How we made our first hard-news VR film

By Dalton Bennett

A former AP video journalist provides a behind-the-scenes perspective of “Seeking Home” and discusses the strategy behind the virtual reality experience.

In February 2015, I faced one of the toughest assignments of my career – documenting the path of migrants making their way across the Western Balkans into the heart of Europe. I spent 10 days reporting from the mountains of Macedonia, tracing the same area where more than a dozen people would die only a week later.

I filmed over 12 hours of video, snapped hundreds of pictures and wrote countless pages of notes, but I left the scene asking myself what more could be done. It hit me after sleeping in the brush that some stories are best told by placing audiences in the environment of your subjects to better comprehend their situation and the hardships they face.

That’s when I thought of virtual reality.

I learned firsthand about the emerging medium last November while at the Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, but I needed the right setting to use it to share the stories of the migrants.

For a full virtual reality experience, please download the Ryot VR app via https://bnc.lt/m/2wIw0FsWeo on your phone and select “Seeking Home.” The story can also be viewed through Oculus Share and Google Cardboard.


After doing some research, one city that started to stand out was Calais, a northern French port city with a sprawling population of migrants based in a makeshift camp. They arrive before trying to cross the English Channel to a new life in the United Kingdom, but are mostly turned back before even getting to the water. The encampment resembles little of its surroundings; with a population of a few thousand, the community has grown in the slum-like conditions.

“Seeking Home: Life inside the Calais migrant camp,” our latest virtual reality experience, places viewers at the center of life inside the community. Together with producers from RYOT News, I talked with several dwellers and filmed a handful of aspects of their daily lives.

By transporting viewers and giving them increased control, virtual reality helps build the emotional connection to the story.

RYOT’s producers, led by Tyson Sadler, set up customized cameras that allowed us to capture 360-degree video of our interviewees and the environments they live (at least temporarily) in. RYOT then stitched these separate video streams together to create one spherical, high-resolution, equi-rectangular video.

(In English, that means producing the final product that can be viewed through virtual reality headsets, including the inexpensive and readily accessible Google Cardboard.)

A custom-built camera for RYOT News to use for virtual reality. (Instagram/@TysonSadler)

“Seeking Home” represents our first in a series of virtual reality experiences done in collaboration with RYOT, which is exciting because of how the medium can impact storytelling going forward.

Virtual reality immerses audiences in the hearts of stories thousands of miles away, from the comfort of their own homes. They receive a 360-degree view of the scene and the ability to direct their attention in any direction. By transporting viewers and giving them increased control, virtual reality helps build the emotional connection to the story.

The reward of working with such an emerging and powerful technology far outweighs the challenges we faced in the field…

Filming with 360-degree video, though, requires a completely different approach compared to traditional video. There are many additional factors to take into consideration, including cues to direct viewers’ attention and transitions to drive the pace of a story without disorienting the audience.

The large amounts of data produced also places limitations on the style in which we shoot. As we develop a standard, many questions race through our minds while conducting on-camera interviews:

- How does the environment interact with the story we want to tell and the news we want to break?
- How do our interview subjects interact with the camera? Are they to maintain eye contact?
- Are we to have our reporters in the environment asking the questions?
- How do we engage with our subjects without becoming a distraction?

The answers to these questions will be honed further as we explore future projects. For now, we have a unique opportunity to push this technology to its fullest potential.

The reward of working with such an emerging and powerful technology far outweighs the challenges we faced in the field during the production of “Seeking Home” and presents an opportunity to build upon our reporting while furthering our commitment to innovation at AP.


Dalton Bennett

Dalton was a video journalist for The Associated Press and reported from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

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