XR Documentary: on a new genre’s frontiers
In a 2015 TED conference, American director Chris Milk described virtual reality as “the ultimate empathy machine.” Stepping back, today it is clear that the medium – as virtuous as it may be – also comes with its share of constraints in terms of scripting, production, and distribution.
It’s important to say that the extended reality documentary (or XR for extended reality) is an entirely new genre being built before our eyes, and therefore its narrative codes and production parameters are difficult to define.
“In virtual reality, the term documentary is sometimes contested,” said Philippe Bédard, extended reality researcher at McGill University, during the round table The future of independent XR documentary distribution, which he hosted on November 23, during the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM).
“In traditional film,” he says, “the documentary genre implies capturing what is real, with strategies associated with it: whether that’s storytelling, editing, what you choose to shoot. In XR documentary, we’re closer to non-fiction. The works suggest a link with the real, without always showing it. They rely on the medium’s immersive nature by making us live an experience.”
This context helps one understand the selection of documentaries presented at this round table. The William series, directed by Sonia Bonspille Boileau and produced by Indigenous production house Nish Média, is a six-episode historical re-enactment filmed with the help of a 360 camera on a real “physical” set with real actors. Putting on the headset, the viewer takes on the point of view of a young Indigenous person removed from their family and sent to an Indigenous residential school. “We’re seeking a different way to talk about residential schools,” explains Maud Loranger, who leads this project at Nish Média. “The goal was to translate an experience we could never really live.”
The work Les pieds en haut: Lou, which deals with autism, operates in a similar spirit. Plunged into an animated universe, the viewer moves from the perspective of an autistic child’s mother (first part) to that of the child, who is now a teenager experiencing the “over-stimulation” of a first day of high school (second part). References are based on parents’ observations and on testimonies of autistic children.
“Lou was born from the fantasy that if we had a magic wand, we would spend a few moments in the bodies and minds of our [autistic] children - to understand them better,” explains Martine Asselin, who co-created the work with Annick Daigneault. “The entire project is an act of faith and madness, and an approach of empathy that allowed us to really meet our children.”
Creative choices, technological impact
In extended reality, each creative choice comes with a “technological cost” and technical challenges. In the case of William, filming a scene in 360 requires the director to have “eyes all around their head.” Abraham Côté, who directed two of the series’ episodes, notes that the shooting was difficult. “When we focus our attention on a performance, we don’t see what’s going on behind. We needed people to observe [on the monitors] that each secondary character was in the right place.”
Lou's co-creators wanted to add an interactive dimension, which required involving a team of programmers. “In animation, there is the potential for six degrees of movement from which to choose the point of view that we have in the story," adds Philippe Bédard. “And, to potentially interact with certain objects.”
As the technology is still new, XR documentaries must generally go through a prototype step. Since 2017, the co-creators have, successively, made a proof of concept to view on Oculus Go or Samsung Gear, the Lou – Enfant experience and the Lou – Ado experience on Oculus Quest 2, and are presently producing a Lou – Adulte experience.
The Nish Média team submitted their first episode to a class of teaching students to gather their feedback. “We heard everything,” says Maud Loranger. “‘It’s connecting poorly,’ ‘I don’t know how to put the device in the cardboard,’ ‘I’m dizzy,’ ‘I’m nauseous.’ This was precisely the information we wanted to have to be in a position to adjust the next five episodes.”
Cultural mediation required
Philippe Bédard reiterates that VR’s main power is to “create a feeling of presence,” which is “the illusion of being where the images show me that I am.” He cautions that “since it’s a medium that’s very good at simulating experiences, the risk is to make audiences believe they’ve lived a simulation of a real experience, which is not at all the case.”
There are two potential risks; that of trivializing a reality, or, in contrast, triggering a viewer’s trauma. That’s why XR documentary artisans insist on the importance of cultural mediation as a companion to their works. “We wouldn’t have launched William without prior warning, or showing how to access a help line,” says Maud Loranger. Nish Média aims for distribution within the school network, to a student clientele aged from 14 years and up. For this purpose, the production house created a teaching guide.
“In an ideal world,” says Annick Daigneault, “Lou’s broadcast would take place in a location with headsets and an autistic person who can answer questions. This could be a museum-type of gathering place, with a conversation about the work.” While awaiting this “ideal” context, these two media artists equipped themselves with virtual reality headsets in order to be able to organize screenings.
This initiative echoes one of the conclusions of the Crafting a Market for Independent XR report, published in May 2022. The report’s authors suggest that VR artisans “explore new distribution possibilities such as museums, planetariums, concert halls, and Web platforms.” This simple fact helps us understand that a real XR distribution network still needs to be built, all genres combined!