British Columbia

5 secrets to making a virtual reality film

Here are five cool things you probably didn't know about making a virtual reality film, from one of the producers of CBC's first VR documentary, Highway of Tears, about the unsolved murder of teenager Ramona Wilson.

VR sometimes called an 'empathy machine' because of the visceral experience it creates for the viewer

A section of Highway 16 in northern B.C. that is knowns as the Highway of Tears, as seen from a drone. CBC Radio's The Current has produced a virtual reality documentary about the stretch of highway where so many Indigenous women have gone missing in the last 50 years. (CBC)

The unsolved murder of teenager Ramona Wilson is the subject of CBC's first virtual reality documentary Highway of Tears.

Wilson's body was found in 1995, nearly a year after she went missing along the notorious stretch of B.C.'s Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, where at least 18 women have been killed or have gone missing since 1969, most of them Indigenous. First Nations communities say the number is closer to 50.

Matilda Wilson holds up a picture of her daughter Ramona at her home in Smithers, B.C. Ramona disappeared in 1994, when she was 16, and her body was found a year later. Her death remains unsolved. (CBC)

The documentary uses virtual reality (VR) to allow viewers to explore a three-dimensional space by simply moving their heads. As a relatively new technology, the rules and conventions for creating VR are still being established. Here are five cool things you probably didn't know about making a VR film.

How to watch

The best way to watch the Highway of Tears documentary and get the full virtual reality experience is to use an Oculus Rift or Gear VR headset.

You can also view a 360º video version of the documentary on a mobile device using the YouTube app or by visiting the The Current's Facebook page.

Android users can download the CBC VR app in the Google Play store; the iOS app for iPhone users is here.

More than 250 people attended the first public viewing of the Highway of Tears virtual reality documentary in Prince George, B.C. Many residents of the northern B.C. community have personal ties to the women who have gone missing on Highway 16 and their stories. (CBC)

1. There is nowhere to hide

VR is shot using as many as 16 GoPro cameras set up to shoot 360 degrees, which means once you hit "record" on the cameras, you have get out of the way. There is no such thing as behind the camera. To shoot this documentary, we found ourselves hiding in ditches, bushes and even closets. We also sent the cameras up in a drone, which we flew far enough away so you couldn't see us.

2. There are no cutaways

Interviewing people becomes more difficult in virtual reality because, unlike conventional documentaries, VR can't employ B-roll (supplemental) footage to mask edits. Once you drop the viewer into an environment, the shot has to be played unedited until you move on to the next shot. We had to put the documentary together in an unconventional way: we first cut the audio from our interview with Ramona's mother, Matilda Wilson, and then laid the images over it.

Cinematographer and editor Connor Illsley, left, and creative director Marty Flanagan used this special rig mounted with 10 GoPro cameras to shoot the documentary. (CBC)

3. The pain is in the post

VR technology is advancing at a remarkable pace, but the most cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive part of making a VR doc is the post-production. An editor has to stitch together the images shot on multiple GoPro cameras to create one seamless image. This becomes all the more complicated when people move through the space or when the camera itself is moving, such as in the aerial shots of the highway we included in this VR doc.

4. Everything is 360

It's not just the visuals in VR that exist in 360 degrees, the sound is also 360. Sound in VR most often mirrors the way we actually hear the world. In the Highway of Tears doc, the sound of a car driving past you along the highway will move from behind and to your left, to up ahead and to your right. The crickets in the woods will sound different depending on which direction you are facing.

The producers mounted the camera set-up to a drone to get motion shots that would give viewers a sense of flying over the highway. (CBC)

5. We want your 'presence'

VR is an immersive experience that can trick your brain into believing you exist in a virtual world. The 3D and 360-degree visuals, combined with 360-degree sound, create an almost complete suspension of disbelief that is referred to as a sense of "presence." Presence can create a visceral experience of a story that cannot be emulated with other media. VR is sometimes referred to as an "empathy machine" because of this potential to connect viewers with the content they are viewing.   

Josh Bloch is a producer at The Current and one of the producers of Highway of Tears, which launches Monday.