Charlotte Mikkelborg takes us behind the scenes of The Journey, a 360 experience tracing the journey through childhood in three of the toughest environments on Earth.
Charlotte Mikkelborg is a traditional and VR filmmaker and a former foreign correspondent for the BBC.
Her debut 360 documentary, Born Into Exile–which followed the story of two pregnant Syrian refugees–was screened in the U.S. houses of Congress and at the UN Special Summit on Refugees, and was a finalist in the 2017 Cine Golden Eagle Awards.
Her most recent piece, The Journey, traces three children, from Ethiopia, South Sudan and Chad, as they overcome challenges of nutrition, education and health. The film debuted at South By Southwest (SXSW), after having screened as a work in progress at the Berlinale. Most recently, the 360 film has been screened to audiences at the Seattle Film Festival, Sheffield Docfest in the UK and at No. 10 Downing Street, home to the British Prime Minister. It also won the 61st Cine Golden Eagle Award for Best VR Short.
In The Journey, the overarching narrative is this journey through childhood. In the experience you meet children at 3 very different stages in their lives and facing different challenges: 3-year-old Amina in the distant ‘Afar’ region of Ethiopia, trying to find enough food and water to survive during the worst drought in 30 years; 10-year-old Changkouth, trying to get an education in conflict-ridden South Sudan--the country with the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world–while avoiding recruitment as a child soldier; and 18-year-old Mani in Chad, who has been ostracized by her community because she is living with HIV, but is determined to change minds and use social media to rally support.
Immersive Shooter spent some time with Charlotte to talk about the making of The Journey, how to shoot 360 for dome viewing, creative choices unique to 360 filmmaking, and pushing the limits of the medium.
What was the catalyst for this project?
UNICEF put out a tender for a VR Project in early 2017. They had been involved in the 2015 360 film Clouds over Sidra and wanted to make something new that could aim to match that film in terms of level of impact. My company, Picture This Productions, won the bid in July 2017 and we began shooting the first leg in September.
What made you decide this project would be suitable for immersive media?
We really wanted audience members to feel like friends to these children. We didn’t believe a 2D film could achieve that in the same way, as with 2D storytelling you often feel a step removed from the subjects in the film. Rather, we wanted you to feel involved, like you were walking along with them, that you were part of their social circle. We wanted that very intimate connection that immersive media can offer.
What camera(s) did you use for the piece, and why?
We used the Kandao Obsidian R as it offered us The number of pixels in an image, typically presented as a ratio of the total pixels on x axis to the total pixels on th... More of 8K, which we needed for our planned dome projection. It was also very competitive for the price, which was reduced for early adopters and those, like us, who were testing the camera and preview software in beta.
Overall, we were really impressed with it. It didn’t break down even in temperatures in excess of 40 degree Celsius, other than on one occasion when it was offline for a few minutes. Otherwise, it was super reliable and the The number of pixels in an image, typically presented as a ratio of the total pixels on x axis to the total pixels on th... More was excellent.
Can you talk about some creative decisions you made in the piece that are unique to 360?
It may seem very basic, but it’s very important to consider head height when shooting 360. For sure, there are experiences where it may make sense to shoot a drone shot but you must remember that–unlike in conventional film–that shot is going to make people feel like they are flying through the air.
That didn’t make sense for our piece. We wanted experiencers to feel they entered the experience at eye level with the child. As our children grew from 3 years old to 10 years old to 19 years old, so our head height increased but very gradually so that it never jarred.
We did some experimentation and discovered 1.2 meters–the height you’re normally at when sitting–was as low as we could go, so that was the height we started at for our toddler. And then we grew the height of the tripod so it felt like you were growing with them. We also used animation to transition between the childrens’ stories so you don’t notice that height change at all. We’ve also used the animations, designed by Jonny Lawrence, to bring the children’s memories and future dreams to life.
We also tried to get a moving shot to open the story of each of our children so it felt like they were inviting you to come on this journey with them. Ignacio Ferrando Margeli and the team developed a great 360 dolly system to give us wonderfully smooth movement, but the amount of time it took to perfect those in post production was still a labor of love…performed by our stitcher and editor, Javier Moreno. We also used a radio car in one of the shots, which means we couldn’t use the sound, but it worked nicely for the purpose.
Unlike the good old days of 360 where we needed to go and hide during the shot, for this piece we shot clean plates so we could cover the crew in post. It was so helpful to be present to ensure I didn’t miss any of the action and could direct effectively.
Another unique challenge was that we knew already in pre-production that we wanted to be able to display the film in both a headset and in a 360 projection dome, which required us to shoot two versions of some scenes. With the dome version, subjects need to be at minimum 3 plus meters distance from the camera for the shot to work well, whereas you can be much closer, e.g. 1.5-2 meters, when you need to be if shooting just for the headset.
