Samantha Storr keeps a low profile, but is very much the woman behind top directors Terry Gilliam, Chris Milk, Spike Jonze and Robert Redford. We chatted to the VP and Executive Producer of Here Be Dragons (aka VRSE.WORKS) about the evolution of virtual reality, sharing immersive documentaries with world leaders and collaborating with the United Nations.

Storr sees the world in 360°

Storr sees the world in 360°

Samantha Storr: 

Traditional film is inherently a barrier. The viewer is viewing, nothing more. But with VR, when you stick a camera rig in the middle of a crowd, you’re immersing the viewer in the scenario. Suddenly, the audience isn’t watching anymore. They’re experiencing.

The purpose of storytelling has always been to bring humans closer together. Stories have taken many shapes – the written word, pictorial art. Then, a hundred years ago, the close-up was invented. After that, you got to the film lexicon we have today: over-the-shoulder, tracking, wide, medium two-shot, and so on. Today movies are the dominant form of storytelling.

A lot of good has come from cinema. And now technology and virtual reality give us the opportunity to bring people inside of the story. Anything goes and the language is ours to make up. And that’s what we’re spending a lot of brainpower doing at Within, our virtual reality storytelling studio.

Something about the woman behind the man - at Sundance

The Within team at Sundance 2015

Within provides technical and storytelling know-how to realise any project in a virtual space. From exploring branded content to humanitarian crises, we have the minds to collaborate with any voice through all the stages of production.

Whereas we’ve always been watchers, we are now doers. We really think this newfound immersion is going to inspire more empathy than any storytelling device before. So far, we’re off to a great start.

You need cutting-edge technology to create cutting-edge stories. We capture with camera systems that are one-of-a-kind. No other camera system allows the subject to get within 6-inches of the camera. That level of proximity is really key to creating an empathetic connection between subject and viewer.

The technical side of VR is always evolving. These technical revolutions in hardware and software, big or small, always have an impact on our ability to create great experiences and further the virtual experience.

So much goes into creating a sense of immersion. We export all projects in stereo 3D, which is real 3D, with one camera representing each eye. Our camera systems are fully mobile and we can even capture drone POV (point of view footage) in stereo 3D.

VRSE Evolution of Verse

Scroll through Within’s films with their 360 web player for a taste of VR – even if you’re not strapped into a headset

Audio is another big one. We incorporate audio systems that are modelled after the acoustic architecture of the human head. This allows us to control where sound is coming from within the sphere.

The 360º presence of VR tricks the part of the brain that deals with proximity. It’s the difference between video-chatting your mom and being in a room with her. Whatever perspective you can have in real life can be duplicated in VR, so the possibilities of this new language are endless.

VRSE Millions March

The first ever VR news broadcast had a profound impact on viewers to call for an end to racial profiling by police

So many crises pop up every day. Round-the-clock news coverage informs us, but it doesn’t give us an opportunity to experience. We feel like that’s the key: experience can lead to empathy, which can lead to change.

The refugee story is one that people have heard before, but not many have experienced. For us, the unrest in Syria couldn’t go ignored. We shared something in common with our friends at the UN. Gabo Arora, a senior UN advisor and co-creator of Clouds Over Sidra, really helped us understand the civil war and its many consequences.

More than half of the Syrian refugees are children. With every new detail, the story became more and more important. Framing our experience through the eyes of a 12 year-old girl was a fortuitous accident. You go to places like Za’atari looking for a story, and one leapt out to us immediately.

VRSE Clouds over Sidra

Clouds Over Sidra was the first ever virtual reality film about pressing global challenges for the UN

It all comes down to immersion. Within’s camera rig simply had to be brought into the refugee camp. Kids played around it, people engaged with it, but after a while, they just lived their ordinary lives.

That was the heartbreaking magic of it all. When the people of Za’atari stopped reacting self-consciously to the camera, we got a powerful glimpse into what life is like for so many displaced people. Pointing a traditional camera is so one-directional. 3D VR allowed people to share Sidra’s perspective.

The first ever VR news broadcast had a profound impact on viewers to call for an end to racial profiling by police (2014)

The first ever VR news broadcast had a profound impact on viewers to call for an end to racial profiling by police (2014)

To collaborate on Walking New York was a privilege. We’ve been fans of French artist JR for some time now, and the New York Times is an institution. Every step of the way, you can see JR’s vision evolve. That was our goal, to really clue people into his process – theoretical as well as practical. When you watch Walking New York, you can get a sense for his passion.

New York is the quintessential you-had-to-be-there city. And with this project, we really put people inside the experience.

It’s so great to watch people experience VR for the first time. We’ve been lucky enough to screen for United Nations dignitaries, at the Sundance New Frontiers lab, and a slew of other awesome environments. It’s transformative. We want more of that for the next stage.

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Clouds Over Sidra screens at the World Economic Forum in Davos

The next stage is to get VR out to the masses. Right now, VR tech and stories are in a sort of bubble. The only people really experiencing it are other creators. You go to a tech conference and you hear a lot of, “Whoa, that’s so cool! Now check out what we made!” It’s a feedback loop.

Opening a dialogue with a wider audience is more than just a curiosity for us. It’s important to the direction of storytelling. When we complete the circle of creators-to-experiencers, the experiencers inform the next things we create. Because the art form is so personal, we thrive off of our audience.

Vrse’s latest short is the story of an Ebola victim who uses her immunity to care for others

This installment of the UN series concerns an Ebola survivor who uses her immunity to care for others

Next on our agenda as filmmakers and storytellers is… everything! How do we figure out long-form storytelling? How do we tell a story in the size and shape of a feature film? How do we create episodic storytelling in a VR space? What’s the new spherical cinema language?

There is no goal, only more work to do. In a way, there is no end goal to working with the United Nations VR lab. We want each experience to bridge the gap between decision makers and the people those decisions might affect.”

Samantha Storr was talking to Atlas Editor Lisa Goldapple. Read her AtlasChart Top 5 for a 360-degree trip through her top 5 projects – from the holo world to the reality of dog poop. Learn more about Here Be Dragons and Within (previously known as Vrse) here