BBC Africa correspondent Alastair Leithead took the audience at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art on a journey down the Nile for an RTS North East and the Border session at Digital Cities North East.
Africa was the inspiration for BBC News’s first virtual reality (VR) documentary, Damming the Nile, and the Corporation’s man on the ground, Leithead, shared the steep learning curve with the audience in the North East where he was brought up.
Leithead discussed Ethiopia’s ambitious project to dam the Nile and the political friction it is causing further downstream in Egypt. With stunning locations, rich cultural influences and the engineering wonder of building a dam, it was an easy pitch for a 30-minute TV programme, but this was to be told in completely different way.
At the RTS event, Leithead revealed how VR was forcing a complete rethink of TV reporting: 360-degree cameras hand power over to the audience who can choose to look in any direction or even ignore the reporter’s ‘piece-to-camera’ altogether. Not being able to direct the viewer’s gaze presents a new set of challenges to the production and journalistic norms of broadcasting.
The all-seeing camera means there can be no cutaways or sequences, and there’s a different way of writing a script to pictures when you’ve no idea which way the viewer will be looking. Sound is specifically designed to help lead the user.
For the audience, it offers a chance to move away from being a passive observer on the sofa at home, and to immerse themselves in a story and decide what they’d like to see as the story unfolds.
Using a VR headset is the best way to see Damming the Nile. When viewers put on a headset and headphones, they enter a virtual world travelling down the Nile. Rather than just watching the documentary on TV, there is a real sense of being with the reporter and the production team on their assignment and of becoming immersed in the story they are telling.
For the audience in Middlesbrough there was a chance to experience VR at first hand and get a glimpse into how much of a shake up it is in storytelling. When some put on VR headsets there were gasps of amazement. One was watching a scene on an African train and when a young passenger looked up and caught his eye, without thinking, he said hello to him, completely forgetting he was actually sat on a swivel chair in Middlesbrough.
Leithead is now using his newly acquired VR skills to make a sequel that shines a light on the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For more information about how to watch Damming the Nile on a headset or smartphone, go to bbc.co.uk/virtualreality
“Exploring the Nile 360 with Alastair Leithead” was part of Digital Cities North East, a week-long programme of events for the creative industries in Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Gateshead, which ran from 15 to 19 October.