‘Four Walls’ With Rashida Jones Uses VR To Raise Awareness Of Refugee Crisis

by Joe Durbin • December 21st, 2016

NPR predicts that the number of global refugees will surpass 60 million individuals by the end of this year. To put that in perspective, the entire state of California has a population of 39 million people. The crisis has become too large and the stakes too high for this reality to be ignored. At least one organization is working to increase awareness of refugees by presenting their stories in the immersive medium of virtual reality.

The International Rescue Committee is an organization committed to benefiting the lives of refugees across the globe. Recently, the IRC partnered with actress Rashida Jones (The Office, Parks and Recreation) and the YouVisit production studio to produce Four Walls: a VR documentary that puts viewers directly in the heart of the crisis.

According to the IRC:

The VR experience follows Rashida as she connects with adults and children who have had to give up their home, and allows viewers to actively participate in the journey and understand all aspects of the refugee crisis. What’s unique about this is experience is its move away from flat 360 content that only allows passive engagement. Instead, this experience offers interactive capabilities that encourage viewers to explore, learn and gain a new perspective.

UploadVR had the chance ask IRC and YouVisit questions about this project, and you can find that full Q&A below.

How exactly did this project come about? How was it put together and produced?

YouVisit: We were aware of the IRC’s work and mission, and their team came to us ready to use VR as a creative and impactful way to convey the harsh struggles Syrian refugees face everyday. Pictures and videos of the IRC’s travels have helped show the work they’re doing, but flat, 2D content is simply unable to powerfully tell an emotional story. We traveled to Lebanon to capture where these displaced people are living and how they’re getting by in virtual reality in order to breakdown that third wall disconnect. After speaking with them and getting a first-hand look at their daily lives, we worked to develop the most interactive, immersive content that puts viewers face-to-face with these refugees, allowing mass audiences to better understand this global crisis, and therefore feel more compelled to help.

IRC: Producing this kind of content requires much more than simply capturing the scene through a 360-degree camera. In order create an empathy-driving experience, the YouVisit Studios team worked to capture different perspectives – from the displaced adults and children to Rashida Jones and the IRC guides who are taking the viewer on the journey. We incorporated interactive elements so each person taking part in the experience can tailor their path and explore the aspects that mean most to them. Putting the control in the viewers’ hands is what takes simple 360-degree content and makes it true immersion, helping people feel like they’re physically experiencing the situation.

IRC: The inspiration behind this project came from the need for a better way to engage with our audience and mobilize them to have a more active awareness of the current situation in refugee communities around the world — in particular, the terrible situation with refugees in Lebanon. Working with those located in Lebanon, we wanted to find an effective way to tell their stories, while preserving the unique connection and emotion that comes out of being there first-hand. To us, virtual reality offered the opportunity to have an intimate moment with these refugees even if you were thousands of miles away – making it the perfect tool to be able to better engage and increase awareness with our audience.

YouVisit: The experience itself was shot over a series of days this summer. Working with our team on the ground in Lebanon, we were able to have Rashida and the YouVisit team connect with the refugees and capture their daily lives. However, balancing the sensitivity around both building an experience in VR and ensuring that we were respectful of the Syrian refugees, the process itself began long before that initial trip. Before boarding the plane, we worked diligently with the YouVisit team to create a process that ensured we were telling the right story, one that would capture the hearts and minds of our viewers.

What sort of equipment and resources were needed to put it all together?

YouVisitBefore arriving in Lebanon, we knew many of our day-to-day activities would be unplanned, leaving a lot of how this experience was captured up to chance. We needed to ensure that we created content that drove the maximum emotional impact, while keeping the experience documentary-style – meaning we would only be able to make minimal edits in order to keep the content true to real-life. To balance this, our team developed a basic framework that ensured that we were going to come out with a story, not just a pile of footage that felt forced together. This was one of the most important resources we used while shooting onsite and helped us to ensure that we told the most compelling story possible.

Crew: Our film crew consisted of four people, who filmed over a five day period. The equipment we used for this particular shoot consisted of a series of in-house engineered VR rigs, the beta Sennheiser Ambeo microphone, as well as a collection of shotgun and lavalier microphones for capturing dialogue and the best production audio possible. At times, three VR camera rigs were run at once to create the most natural environment possible. Something really special about this project was the use of spherical audio mix. This adds another layer to immersive experiences, that enables that viewer to be fully engaged with their surroundings. 