Producing a dome version of the film was important to me for two reasons. One, because it opened up the possibility of people being able to experience The Journey headset-free while still in an immersive setting. Today’s headsets are still fairly clunky and I wanted people to be able to go into the dome together as a group of friends, colleagues or strangers, sit down, relax and have the experience. When the experience is shared and you can see other people reacting to it, I think it can affect how you feel about the experience yourself.
The second reason was that our first child, Amina in Ethiopia, lived inside an igloo shaped hut in the desert and so I wanted to introduce elements of immersive theatre by being able to dress the outside of the projection dome like her hut, while inside the film would be projected. There is even a scene shot inside the hut where the walls of the projection dome mimic the dimensions of the original hut, adding an extra level of immersion.
When we displayed the film at SXSW, we created a DIY multisensory version of the experience. We built a dome-shaped tent lined with hessian material and goat skins, much as our first child’s home looked in the Ethiopian desert.The faint smell of goats that the skins gave off was very reminiscent of my experience of her hut in Ethiopia. We heated the floor with an electric blanket, which we covered in grass matting that I’d actually brought back from Kenya but was very similar to the material used in Ethiopia, again to mimic the original hut. We asked people to Individual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. their shoes off before entering so you got a sense of what it would feel like to walk into her hut.
And we got rocks from a local quarry in Austin, Texas, to anchor the whole structure down. Last, but definitely not least, our immersive audio producer on The Journey, Axel Drioli, designed a soundscape to fully immerse people in the Ethiopian desert from the moment they entered the hut and incorporated the brilliant compositions of our composer Marco Caricola. You still watched the experience in a headset, but preparing for the experience was a part of the experience.
What were some of the most significant or unique challenges this piece presented?
We were quite limited on time in Ethiopia as our trip conflicted with local holidays, which started a day earlier than expected. We only had one and a half days to shoot what we’d planned to shoot in three days.
In South Sudan, there were the obvious security challenges of working in a war zone. But also there was a funny incident when we tried to film our moving shot with our little boy on one of the streets in the refugee camp. All of the other children wanted to follow him and the camera down the street so we felt a little like the Pied Piper! In the end, we had to lock ourselves into a fenced basketball pitch to get the shot. Now that I’ve told you that, you’ll notice a lot of interested people along the fence in that shot!
What advice do you have for creators interested in producing immersive work who haven’t quite started yet?
I think that depends on your background. However, some universal advice would be to watch or experience a lot of content. If you haven’t done that, you won’t know what’s possible. There are also schemes out there that you can apply to if you have a great idea. There are mentoring programs, film festivals and grant monies, etc. If you can get an idea accepted into one of those programmes and make your first piece of immersive content then you’ll have the beginnings of a portfolio of work that will help you get other work within the immersive field.
I would also recommend letting your mind wander. Be brave enough to explore all possibilities before settling on a final direction. With the technology, there are so many new techs coming on the scene all the time. It’s mind blowing! The technology and the narrative process play hand-in-hand in a way I never experienced in film because we’ve known what it can do for a while. In immersive media, I really feel that the more you know about the technology, the more you begin to understand what is possible narratively.
How did you break into 360?
I’d made a film for COP21, the UN’s Paris Climate Conference in 2015, about the Great Green Wall in Africa. Although my film played in the main plenary hall, there was a 360 film about the same subject that generated huge amounts of interest and I had a severe case of FOMO that I wasn’t involved in this exciting new thing.
I’d also had a meeting in LA with the producer of Oscar winning documentarian Lucy Walker (who is also by complete coincidence a graduate of the same Oxford College as me, New College). Lucy’s producer, Julian Cautherley, mentioned to me that he and Lucy had begun trying their hand at 360 and when he began explaining it, it sounded fascinating.
Then, I saw a tender come out from the UN’s population fund, UNFPA, and I decided to give it a shot. I put together a team who already had extensive experience with the medium, including cinematographer Ignacio Ferrando Margeli and Jeffrey Anderson, who had done much of binaural sound on Chris Milk’s early pieces. I won the tender for that piece and we made Born Into Exile. I counted myself very lucky to get to work alongside so many great people on that first project and learn from their experience.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing a six-part TV series with an accompanying six-part VR series for a Hollywood-based investment company which normally invests in feature films but wants to invest in more documentary content. It’s focused on the Mediterranean but it’s a unique Individual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. on that region. I can’t discuss more for the moment.
Where can people engage with you?
I’m a bit rubbish on Instagram though I need to change that. In the meantime, people can find me on Twitter. Also, anyone who’s seen The Journey, I’d love to hear/read your thoughts if you could please hashtag #TheJourney360.
Although The Journey currently isn’t available online as it makes its way around the film festival circuit, Charlotte expects to release it online before the end of the year.