WaterAid film producer Catherine Feltham on the big impact of VR.
There’s dry reddish dust beneath your feet. You hear the brush of a broom sweeping.
Turning, you see two girls, a cottage, a bench, goats. You’re in the mountaintop village of Kharelthok, Nepal.
Two years ago, a deadly earthquake struck killing 9,000 people across the country.
A year on, it’s been downloaded 9,000 times to be watched through virtual reality headsets, with the charity sending out over 8,000 free Google Cardboard VR headsets.
Around 3,000 people have seen the film at WaterAid events, and its had at least 50 further screenings at events like education forums and film festivals.
“Over half of all water sources were either completely damaged or destroyed. It has a huge impact,” she explains. “We wanted to tell that story.”
Aftershock is nine minutes long. Funded through the HSBC Water Programme, it’s the first VR film WaterAid has made.
“The main reason I was attracted to using VR was because it puts you in the shoes of someone else, taking you as close as possible to our work without actually flying you out,” says Feltham.
“When you’re in a headset you have no distractions, you can’t look at your phone, you can’t be talking to people, you can’t be reading an email or watching the news, you’re fully focused,” she adds. “Nine times out of ten, people watched our film for the whole 9 minutes.”
“Virtual reality offers a massive opportunity to fully engage someone in your work.”
Just what makes a virtual reality film like Aftershock so engaging really has to be seen to be believed.
You may never feel the ground shake beneath your feet. But when you’re stood in the ruins of a home, and the world starts to violently move around you, you can begin to imagine.
“Who knows how long it went on for,” Sunuwar narrates during the scene.
Able to look in any direction, you also get a unique insight into people’s lives: riding a van up a the mountain on the way to work, feeling the monsoon building as rising fog turns into clouds that fill the valley around you.
One of Feltham’s favourite scenes peers down the steep track local women must use to collect water for three hours a day.
“You get to see the kind of unevenness and narrowness of that path; you get a sense of how heavy that water container is on their head; You can see the heat off the land. It’s really powerful,” she explains.
Virtual reality is not just about harnessing empathy however, but education. That includes showing how WaterAid actually helps these communities.
Only in VR can you sit in the centre of the circle during a village meeting, looking around at each individual’s face as advisors share information.
Only in VR can you feel like you’re joining the celebration, when adults and children sing and dance because the first water line has been fixed.
“The film brings out the horror of experiencing such a massive natural disaster, but when the first tap is reopened I hope people will feel joy, because that’s ultimately what’s displayed in that moment,” says Feltham.
“The power of such a simple thing we take for granted every day.”
Filming in a new medium brings its own challenges of course. “When you’re working in an emerging technology that is changing week to week, you’re part of the learnings,” says Feltham.
Some techniques, including those with moving cameras, simply didn’t work visually, others made people feel sick.
Practically too, there were technical hurdles to overcome: “A huge challenge for us was that the community didn’t have any electricity so we took a solar power panel charger and we took a generator and 7 batteries per camera. The technology’s not fool proof yet,” Feltham adds.
But having been given Google Cardboards, the media also better allowed the local community to participate as directors says Feltham.
“They became part of the process suggesting ‘well actually this is happening tomorrow, that would be interesting for the story’. It became a really nice process.”
WaterAid has already received significant donations off the back of the project, with a number of existing donors also increasing their support.
But the core aim from the start hasn’t been financial, but to increase engagement and educate for the future.
After a successful pilot in schools, the film is launching as a formal resource for teachers to use to engage students, and for leaders to use at youth groups like the Scouts.
It’s unlikely WaterAid’s VR story will stop here either, with Feltham keen to explore the possibility of using controllers to create interactive VR.
“An obvious for WaterAid would be being able to pick up a water jug and feeling the weight of that, and we’ve also talked about the ideas of projects around maternal health,” says Feltham.
“Until you’ve been in a headset, you don’t fully get it.”
If you still don’t get it, download and watch WaterAid’s AfterShock in virtual reality today.