Q&A: June Cohen on Launching the First VR Documentary Series
June Cohen is the former Executive Producer of TED Media, where she built their digital media operations from the ground up. After leaving TED, June launched a media start-up and content incubator with her partner and the former Head of Media Partners at TED, Deron Triff. Since then, they have partnered with Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin at Within to create the first virtual reality documentary series, The Possible. The series, which tells the human story behind incredible scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, was also developed with the help of Mashable, Here Be Dragons, GE, and the Sloan Foundation.
Storyhunter: How did you get involved with Within and this documentary series?
June Cohen: I was with TED for 11 years, I launched TED Talks online in 2006 and built the media team inside of TED. I loved the community, but when I left, what I really wanted to do was take a leap back into the frontiers of storytelling. VR was a huge draw for me because I love working in new mediums. I love the challenge of figuring out what happens to storytelling when it meets a new medium. We launched TED Talks the same year Youtube launched, so online video certainly existed before that, but it was very, very young. When we launched TED Talks, we had to be very careful in how we instructed people to use an online video player because it was not common then.
The funny thing about technology is that we very quickly forget how new something is and how odd and unusual it was the first time people used it. When you’re developing for a new medium, you can’t take anything for granted because no one has seen it before — they don’t know what to do, they don’t know what to expect. So everything you do when you’re working in a new medium blazes new trails.
What drew me to VR and Within was just the incredible open question of what kinds of stories we could tell in VR. I had admired the work of Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin for a year and had invited both of them to speak at TED. So in leaving TED, I approached them about collaborating. And my partner, Deron Triff, and I began working with them to originate the series and develop it with them.
This is possibly the first documentary series filmed in VR. Nobody else has taken that step to create a series, which to me is an essential part of a medium maturing because a series is a way to build an ongoing audience. What we set out to do was try to capture the most extraordinary, exciting, and immersive breakthroughs that are happening in science and technology. And to cover them in a way that really allows the viewer to not just watch or hear a story, but to feel like they’ve been there, like they’ve really experienced something.
I was lucky because I was working hand-in-hand with the most creative, experienced, exuberant team in VR. Between Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin at Within, who are both extraordinary talents and extraordinary at blending technology and storytelling, and then the production team at Here Be Dragons, it was the most experienced VR production team in the business. They can make anything happen somehow.
S: Why did you choose science and technology as your focus?
JC: Several different reasons — one of them is very practical. The audience for VR is still relatively small and the vast majority of people who are watching VR are by definition early adopters. They’re people who make a point in their lives of exploring the latest technologies. So the built-in audience for VR is an audience that’s very interested in science and technology. For me — I started my career at WIRED, then I went to TED — this is the audience I’ve worked with my whole career. It’s the early adopters who love hearing about scientific and technological advances. But then on top of that, what we set up to do was cover science and technology in a way that was very human and very inclusive. So that you don’t have to be a science or tech expert to want to watch the playful robots at Boston Dynamics or take a ride on a hoverboard.
S: What was the most challenging part of producing the series?
JC: There were a lot of challenges along the way, but they were joyful challenges. They were the kind of challenges that you always run into when you’re developing in a new medium, and for those of us who seek and choose to work in a new medium, the challenges are part of the appeal. That’s where you really get to think and create and invent solutions where there haven’t been any before.
The technology for capturing, editing, and producing VR content is still very new and developing. Everyone working in VR right now has to invent a lot of their own tools. There was a new challenge on every episode because we were trying to break new ground on every episode. For example, how do you shoot VR from a space balloon in the stratosphere where it’s really cold? We had problems with cameras freezing. How do you shoot VR going 380 MPH where you have to deal with speed, jostling, and weight issues? And over the course of a normal 12-hour shooting day, VR cameras tend to overheat, so we had to pack them with ice packs.
S: What was your solution to the space balloon?
JC: We had to build a custom rig and casing in order to keep the cameras from freezing. It had to do with having them in a ring, and since their batteries were warm, they would all kind of keep each other warm in a way. It took many many attempts to find the version that worked. And that’s just the shooting technology!
