The Story Behind Inside Covid-19

360 Documentary

2021 Emmy Nominee

By Howard Rose – IC-19 Story Advisor

In the midst of the dumpster fire that was 2020, I had the pleasure of collaborating with immersive storytellers, Gary Yost and Adam Loften of WisdomVR, as Story Advisor on an ambitious 360 video documentary project, Inside Covid-19 (2021 Emmy Nominee). What made the project ambitious? Just about everything.

Challenge #1: Fractured Times

To start, Gary and Adam were committed to use VR to make people feel the human dimension of SARS-CoV-2. Most people had no firsthand connection to anyone who had COVID, much less knew someone who was critically ill with it. As the US was fracturing along political, class, and racial lines (#BLM anger overflowing), we set out to use the storytelling power of VR to try to break through the quagmire of mistrust and animosity.

Challenge #2: How to tell the story of COVID in that moment?

Infections and deaths skyrocketing in the US; a fractured and deeply messed up political scene; armed anti-maskers assaulting state capitals. A viable vaccine was still an oasis on the distant horizon. With everyone girded against the hourly onslaught of turmoil, could we build a story that compels people to feel the COVID story anew? What did we want people need to know and do at the end of the experience?

Challenge #3: Doing 360° video documentary well is really hard, even in the best of times.

You can’t just cut a bunch of takes together, everything has to go right in the shoot – no mistakes. How to craft and then capture a coherent, compelling narrative safely during a pandemic? Any story we wanted to tell had to thread the needle of possible in an impossible time.

But at that moment inside the pandemic, COVID felt like a story too important not to try to document. We were hopeful that VR could be the ultimate medium to drive awareness and social connection. The process of knitting the pieces together into a meaningful whole felt cathartic in a time of otherwise helplessness.

Through divine coincidence Dr. Josiah Child emerged as a compelling and relatable storyteller. His unique position as an emergency department director brings the frontline response to the rising epidemic into focus. The story turns as Dr. Child falls victim to the virus himself, which progresses quickly till his lungs are so full he can barely breath.

Aside from all the other unique things about Dr. Child, when I saw the footage Adam shot I was honestly amazed that he is so relaxed and natural in front of the camera. Josiah’s wife and kids are also eloquent, candid, and insightful. The success of any documentary film is won or lost on the ability of untrained “talent” to become their own storytellers.

This is even harder for VR documentary where you are shooting the whole environment and everyone in it. So everybody and everything have to go pretty near perfectly in the same take. The fact that Adam Loften was able to direct and shoot on location with Dr. Childs and family – while maintaining pandemic protocols! – is a testimony to the depth of his technical, creative, and people skills.

Once the shoot is over, the work in the editing room really determines if a documentary is a success or failure. From his lockdown home studio, Gary Yost set to tirelessly process and edit the footage, lead an animation team creating truly compelling 3D animations of the entire SARS-CoV-2 lifecycle, and knit all the components together. The results speak for themselves. Uncompromising in search of quality.

“Inside COVID19 is a high production value documentary that just happens to be done in stereo 360, rather than a tentative exploration of a new medium. Things are maturing.”
John Carmack, Oculus CTO

Things are maturing. Vaccinations are here and the world looks quite different than a year ago, in some ways but not others. But new variants and antivaxxer hesitancy mean COVID will be around with us for many years to come. So the first chapter is over, but the story continues.

This is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, and the real consequences of those stories.

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