A scene from Defying the Nazis VR / Photo Credit — VR Playhouse
You are on a boat. Put out to sea from Portugal, en route to United States. Sailing across the Atlantic. Escaping Nazis. Leaving everything you’ve had behind.
You see the passengers’ faces and hear their emotional stories. They are seeking asylum. Hoping to start a whole new life, in a new world.
This is “Defying the Nazis VR.”
A cinematographic virtual reality experience, produced by Los Angeles-based creative studio VR Playhouse and brought by Times’s LIFE VR app. The VR experience is a complimentary dimension to the famous documentary Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War from award-winning filmmakers Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky.
In a special interview for Haptical, VR Playhouse Creative Director Dylan Southard shared his experience on using virtual reality to re-create an historical recount.
What motivated you to tell the story of WWII refugees?
I think we’ve always been very interested in VR experiences that can have a powerful emotional impact. Revisiting this time in our history and making someone feel like they were really there taking this journey has that potential. At the same time, we saw the parallels between the refugee crisis during WWII and the one we have now and so the idea that we could create a kind of call to action with this piece by alerting them to history repeating itself, while also telling an incredible story, was very exciting for us.
Why did you choose virtual reality as a storytelling medium?
The sense of presence in VR — of not just actually being in an environment but also seeing it through someone’s eyes and having that subjectivity — means that your response to it is going to be that much more personal and intimate and when you’re telling a story as big and important as this one is, that kind of response is exactly what you’re going for.
What are the main differences of building a VR experience vs. traditional cinema?
In traditional cinema, you can script out an audience’s experience because you know what they are going to see at any given time. In VR, you aren’t a spectator being fed a series of images to process. You are an active participant creating your own story and meaning based upon how you interact with the virtual world around you.
Do you believe VR can change the movie industry in the next years?
I do because I think it’s going to challenge the movie industry to start telling stories in new ways, ways that are more in sync with how we process stories — by interacting with them in many ways across many types of media, by shaping them according to our wants and needs, etc..
What were the main challenges you faced during the production?
We faced challenges just in terms of re-creating this boat, the ocean, the New York City skyline. We wanted it to be very historically accurate but also something that felt like it lived in the survivors’ memories and so there is something almost fantastical about it too. That required a lot of detail and artistry. There were also challenges in terms of storytelling: how do we make this not just a pretty boat ride? How do we make sure that people understood what was at stake and how life-changing this boat ride was?
What about the advantages of VR?
I just think it creates a response in people that’s different than any other medium. You’re communicating in a different way and so your relationship to the content changes. It’s not just something you’re watching, it’s something you’re experiencing and so you’re engaged with it intellectually, emotionally and physically as well. That kind of thing sticks with people.
Do you have some tips for producing cinematographic VR projects?
Put your money into the computers, rather than the cameras. There’s a lot of great cameras and camera rigs and that stuff will get more and more democratized. But the post-production stuff is really where you see the difference. Try not to have things move across the camera lines. Make sure no one gets too close to the camera. And limit the amount you move the camera.