Photo: Matt Cetti Roberts
In a derelict hotel room a sniper sits patiently on a cheap plastic chair, the barrel of his weapon fixed on a gap in the furniture, upended to block the window. The sound of sporadic gunfire and mortar shells tells us he is close to the action but he doesn’t shoot, just watches. His sight follows movement outside the window until he goes down one one knee, pushing the butt of the rifle into the shoulder and lowering his cheek to align with the scope. He tracks multiple targets, flicking from one to the next before … boom, he fires. Muzzle flash breaks through his makeshift barrier and the thunder of gunfire echoes around the empty room.
For a regular audience this scene wouldn’t be particularly engaging, we’re exposed daily to images of men firing guns. However, this was shot in 360 and the fact that it is so slow moving gives us an opportunity to stop, look around and consider what we’re watching a little more. The room is empty, any and all furnishings have been used to barricade the gunman into his hide. Look around and we see an upturned bowl lying on the floor – abandoned in a hurry? Behind us, down a corridor are other men, with smaller weapons taking pot shots at targets outside through a hole in the wall.
Aside from the footage itself when watching 360 clips a minimum of information can really help viewers understand the scene they’re ‘in’. This clip was shot by renown Iraqi fixer and VR producer Rawand Saeed during the battle for Mosul in April 2017. He was embedded with the Iraqi Federal Police Army to capture their operations on the front line against ISIS. A lone sniper shooting out of a window may not seem particularly noteworthy but knowing his colleagues are in the other room adds another dimension. Add to this the information that he and his men are on the third floor of a hotel, surrounded by hostile forces less than 100 metres away and you can start to feel a sense of the jeopardy they are facing. To add context this hotel was subsequently taken by ISIS one week later.
There are more impactful examples of using VR as a medium, even within front line coverage. However, this clip is a good example of how perhaps we need to retrain our minds as audiences to fully embrace it. So many companies are producing this kind of content from branded films to short documentaries but are we as viewers allowing ourselves to get the most out of it? 2D (and 3D) video content tends to grab you round the shoulders and say “look at this” allowing it to hold your focus and portray its intended message in a way that can be controlled. The trend for filming with a shallow depth of field is a classic example of how so often the periphery of an image is merely a frame for the subject.
However, if you look at a Renaissance painting for example there are numerous composition and tonal devices guiding your eyes to the core of the subject but a keen observer will learn more about the scene by taking it as the sum of its parts. Whilst not every moment in real life is loaded with symbolism and suggestive iconography the example of the clip from Mosul shows there’s more to a scene than what we immediately see. A lone sniper is a predator, in the context of viewing this as a 360 film we see that in fact he, and his colleagues could very well be the prey.
Based in Erbil, Rawand has been a fixer for numerous international companies including Vice, National Geographic and Transterra Media for some time. Due to his excellent connections and ability to operate on the front line of the conflict he saw an opportunity to explore a different way to cover what was happening:
“I started shooting 360 video at the battle of Mosul because I thought there was a need to use that kind of medium to cover it. Wherever I put my camera I was always thinking of the viewers and how they can have empathy toward the scene and the characters in order to let them know what is happening in Mosul. I think with 360 video the viewers can have a more absolute experience with the scene, which is an amazing way of engaging with the actual event to allow the viewer to experience better what it’s like to be there. I also think it is important to use such a medium in conflict areas not only to show someone firing a gun but also to capture the emotion and the impact of war on the civilians who are the first victim of any conflict zone.” (Rawand Saeed)
However, with an unending stream of similar conflict content flooding the market it has been hard for him to find a place for this footage. The value of it seems to lie in a complete piece which can be packaged and sold as a production in much the same way as a regular film. The audience is drawn through a narrative by ‘big’ moments and their attention is guided, rather than allowing them to stop and observe. By reducing this kind of footage to those terms is it possible that the true value of the medium is being lost completely?
The line between education and entertainment is so blurred in mainstream news and documentary these days that anyone really looking to understand the true nature of conflict would do well to spend some time with unedited 360 material taken in these situations. Before the auteurs hand guides you to the next moment take the opportunity to look at a scene and consider it as if you were really there.
The 360 industry is growing but not to the degree that many had hoped. Producers are finding it difficult to engage audiences beyond initial curiosity and there’s yet to be a blockbuster product out there to really draw people in. Whilst the medium performs well across the advertising sector it still rides on a novelty factor which speculators claim could dissipate as people become used to it. In terms of longer, narrative pieces there are many attempts being made currently but wether prolonged use of VR headsets is a problem or the lack of an established market it is yet to really take off.
However, by taking the initiative to use his connections and produce pure observation there could be equal value to the material Rawand has produced during this mission, even if did not result in a lucrative commission. A multitude of training applications could benefit from hostile environment to disaster response, educational tools for policy makers, records of ongoing destruction for cultural preservation to name a few. Unfortunately, we’re only seeing a small amount of uptake from companies around the world and this does not incentivise locals to invest in the equipment.
Fixers are the perfect people to produce this kind of content, they’re able to get close to the core of a situation and operate effectively. The small size of the equipment means they can film relatively unencumbered and with an ear to the ground they will know where to go to get the required footage. As the costs of this technology falls there is a great opportunity to use the professional network that already exists to really explore 360 for all kinds of uses.
Click here to watch the full clip