This grouping covers the work that was mostly completed in Secret Location’s Toronto offices, with editorial reviews from the Frontline team. This phase produced ideas about the structure of the VR experience; it also including stitching together video files from the field recording, producing the interactive motion graphics, and authoring the final VR product. It was a highly iterative process, with many steps repeated as the team agreed and refined its goals for the final product.
Structuring the Experience
Virtual reality can have a range of structures. It is a flexible, digital, interactive medium, which theoretically means authors can give audiences control over the order in which they view scenes, over content within a scene, or their viewing angle for a scene. However, the possibilities narrow when producers factor in playback equipment’s technical specifications and, most importantly, how to arrange narrative elements so that audiences will have a coherent, engaging experience.
The producers eventually decided to give the Ebola virtual reality documentary a linear structure with ordered “chapters” based on the live-action, 360-degree footage; with a motion graphics introduction, interstitial scenes, and outro. The 360-degree, live-action video scenes also contain layered-in 2D video clips of key characters.
Through the conceptualization process, the team considered and discarded other structures, including a hub and spoke model, in which users could choose the order in which they viewed scenes.
The team members decided to use the linear sequence, primarily because they judged that providing a clear and coherent narrative was more important than giving the audience control over the sequence of scenes or an highly interactive experience.
That same emphasis on story informed the decision to layer 2D video into the 360-degree scenes. Without the 2D videos the scenes may have still provided the audience with a strong feeling of presence in locations that were important to the Ebola outbreak, but they would have had no focal point, been far less engaging, and related less information. This choice, its implications, and factors are explored in more detail in the findings section of this report.
Stitching the 360-Degree Video
Stitching video is a time-consuming, highly technical, awkward task. In this case it involved taking the 12 individual video files and combining them into two spherical videos, one for each eye. Many producers hope the process will become far less onerous, and maybe even disappear as 360-degree, stereoscopic camera technology improves. Secret Location imported the stitched video files into a VR authoring tool (in this case, the Unity software suite because of its ability to integrate video) and combined them with motion graphics, 2D-video, and sound assets. We provide further detail about the process and equipment in an appendix.
Motion Graphics Production
In this project, motion graphics serve crucial narrative functions. They set the tone, frame the story, and convey the virus’s spread from the microscopic to an epidemic across West Africa. They place the immersive video chapters into necessary context. As such, the Secret Location creative and art directors produced multiple drafts for editorial review by Frontline’s journalists before their final renders. The team’s unusual willingness to share “edits” and respond to notes was vital to producing a quality product.
Computer-generated graphics also helped to capitalize on VR’s ability to put the user into a range of spaces at a range of scales—from a microscopic view alongside infected cells to an ultra-high angle viewing an entire virtual hemisphere.
The first scene in the experience is a motion graphics prologue, showing the virus inside a blood vessel, then—foreshadowing the later transition scenes—a photo-real, 3D model of the Guinean village. As the virtual camera zooms out, red arcs over a globe to indicate the virus’s infection path toward regional outbreaks; then Africa-wide ones. Edge sent the blood vessel sequences to a biologist who checked the accuracy of the virus and blood cell depictions. The placement and timing of the red paths were drawn from a map that Edge’s producer researched for the traditional Frontline documentary.
The subsequent motion graphics interstitials continue the approach of using red lines bleeding across an ever-widening view of the region and the world.
After Secret Location produced early sketches and drafted VR experiences, Edge spent five days in the Toronto office working alongside the motion graphics artists and art directors to polish the scenes for accuracy and narrative.
3D/2D Video Editing and Authoring
The live-action video scenes combine 2D video clips layered inside a 360-degree, stereoscopic video environment. These clips serve two main functions: They provide an unambiguous subject for the viewer’s attention, thereby avoiding confusion and disorientation. But perhaps most importantly, they impart much of the narrative by describing events, characters, and emotions.
The Secret Location team started by inserting placeholder clips, extracted from the traditional Frontline television documentary, to illustrate the technique and desired structure. Edge and Aronson-Rath gave paper edits, and drew on more of the footage that Edge’s field team had collected. Edge then worked with the Secret Location team to further refine the exact clips and their placement within the 360-degree, live-action scenes and motion graphics interstitials.