Another challenge was adapting to the pacing in VR — VR audiences expect to be immersed. When a scene begins, you feel like you’re there, so you want to take it in. So the VR that’s most effective involves much longer shots than a typical film. Modern cinematography involves a lot of fast cuts to achieve a particular technique. But in VR, the approach is much more verite, you tend to draw people in and leave them there a little bit longer than most filmmakers would for a standard film.
S: What was your favorite story from the series?
JC: I don’t know. I can’t choose. It’s like choosing from among your babies. I think the episode on the hoverboard is the most immersive. There’s scenes where you’re watching him fly his hoverboard, and then a scene where you’re with him on the hoverboard, and I think those are the most immersive moments in the series, the most experiential, so they’re really exhilarating in that way. I think the most surprising and adorable is the robotics episode from the Boston Dynamics Lab. I think it’s surprising because it is adorable. You don’t think ‘Boston Dynamics’ and ‘adorable’ in the same sentence, usually, but there is such a whimsical way that these robots come to life in this episode that you can’t help but smile.
The episode I’m most proud of in some ways, is as far as I can tell, the most ambitious representation of science in VR to date. It’s an episode that tells the story of this major scientific discovery that happened in 2015 that many people still haven’t heard about. Scientists detected gravitational waves for the first time — they were predicted by Einstein a hundred years before and nobody thought we’d ever be able to detect them. What the film tells is the human story behind the scientific story: how it happened, how this project was pulled together. What was really special in the piece is the sequence of scientific visualizations that are kind of 3D stereoscopic VR. It points to the potential of VR to tell a different kind of story, to tell a story about science that we haven’t been able to witness to date.
S: Do you think storytelling for documentary versus narrative should be approached differently in VR?
JC: VR opens up completely new territory in terms of storytelling. In both cases to me, the opportunity lies in truly immersing the viewer in the story. In that sense, they cease to be a viewer and become a participant. That to me is really the key to thinking about a story in VR as opposed to traditional film or TV. I think the potential in VR both for narrative and documentary stories is embracing the role of the viewer as a participant and understanding that when they are watching the film, they don’t feel like they are watching it. They feel like they are doing. The more you can embrace the fact that they feel like they are there in your story, the more effective your storytelling is going to be. But what’s exciting about it is that we’re just at the very beginning. We’re still just figuring out how to set up these stories in VR.
S: VR is still at the beginning, but do you think it’s important for publishers to explore it as time goes on?
JC: Absolutely! I think right now the cost is too high. Right now it’s still very expensive to create great VR because we don’t have the tools we need. As those tools become available, I think you’ll see many media companies and publishers embracing VR and truly developing the medium. VR has the potential both to immerse people and evoke their empathy and compassion in a way that no other medium can. When you witness a story in VR, you don’t feel like you’ve watched a story, you feel like you’ve met the person. And that has an extraordinary impact on our emotional ability to connect to the story.
On the instructional side, when you can see things around you in VR, it helps you understand a topic like no other medium can — and that’s the potential for science and technology. When you witness things happening around you, you can understand them in a way that you can’t just grasp as well in another medium.
My hope for the industry is that we see people truly embracing it for its capacity to enhance our humanity. For publishers and storytellers to embrace the medium as a way to expand and evoke empathy in a wide audience, and also to instruct. We live in an increasingly complex world, and those of us in media are always faced with the challenge of how to explain the most important emerging concepts to an audience. And I think VR is a great tool for that.
S: Do you have advice for producers and publishers looking to tell more stories in VR?
JC: My personal advice would be to find a way to do it. I think the perceived cost and hurdles keep publishers away from VR and I really encourage them to take the leap and experiment. The second thing I’d say is to really think about VR, not just think about it as a film, or as a story that viewers will watch, but as something that they will experience. Making that cognitive shift from telling a story to creating an experience is what defines great VR to me.
By D. Simone Kovacs, Writer at Storyhunter