At the end of July, nominations for the 72nd Emmy Awards were announced. French VR documentary studio TARGO bagged two of the three nominations in the Outstanding Original Interactive Program category: Rebuilding Notre Dame & When We Stayed Home.
Rebuilding Notre Dame takes viewers inside the iconic cathedral before and after the fire and is narrated by the people who Individual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. care of the monument. When We Stayed Home is a four-part series showing Paris, Jerusalem, Venice and Israel empty following the lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both projects were produced in partnership with Facebook’s Oculus and are available on Oculus TV.
Immersive Shooter spoke with TARGO CEO Victor Agulhon about the making of When We Stayed Home: what it was like to film during the lockdown, work remotely with multiple teams around the world, and how this story where place is so important is still all about people.
What made you guys decide to put the piece together? Why did you think it was important to catalog this unique moment in history in 360?
The reasons that got us to create When We Stayed Home are embedded in the DNA of TARGO. Our mission is to open closed doors, to use virtual reality to allow people to live what they otherwise couldn’t. When lockdowns happened, we immediately had the intuition that we had to document this moment for this very reason: cities had become virtually closed to people.
The emptiness of the world struck us — it was unreal. Yet it seemed to have become normal in a matter of weeks. We realized the uniqueness of the moment, that it would fade away and that’s what got us to work on this series.
We explored several ideas before settling on the final pitch. We explored ideas with cultural institutions and museums, but it didn’t feel universal enough — it couldn’t capture the whole peculiarity of the moment.
It became obvious that a world tour of cities under confinement was the most universal experience of the time and that’s what we decided to do. Seeing that people in Tokyo, Paris, Venice and Jerusalem were all going through the exact same experience was very powerful. We believed that people would be curious about it, too.
What was your inspiration for this piece? What was your ultimate goal?
For this piece, it was about sharing this feeling we had — this ineffable feeling of time being stopped. There was a photographic article published in the New York Times that captured the emptiness, “The Great Empty”. It captured very well the spirit of the time and we thought VR could bring even more depth to this reflection.
It was very important to us to create a series that would stand the test of time. We didn’t want to create a breaking news experience: early-on we had the vision to make this series a cinematic news experience, a piece that would still be relevant years from today. We worked to make this series a witness of history, one that would invite people to reflect on this moment. Our drive was also to create a documentary that allows the next generations to watch the force and the effects of the lockdowns.
A more immediate goal was to publish the series on the lockdowns while they were in effect. We liked the idea of watching other cities under lockdown while being on lockdown ourselves. There is something that tickles the notion of space and time that I like. It was also a good way to offer a form of travel as people were stuck at home. To achieve this, we worked in record time to produce and publish the pieces during the lockdowns.
Many VR filmmakers have talked about the importance of location-as-a-character in VR. Can you talk about how your piece created a narrative in this regard?
I find locations in VR to be the single most important element. It’s the base layer on which you build a great experience. For this series, the director Chloé Rochereuil wanted to portray cities that speak to everyone.
That’s why we picked cities that we believe are deeply rooted in the collective consciousness for their strong identities: we all have a mental image of them, whether we have ever visited them or not.
For When We Stayed Home, the location-as-a-character idea totally applies. The cities are the main characters, they’re the focus of our attention and the source of the storyline. Even if each episode is narrated by a local, Chloé Rochereuil insisted on showing the characters only through drawings, to leave more attention to the emptiness of the cities.
Counter-intuitively, this series is about people: having a meaningful location is not enough. For each episode, a local narrator recalls the livelihood of their city in normal times. We picked characters with occupations very iconic of their cities — a sushi chef in Tokyo, a gondolier in Venice. Our intention was to subsume the narrators into all of the people who live there: they become a spokesperson for their cities.
The cities’ architectures also naturally pace the episodes. As the walkthroughs navigate between narrow streets offering a feeling of privacy to large open spaces calling for reflection, the architecture creates a natural narration within the city. It allows the viewers to feel “the vibe” of each place.
How did you select which shots made the cut for the film’s before/after shots? Were these submitted to you, shots from previous films, etc?
The idea of before/after came after the first shoot in Paris. First cuts of the Paris episode led us to realize that we had to show what the “normal situation” was like. Without this initial reference, it was difficult to realize how strikingly empty it is. The question “how is this different than a quiet morning?” really guided us. The answer was the before/after shots and it became essential to highlight the contrasts.
The ‘before’ shots come from other VR productions that happened pre-COVID in these cities at busy times of the day. They come from VR studios, personal freelancer archives, etc. Once we could secure access to each of the archives, we instructed local crews to replicate the camera placement of the ‘before’ shots so we could create this effect of people fading away for the introductions.
For the post-COVID shots, did you need to get any special permissions in the locations to be out and about filming
COVID certainly made the production more challenging. As we started early on, administrations were not fully ready to work remotely and lots of people were put on temporary leave.
On the other hand, the overall decrease of activity also streamlined the process in some cases. Our initiative was often welcome from the film commissions, so it was faster than expected to obtain permits. Regarding the lockdown, we systematically obtained exceptional police authorizations to be filming outside as crews needed at least a full day outside for filming.
What camera(s) did you use and why?
With the restrictions of travel, the only option available to film in all the cities was to partner with local teams. Each crew had its own cameras, ranging from Kandao Obsidian to Insta 360 Titan. Through post-production, we managed to even out the footage to create a global coherence.
We mastered the episodes in 6K3D — which was our initial target.
Did you face any unique challenges for that piece, compared to your traditional films?
Putting together a production 100 percent remotely was definitely a new experience. The most significant challenge was not to have the creative conversations in person. Creative communication in person is insanely faster and ideas flow more easily. All of the technical aspects of VR, from large file transfer to remote post-production, were also slowed down, but the difference wasn’t as dramatic.
One of the subsequent challenges of remote work was ensuring that we would get a common look-and-feel in all our pieces. With four different VR crews filming four cities, we had to share clear guidelines. We took advantage of this moment to put on the paper what makes our way of capturing VR different — the rules that we apply without thinking about it.
We briefed the local crews very specifically, sometimes discussing each shot to make sure that the series would have a consistent look to the viewers, and I believe that it worked well!
Can you share some of the “rules” you put on paper that enabled you to achieve that cohesive look and feel across the crews, across the episodes?