A Glimpse Into The Syrian Refugee Crisis Through Virtual Reality

HuffPost talks to Tyson Sadler of RYOT News about how to tell stories using this new technology.

This interview originally appeared in Huffington Post's Must Reads newsletter. If you'd like to receive the newsletter, please sign up.

The Huffington Post and RYOT News published "The Crossing," a series of short films -- hosted by Susan Sarandon and directed by RYOT's Tyson Sadler -- about refugees in Lesbos, Greece. Sadler used virtual reality to bring the audience closer to the action. Viewers can use virtual-reality goggles or simply swipe their fingers across their phones to look up, down and around, the vastness of the Mediterranean behind and the craggy island shore in front, and see that there are no signs to tell a refugee where to go. We sat down with Sadler to find out what it’s like to shoot with a VR camera -- and how VR is changing storytelling.

Why use VR to tell this story?

Tyson Sadler: VR provides a combination of storytelling and technology. As a storyteller, I am always asking, “How can we bring the viewer closer into the story?” When there are events like the refugee crisis, it’s hard to put into words what exactly is being seen and felt. VR captures emotion and feeling. You are standing there on a beach and you look out on the water and at any given time you can spot 12 different refugee boats and they all have 50 or 60 people. You can hear screams off the water. Sometimes there are volunteers and it's happening in front and behind and there is emotion and fear. VR really captures those feelings.

What were the challenges with this project?

Tyson Sadler: Some of the action goes quickly. You have a boat coming into shore and think it will be landing in one place and then it coasts away from where you thought it would go. You're often running with gear just to capture a good vantage point and plant that tripod.

How do you set up a shot with VR?

Tyson Sadler: There is no frame in VR. The shot you’re taking is above, below, and around. The frame is removed. You're not just thinking what fits in a 16 by 9 window, but you are thinking about what's behind and in front of you.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from the story?

Tyson Sadler: Some people have watched “The Crossing” and immediately wanted to get involved, whether it is time or money or even knitting scarves for refugees. But there have been several instances where we have shown the film to people and they take off the goggles and they're literally in tears. Maybe because they didn't understand the gravity and scope of what was going on. But in an immersive environment they were able to do that. And for me that is a positive sign that we are doing our jobs. That people are emotionally moved by it and that results in them wanting to act.

What do viewers see that they wouldn't see in a more traditional photos and text, or 2-D video story?

Tyson Sadler: They’re right there with the refugees. They’re so much closer to the action. They see families. These meet refugees who are university educated. They are engineers and doctors and computer analysts. These refugees are people who had the same jobs as us. They took vacations. These people could be us. They want stability. They want their children to be educated. They want to go to the movies or have dinner at a restaurant with a friend. They want to make a life for themselves. They want what we want.

Want to learn more? Read and watch "The Crossing," hosted by Susan Sarandon.

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