Virtual reality isn’t the first concept that comes to mind when discussing documentaries made for humanitarian causes, but the experience of one group of filmmakers proves the format can be a valuable tool.

“When I first came across VR, I found it striking in its ability to generate empathy-based stories,” says David Gough, director of “Life in the Time of Refuge,” a short VR documentary about 9-year-old Omar, a Syrian refugee who suffers from a hormone deficiency that stunts his growth. Now living in Finland and being treated for the condition, he gets a visit from Warda Aljawahiry, who wrote and co-produced the film, to find out how his new life is going.

While many documentaries have the freedom to shoot run-and-gun style, that’s just not possible when shooting in 360 degrees — at least not yet. VR requires carefully planned scenes, and its technical challenges can inhibit the fast-flowing process that Gough is used to from other projects. Shots must be set up carefully, with clean lines between them. Lighting is different. And with 360-degree points of view, it’s critical to make sure the crew isn’t in the way. Particularly challenging were scenes at a train station and aboard a canoe on a river.

“With VR, we shoot only two or three scenes a day.”
DP Thomas Maddens

The entire process also takes longer, explains cinematographer Thomas Maddens. “When David and I shoot in our usual style, we shoot sequences as they’re happening,” he says. “We don’t need to plan ahead. With VR, we shoot only two or three scenes a day, whereas in normal filmmaking we would double, triple or quadruple that. VR definitely adds cost and work, and it’s a more strenuous process.”

None of this deterred the filmmakers, who are confident that this way of telling stories will help audiences care more about the subject matter. For technical help, they partnered with such companies as Mettle and Nokia. Mettle supplied Adobe plug-in software that enabled the team to seamlessly integrate VR into the post-production workflow, allowing them to focus on storytelling instead of spending time trying to figure out how to make a shot work. Nokia provided the project with an OZO camera and 24-hour tech support.

The Humanitarian Cooperative — the group that produced “Life in the Time of Refuge” — says it will continue to create VR films but acknowledges that the technology is still morphing. The goal, says Maddens, “is to bring people into an experience and take them on a journey.”

Adds Gough, “VR has the potential to be a game changer for humanitarian storytelling.”