Living through an attack on a market in Aleppo, doing time in solitary confinement in prison, and witnessing the melting of the ice caps in Greenland are just a few of the rather unsettling experiences made possible today by virtual reality. Originally from the French city of Angers, Cédric Gamelin produces films by Nonny de la Peña, a pioneer of virtual reality and immersive journalism, and founder of the company Emblematic Group in Santa Monica, California.
France-Amérique: What is virtual reality?
Cédric Gamelin: Virtual reality is an immersive experience in which the user explores a virtual environment using a video and audio headset and a pair of joystick controls. Users are plunged into a highly convincing “video game,” which offers an experience very close to reality. Virtual reality videos are different from 360-degree videos, in which users can only observe what is around them.
How do you make a virtual reality video?
There are two ways of creating a virtual reality video. The first is CGI, or Computer-Generated Imagery, which is used to create an entire virtual environment — the setting and the characters — with the help of 3D modelling software. Electrodes are used to record an actor’s movements in order to make the virtual characters appear more realistic. The second method is volumetric video, which uses photogrammetry — a technique consisting of taking photos of a space in order to reproduce it in 3D by assembling the photos — and volumetric capture — a system of 52 cameras that film the user from every angle in order to create a hologram that is then imported into the virtual environment.
Nonny de la Peña is one of the pioneers of immersive journalism. How is this field different from virtual reality?
Immersive journalism uses virtual reality to broadcast journalistic content such as investigations and reports. This type of virtual reality requires a significant amount of preliminary investigation work in order to stay as true as possible to the facts. The film One Dark Night (2015), for example, used recordings from the Sanford police department in Florida, witness statements, maps, and architectural drawings to recreate the night Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012. The preliminary investigation work made it possible to reproduce an accurate chronology of events.
On the set of the virtual reality film about Mary Katherine Goddard.
Can you tell us about your recent projects?
We have just finished a historical virtual reality film about Mary Katherine Goddard, a publisher and postmaster in Baltimore during the 18th century. She was the first person to print the United States Declaration of Independence. The film was commissioned by a Congress committee to support the opening of the American Museum of Women’s History in Washington D.C. Virtual reality can be an excellent educational tool! Another of our projects takes the user into an identical reproduction of a 70-square-foot solitary confinement cell. A former prisoner from Maine State Prison, who was placed in solitary confinement for five years and a half, helped us to recreate the exact conditions. In the film — set for release in 2017 — he talks about his experience in prison, being freed and re-joining society.
Why did you choose virtual reality as a medium for dealing with these subjects? How does virtual reality offer more than traditional videos?
Audience numbers in cinemas are dwindling, and virtual reality is a good way of getting the public’s attention. In a similar way to the arrival of color film in the 1930s, virtual reality renews the magic of video while offering a comprehensive experience. In the case of a traditional film, viewers are held at a distance and therefore the impact is diminished. With virtual reality, however, the barrier between the subject and the observer is removed. Users experience more. If we take the example of fundraising, we can see that people donate more after watching a virtual reality video; this technology enables the public to feel things, whereas before they could only see them. Virtual reality is revolutionizing how we see and experience images and information.