When COVID-19 hit, Dr. Josiah Child was on the front lines, working to prepare the emergency departments at five different hospitals to weather the impending storm. Little did he know just how personal the struggle was about to become as he and his family contracted the virus. Inside COVID19 takes you inside his story, rendering a global pandemic in surprisingly human terms. And it’s available for free in the Oculus TV app on the Oculus Quest Platform.
Inside COVID19 combines news footage that helps to document the medical, political, and societal responses to COVID-19, with 3D animations that reveal the microscopic layer of the virus’s spread through the body and our population. We sat down with award-winning documentary filmmakers Adam Loften and Gary Yost to learn more.
What did you draw upon for inspiration while working on Inside COVID19?
This past spring, the global tragedy of the pandemic filled us with urgency that this is a transformative moment. That urgency itself inspired us, and Inside COVID19 is our contribution to this transformation.
The ability to break the fourth wall and share stories directly with our viewers in headsets guides much of our process in the medium of 360° video and VR. We both come from traditional documentary film backgrounds and draw inspiration from filmmakers like Errol Morris who helped invent the documentary/narrative hybrid. Morris is a master of breaking the rules, of creating moments with his subjects that reach out through the lens, and so we look to do the same in our work.
When a viewer is experiencing a dramatic story in a headset, completely surrounded by hyper-real stereoscopic 360° imagery, this feeling is heightened even further. We make sure that every shot being experienced belongs in the story and is filmed in a way that is heightened by being in a headset. This technique gives us a way to cut through the confusion we all have about the pandemic.
How did the project originally come about?
We had been experimenting with many 360° documentary techniques while creating a series of intimate time capsules for Oculus TV last winter—WisdomVR documentaries sharing intergenerational wisdom. When the pandemic began, we knew that the need to preserve these elders’ memories was more important than ever, but like so many we were at a loss for how to safely continue or what to do next. We were both very concerned about the news from Wuhan, China, from the beginning and by the time the virus arrived in the US, we were compulsively trying to learn as much as possible to stay safe—but beyond the fear it was also a fascinating topic and moment. We believe that if you make yourself open and deeply listen to the zeitgeist, the important stories will find you, and that’s exactly what happened here with the COVID-19 pandemic.
How did you get in contact with Dr. Josiah Child?
A dear friend of Gary’s had been telling him about a fascinating emergency doctor even before the pandemic began, and one day in April she told us that he was severely ill with the virus and that we should hold him in our thoughts. Dr Josiah Child manages five emergency departments, and he is responsible for keeping hundreds of doctors, physician assistants, and nurses safe. One of those hospitals became the designated COVID-19 response center in the San Francisco Bay Area, and after he recovered and went back to work, we set up a meeting and immediately knew we had something relevant and worthwhile here.
What was it like working with him?
Josiah is the doctor you want to have with you in a moment of crisis, and as we peppered him with our early questions about how to stay safe in our lives and produce this project, he always clearly guided us through the overwhelming nature of the pandemic. He was a consummate collaborator, and as we moved into production he helped us filter out the many possible storylines of the pandemic to keep this as personal as possible. His candor, combined with being fully immersed in his hospitals and home, allows the viewer to feel his grounded and calm nature in the midst of fighting for his life.
What are some of the benefits of centering the experience on one person’s story? Does it help to humanize the pandemic?
We believe the best path into any topic is through a personal story. The story of this pandemic is huge, but the medium of immersive video is intimate, so VR wouldn’t be the medium for a high-level overview piece like Alex Gibney’s excellent but traditional pandemic documentary Totally Under Control. When you’re experiencing a story in a headset, you’re transported directly into the subject’s world and we capitalized on how open Dr. Child was. He gave us access to his work, home, family, and even his actual CT scan data so we can use 3D animation to fly directly inside of his chest and see the massive damage done to his lungs—how much more intimate can you get than that?
As you sit in his living room and his wife and two children directly share his near-death experience, it’s clear that no other medium than VR could provide anywhere near this level of emotional impact. Many people might not know someone who’s been so deeply affected by COVID-19, but after watching our piece you’ll come away from it feeling that you do. Our goal is to orient viewers more deeply into the human scale of the pandemic and help them to stay safe. Nobody needs to get as sick as Dr. Child did.
How did you decide where to incorporate animations?
From the very start we wanted to illustrate how the pandemic is manifesting on so many levels—the human scale for sure, but also the microscopic scale and the planetary macro scale. A virus is invisible to the eye, and to most it’s just an abstract idea, but 3D animation is perfect for illustrating exactly this sort of thing: processes that are either too small or too large to show with video. Our animator Andy Murdock has over 10 years of experience creating scientific animations for National Geographic, and our storyboard was ambitious! In two months, we had to produce seven minutes of 6720x6720 3D/360° animation designed to accurately represent the complexity of the SARS-CoV-2 virion’s lifecycle in one of our epithelial cells. By detailing these incredibly intricate processes with clearly understandable animation, the microscopic story seamlessly weaves with Dr. Child’s experience, along with the larger global spread of the pandemic. Josiah’s and all of our experiences of the pandemic are interconnected, and illustrating the macro and the micro is a reminder that it’s a bigger (and smaller) story than what’s represented by any one person’s experience.
Tell us a little about the WisdomVR Project.
The goal of the nonprofit 501c3 WisdomVR Project is to create a living library of immersive cinematic documentary experiences and ultimately an open source, global educational platform. We began in 2018 by capturing the wisdom of elders while they’re still with us. Each WisdomVR documentary is accompanied by a study guide to provide context and space to reflect on the experience. As we scale up, we will also develop a free training course so anyone, anywhere can create WisdomVR experiences in their own communities and share them with the world. Immersive documentaries, as realized with these VR filmmaking techniques, have become a new art form allowing unmediated experiences of people and places while preserving them for generations to come.
As communities across the globe experience unprecedented change, the medium of 360° video is an opportunity to preserve and share the precious stories, languages, ceremonies, arts, and ancestral skills of cultures everywhere.
What’s next for you?
We’ve been approached by the leading hospital burn unit in northern California to create an immersive experience of how to use virtual reality therapeutically to mitigate the most horrible pain imaginable. This is a meta piece, using VR to tell the story of VR—3DOF immersive cinema to document the story of 6DOF VR tools and how they can provide palliative pain relief, especially for badly burned people. It speaks to the very wisdom of virtual reality itself.
We are creating safe ways to continue our mission of preserving the wisdom of elders and are looking for partners to continue this urgent work.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
We know that people are giving us 100% of their attention in a headset, and we strive to make sure their time is fully respected. Our obsessive attention to every story moment and important technical details is essential to creating impactful and comfortable stereoscopic 360° experiences.
Inside COVID19 is non-partisan and deeply rooted in our shared human experience. We are struggling to understand the opportunity of this time as we process the scale of loss and death caused by the pandemic.
We are standing on the shoulders of our elders (like Dr. Fauci, for example) and the thing most paramount is how each of us respond to this moment for the sake of our children and all of our descendants. We believe that if we can unite and create resilience in this moment, it will guide us through the next challenges inevitably faced by humanity.