"The inherent power of VR is to change our perspective on a story" - Nim Shapira, Roi Lev (BYSTANDING: THE FEINGOLD SYNDROME)
Premiering at Tribeca last month, BYSTANDING: THE FEINGOLD SYNDROME is a hybrid docufiction immersive experience. Part testimonial, part expressive animations, part sociological study, BYSTANDING uses immersive storytelling to confront the viewer with the ultimate question: what would you do if you were there? We asked creators Nim Shapira (director) and Roi Lev (creative producer).
From Filmmaking to Virtual Making
Roi Lev - I started my professional career as a filmmaker between Paris and Tel Aviv and was constantly looking for new ways to tell stories. I was calling it holographic technologies for a lack of a better term when Oculus released their first prototype. For most people it seemed like a science-fiction fantasy so I was really looking for people that share this vision. I joined NYU for Master’s studies, focusing on immersive media. I believe “Spatial Media” is a better term as it is really about using space to tell stories.
Nim Shapira - I studied film directing at the Tisch School of Film in Tel Aviv University. It was serendipity that led me to Eko, an interactive storytelling agency based in New York. I worked there for 6 years, creative directing and directing web-based branching narrative experiences for brands. As a result, narrative designing and world building, and specifically interactive storytelling, became a part of my toolbox. About 5 years ago, when I first put on a VR headset, it was love at first sight. After the VR medium started offering more advanced interactive capabilities, I couldn’t NOT join the party.
Note: Nim Shapira’s next project, THE BROOM, is currently selected at the Venice Gap - Financing Market 2021 in September.
BYSTANDING: creating an original documentary film
R. L. - When Nim and I first started talking about what interests us the most, we searched for the right medium to tell this story. We asked ourselves why the story that we are telling deserves to be told in VR. Our first discussions surrounded the psychological phenomena coined as the Bystander effect, and how it resonates with the VR medium. The inherent power of VR - which really resonates with BYSTANDING - is this idea of having a different point of view, of being in somebody else’s shoes. But then in VR, it’s just virtual.
N.S. We asked ourselves how we can explore the tension between those passive bystanders in real life versus active participants in the VR medium? It took a long time for us to find the right story to tell - and then we remember what had happened to Jasmine Feingold in the summer of 2009 in our home town. We chose to tell her story for 3 main reasons: First because she survived, secondly because the event was documented, and thirdly, because it all happened under water. It’s a perfect case to explore the Bystander effect - as there was no visibility to what’s really going on and there was no gender or racial bias.
R. L. - One of the exciting things about VR is that it is inspired by different genres and categories that are all fused together. BYSTANDING: THE FEINGOLD SYNDROME is a docu-fiction experience - By harnessing photo-realistic techniques (volumetric video, photogrammetry), we are transporting the audience back to the Tel Aviv riverbank, to those 5 minutes, where Jasmine lost consciousness and capsized in the summer of 2009.
Building the interactive experience
N. S. - It all started in October 2018, we won a pitching competition at the Haifa International Film Festival (with a jury that included Celine Tricart, Dan Tucker, and Peter Fisher). We started with a development grant from Gesher and Makor Israeli Film Funds. This award really helped us take it off the ground.
R.L. - We later attended several events including Montreal’s Festival Nouveau Cinema, where we pitched BYSTANDING and met our partners for this journey - Max Sacker and Ioulia Isserlis from AnotherWorld VR from Germany and Kngfu from Canada. As more partners and investors joined, the project became more ambitious and we saw we can fully realize the concept. One of our biggest challenges was to find a way to tell multiple narratives, a variety of perspectives, in our story. We asked ourselves how can one really comprehend a situation when they're not actually there?
N.S. - We came up with the idea of participants going back in time to those five minutes Jasmine was underwater. Time is ticking and you yourself can’t save her. The past can't be changed. The only thing you can do is look for the good samaritan, and the best way to do so is to approach the various bystanders and jump from one stream of consciousness to another. You can't afford to waste time, and you need to think hard about whether this bystander is the right one to reach out to? You will meet a variety of people; you will step outside your shoes and get immersed in theirs, hear their confession of why they stayed along the riverbank. Even if they aren't the person who saved Jasmine's life, can you identify with their story, or at least suspend your judgment?
R.L. - We asked ourselves - how can we capture the bystanders’ stories, without the witnesses that asked to stay anonymous. How can we breathe life into these testimonials without the bystanders themselves? That’s how we found Tetavi, still in R&D those days, they were working on a groundbreaking technology for creating volumetric content. It was a very interesting challenge to work with a cast coming from the cinema industry to be filmed in “volcap”. After the production I ended up joining the company to take it out to the world. It is pretty remarkable to see this industry evolving so fast, it looks completely different today.
6 animated worlds to get through
N.S. - In collaboration with Lior Zalmanson, our talented screenwriter, we developed original stories based on the recurring themes we heard in our interviews and research. Many of the characters in the experience are based on real-life individuals who approached Jasmine, the victim, several years after not helping her on that fateful day. They tracked her down in order to apologize for not helping. Contrary to this, a confession like that of the photographer is based on the memoirs of war photographers who chose whether to shoot the atrocities or lend a helping hand to victims. It was a joy to work with an award-winning cast to bring these stories to life. This was done so that participants could experience these confessions with as little bias as possible.
R.L. - Each character has their own story and animation style. The animation work was led by the Canadian studio KngFu. Each animator worked in an entirely different direction, depending on the story it was given. We wanted all 6 chapters to be very different from each other. A rich and specific inner-world was associated with each character in terms of theme, style, and composition.
Premiering at Tribeca Immersive
N. S. - As New Yorkers, we always dreamed of premiering BYSTANDING at Tribeca. We were thrilled to have a physical exhibition at Tribeca after months of COVID in the city! It was very rewarding to watch participants engage with something we spent several years creating, and it was especially rewarding to have them share a memory of the time they did (or didn't) help someone in distress. Premiering in Tribeca was also symbolic for us, since The Bystander Effect gained popularity following the murder of Queens resident Kitty Genovese in the 1960s. Sadly, “the Genovese syndrome” or as we renamed it “the Feingold Syndrome” it is still relevant, perhaps even more than ever before.
N.S. - After Tribeca, BYSTANDING continued to the Cannes XR3, Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, and to the Jerusalem Design Week. As of this month (August), we will be exhibiting at ACM SIGGRAPH's Immersive Pavilion, Mexico's DOQUMENTA, and London's Open City Documentary Festival. Even if we can't attend all these festivals in person due to the pandemic, it is pretty amazing to see all of their virtual platforms, allowing anyone around the world to experience this magic.
R.L. - We are humbled by the number of people approaching us about that one time they helped another, or regretted not helping. Eventually, We created BYSTANDING to encourage these conversations exactly.