute documentary, but I think VR can do that quickly and quite emphatically and quite powerfully,” Arora says. At face-to-face fundraisers, potential donors don headsets and view a VR presentation which lasts less than seven minutes. With the help of the VR experiences, Arora notes, “We’ve been doubling donations.”

Arora worked in international development for years, and served in sub-Saharan Africa and in Haiti after its earthquake. But seeing “a lot of stereotypical or sensational portrayals” of life in the areas where he worked inspired him to study filmmaking. His first VR effort for the UN was “Clouds Over Sidra,” co-directed with Chris Milk. It follows a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. After its release in January 2015, UN staff suggested Arora use VR to document the UN’s response to natural disasters. Then in March, the earthquake hit Nepal. Arora was there three days later.

“It was a learning experience,” he says of his first trip to Nepal. He was working with a first-generation VR camera rig, custom-built from several GoPros, which needed time to set up and several minutes to capture 360-degree views. He managed to get some dramatic footage of wreckage, but was unable to get “something that went deeper into the issues,” he says. “I didn’t think it was the right time. People were in mourning and in trauma.” He shelved his footage. Then in 2016, UN program directors leading reconstruction projects in Nepal urged him to return. Though their rebuilding efforts are no longer in the news, Arora notes, “Their work is still important.”

Preparation for Arora’s return took months. UN staff in Nepal helped identify possible subjects and locations, and found translators and guides to help him. After he selected Sabita as the central character, Arora reviewed photos and videos of her village to help pre-visualize some scenes he would shoot. But once he had spent time with Sabita and her family, he found himself devising new shots. “You have to be there to see the day-to-day routine,” he notes. For example, he saw Sabita clamber up a tree to chop firewood. “When I saw that, I thought: That’s unbelievable,” he recalls. He decided to place the camera rig at her level in the treetops, and capture her—and the 360-view—as she gains confidence in swinging the ax and chopping down the tree. The footage provides the closing scene of the film, and its emotional center. “When people watch it, they love the tree scene,” he says.

Courtesy of Here Be Dragons and UNVR

Arora and cameraperson Barry Pousman captured 360-degree footage of Sabita’s makeshift shelter and her village. Courtesy of Here Be Dragons and UNVR

Since the earthquake, Sabita, a blacksmith’s daughter, has been living with her parents and four siblings in a shack fashioned from rubble and scrap they salvaged. They have no electricity. Sabita dreams of one day studying to become a doctor, but her daily chores have become difficult. Says Arora, “We try to communicate that she has to be a mother, a farmer, a cook, a lumberjack. It’s inspiring because of her resiliency, but it’s also slightly melancholic, because her life and her dreams are at risk.”

Arora’s on-location crew was “just me and the cameraperson,” Barry Pousman, he says. “We keep it light because we don’t want to freak out the local population.” To shoot a scene, they place the rig on a tripod in the middle of the location, then duck out of sight as it records for about ten minutes. “You just have to allow for things to happen,” Arora notes.

Arora’s techniques and equipment have become more sophisticated in the two years since he made “Clouds Over Sidra” in the Jordanian refugee camp. “Ground Beneath Her” looks more “stereoscopic” than earlier efforts, he says. Improvements in VR stitching made the difference. Here Be Dragons handles color correction and stitching, and also supplies his custom-built camera array. The company’s producers “are always hacking the lenses, and building better sound capture,” Arora says.

He notes that, after some trial and error, he now chooses to place his camera rig at the level of an adult viewer’s eye. This helps to give viewers the sensation they are in a place, looking around with their own eyes, “and not make it feel like you’re floating above it,” he says. “That’s why I’m not keen on drone shots in VR.”

He shoots several takes in each location. During the editing, he selects about ten to 15 seconds for each scene. That’s enough time to allow a viewer to look around the 360-view, but doesn’t slow the pace of the VR. “My biggest concern is: I want no one to take off the headset. If you get bored or there’s anything that you feel is not right, you take the headset off.” During his time in Nepal, he and his camera operated recorded about 1 terrabyte of content. The finished version of “Ground Beneath Her” is six and a half minutes long. When viewers see it, “Everyone says it went by fast,” he says.

In his previous VR films, voiceover carried viewers through the narrative. “Clouds Over Sidra,” he notes, “was a little ‘see say’: You see something and then you’re hearing about it.” As VR advances, he says, “We have to have a little more faith that people will still want to be in the space if we construct the feeling of presence.” In “Ground Beneath Her,” the soundtrack is made up of ambient sounds mixed with music composed for the VR by McKenzie Stubbert. Says Arora, “We worked hard on the sound mixing and soundtrack so when you’re listening, you’re enveloped by the sounds of this young woman’s life.” They recorded sound “when she’s cutting the tree or clanging the pots or feeding the goats with bells on their collars.” Arora worked as second cameraperson on U2’s first VR music video, “Song for Someone,” and says the experience showed him how powerfully music can hold viewers’ attention. In “Ground Beneath Her,” Sabita begins singing, and her song “carries you to the end of the film,” he says.

UNVR.org is currently producing new VR experiences focused on the Amazon and on climate refugees in sub-Saharan Africa. Arora and Pousman are working with VR for Good, an effort by Oculus, to mentor new filmmakers. The UN has also offered to host other filmmakers’ VR efforts on the UNVR app. Arora says he looks for films that fit the UN mission, but his focus is on fostering cinematic storytelling rather than direct appeals for funds. Within the UN, an institution not known for the subtlety of its communications, Arora has been an advocate for the power of a good story told well. “I argue that it would lead to more engagement in the long run, because there’s something timeless about art.” And the proven ability of VR films to move donors bears him out, he says. “I think the way you make something empathetic is to make something beautiful. Art is the best form of advocacy.”

Related Articles: 

Photojournalism Meets Virtual Reality

Innovations in Visual Storytelling: Moving Beyond the Linear Narrative