Platform: The YouVisit platform enabled us to create the Four Walls experience as a nonlinear story. This means that users aren’t passively watching a video, but actively choosing which  part of the refugees’ journeys to follow. If a certain storyline intrigues a user, they can follow that path and connect with that person without having to engage with the entire experience. For marketing purposes – especially in the nonprofit sector – this kind of immersion is what really drives people to take the next step in learning more about an organization, and even pushes them to actually go through and donate.

IRC: One of the biggest assets to this project was our team in Lebanon that had already been working with these refugees everyday. Their expertise, foresight and participation is what helped us to ensure that we captured the best perspective of how refugees truly live. This included not only highlighting the challenges they faced, but also uncovering the hope they still hold onto to return home and the feelings of boredom and claustrophobia that can come with being displaced.

Who are the main people or organizations behind this project?

IRC: This project was based on a collaboration between YouVisit, the International Rescue Committee and actress, Rashida Jones.

What is this project hoping to accomplish?

YouVisit: The goal of the Four Walls experience was to raise as much awareness as possible around the Syrian refugee crisis, while also leveraging the unique characteristics of our platform to help drive donations to the cause. We’re constantly looking for ways to push the limits of virtual reality and this specific project really allowed our team to explore different methods for establishing a visceral connection between the refugees and the audience. VR truly allows viewers to become active participants in that story, letting them walk in another person’s shoes. Empathy was not the only goal for this project; it was to motivate people to action, and working with the IRC has given us the opportunity to create a powerful experience that we think will accomplish just that.

IRC: Our main goal with this project was to create more awareness, both around the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as what the IRC is doing to support those displaced around the world. This enables us to continue to grow our community of supporters and advocates, while also clearly illustrating what our mission means on the day-to-day basis. It helps us to really educate the public on our work and better motivate them to increase their own understanding of the current situation and how they can help. More importantly, it helps us to further showcase that these refugees are no different from our own family and friends.

Through this project, we also hope to increase the number of people who choose to donate to the IRC, to continue to fuel our teams on the ground across the world. While this is not the main goal of the project, the opportunity to increase awareness through the Four Walls experience will allow more people to become familiar with the IRC and its mission, thereby finding their own personal reason to support the work that we do.

Will there be more projects like this in the future?

YouVisit: As virtual reality continues to enter the mainstream and its applications broaden, our plan is to keep exploring the possibilities and opportunities  to affect change, introduce new perspectives, and connect people a world apart. Whether the goal is to spread awareness of social causes like this specific experience, or reinvigorate sales and marketing for for-profit businesses, we’re always looking for innovative ways to tell brands’ stories and forge emotional connections with their audiences that motivate individuals to change – and we know virtual reality is the most engaging way to accomplish that.

IRC: We are so proud of the experience we created with YouVisit and the impact it has already had on our community. VR enabled us to rethink how we tell stories to our donors and empowers us to find ways to bring light to the stories that no one is talking about, such as the dire situations in areas like Nigeria, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. We plan to continue to push the envelope for what we can do with this technology and challenge ourselves to continue to develop new ways to share stories that create awareness and enable our audience to feel a more intimate connection with the organization as a whole.

Are there any notable anecdotes or moments you’d like to share from the process?

YouVisit: Everywhere we went, we met people who had little to no belongings. And something they were especially heartbroken about having lost were hard copy photos of their families. Hardly anyone had any photos. So we had the idea to bring a Polaroid camera along. We took Polaroids of some of the families we met and gave them the photos as a tiny token of our appreciation.

Rashida and all of the IRC staff were an enormous pleasure to work with. Rashida’s investment in the work of the IRC runs deep. It showed throughout the entire trip, even at dinner after we were done for the day, she would continue to direct the conversation toward the refugee crisis and the current state of the American mindset around foreigners. It’s an inspiration to see a public figure such as herself use her voice for global change.

IRC: One of the most heartbreaking things we saw while shooting this experience was with the street kids. These are the children of refugee families who are selling peanuts, flowers or other items on the street, in the middle of the night, since their parents are unable to get a job in Lebanon. To offer these children a safe place to play and take a break in the middle of the night, the IRC offers a nightly program. On the night we were filming this program, we waited hours and hours for the children to come, but many never showed up. It wasn’t till later that we found out that they weren’t able to come to the program because they had been arrested for selling in the streets. It broke our hearts to think of these young children arrested for trying to help their families survive.

Four Walls is available today in its entirety to be viewed free of charge.

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