One of the main problems in relation to immersive productions is the audience: how can we make more people interested in this medium?
During Laval Virtual (link), Victor Agulhon, co-founder of the VR media company TARGO, addressed this precise question in his panel, talking about mainstream VR. And indeed, the documentaries produced by his company are interesting examples of productions that work in that direction. That’s why we decided to interview him, to know more about TARGO’s productions and their appeal to the public.
The interview was conducted in association with the cultural association fanheart3. You can read the Italian version of the interview - and a short reflection on audiences - on their website.
On the importance of mainstream VR
Victor Agulhon - Mainstream means that it has to be relatable to large audiences. There’s no exact definition of what that means. It has to be attractive, to create a form of curiosity among to lots of people. A mainstream story can be summarized in a well crafted one-liner. In VR, I believe that it’s especially important to think about creating mainstream experiences: until there are billions of VR users, creating mainstream experiences is a way to push the tech forward, to recruit VR users. Today, content in virtual reality is polarized at two extremes: on one side, you have games that address mostly gaming audiences while on the other side, you have very artistic experiences that target mostly VR festivals. With TARGO, we aim at filling that blank space with stories that really target the mainstream audience.
V. A. - If you look at REBUILDING NOTRE-DAME (one of our previous documentaries - link), it’s a very good example of what we consider mainstream: Notre-Dame is a monument that speaks to everyone, that everyone can relate to and it had become the most searched news story online in 2019 with the fire. All of this shows that we’re curious about it, we’re all interested. Experiences like this one are very accessible in terms of narratives and in obvious in terms of unique access and location.
V. A. - Still, mainstream doesn’t mean basic. We take mainstream topics and we elaborate on them, we work on being subtle, on providing a certain level of information ; we’re not mainstream in the sense of VR roller coaster rides. We’re mainstream in the sense that we try to appeal to large audiences through our documentaries. We have to keep in mind that this is a technology that still has to be in the hands of millions of people, and in the coming years billions. So we have to make content that is going to speak to everyone. That’s how we think.
Great characters, a good story and the perfect place
V. A. - These three elements are important in every kind of content, but I think a right place is even more important in VR. In all other media, there are stories you can tell regardless of the place. In VR you have to tell a story in a place. It’s the starting point, it’s where people are. It is the core component of VR so it better be strong. We systematically pick places that are impressive, beautiful or closed to the public. There has to be a sense of privilege — it has to offer something unique.
[…] this is a technology that still has to be in the hands of millions of people, and in the coming years billions. So we have to make content that is going to speak to everyone.
V. A. - I think the importance of characters is universal and counts in all kind of stories and media. VR is specific in the sense that you create a direct proximity between the character and the viewer. Sometimes it happens that you want to know certain people, but you don’t necessarily want to meet them. In VR you might not have this choice — you feel like you are on a one-on-one with someone. You have to be willing to sit down with this person and to create a personal connection with them.
The Overview Effect and other works
V. A. - Besides REBUILDING NOTRE-DAME — there are a few that I really like because of how they combine these elements. I think of THE OVERVIEW EFFECT (link), I would say that it’s our space odyssey. It’s a documentary with an astronaut sharing his experience of the overview effect. It’s a shift in awareness experienced by people who see the Earth from space. It creates of form of awareness of the unity and fragility of the Earth. The documentary was shot in the nature, in the Pyrénées Mountains and in the largest French Telescope, we also did a full 3D reconstruction of the Earth from space. It’s a really powerful piece — there’s so much diversity and the message just resonates with our time. So, in this case, the character and his story are very significant.
V. A. - The other one that comes to mind is SOLO TO THE SOUTH POLE (link). It’s the adventure of Matthieu Tordeur, a young French explorer crossing Antarctica on his own. He’s extremely friendly and the whole documentary feels like you’re with with him on his adventure to the South Pole. And indeed you have the feeling that you’re actually making the journey by his side. And that’s just a very empowering feeling. We are now preparing new documentaries that will explore new genre and topics — we filmed the life in a prison for women, we filmed a star dancer of the Paris opera… So lots of new documentaries coming, with lots of diversity too!
360°: flat screen vs headset
V. A. - Most of the time we prefer a distribution exclusive to viewing in VR headsets — this is where our documentaries deliver their strength. Sometimes, we make exceptions because we think that the value of the content can also be perceived in 360° video on a flat screen. For example, we released a series of documentaries about empty cities during lockdowns. It was made available in virtual reality, but also in 360° on Facebook: it depends on the content. In that case, the emptiness of the streets in 360° can be as powerful on a flat screen. Our pieces are made for VR, so that’s the watching device we prioritize.
V. A. - And there’s a reason for this: what makes a compelling VR experience is radically different from what makes a good 2D video content. When you look at 2D videos consumed on flat surfaces like mobiles, you find a content that’s extremely dynamic: it’s very quick, there are lots of cuts — it’s designed to grab our attention. In VR, each scene lasts about eight seconds. That’s because users need to have the time to explore their surroundings, to feel comfortable. If you put a VR content on a flat screen, it’s going to be horribly slow and frustrating for the viewer. Eventually, we’d rather publish a compelling 2D video trailer of the experience that will invite people to get a headset to watch out experiences in virtual reality.
VR and documentaries: a change in quality
V. A. - One of the reason why VR novelty is so difficult to grasp is the fact that it’s not bringing quantitative novelty. We can’t measure what VR is doing with quantitative data. No one can say “VR is 25% better than traditional content”. We can only measure its quality: is such experience better in VR? Are people using it? Are they enjoying it?
V. A. - After all, I think it’s been the same with all types of media that have ever existed. What did color TV bring compared to black and white TV? It’s always some kind of incremental and qualitative improvement. I think it’s exactly what’s happening with VR. VR is not the best medium for all contents — sure. But there is a category of content for which VR is going to be much better than any alternative.
V. A. - Let’s take the example of Notre-Dame: the cathedral has been closed for over a year now. No one can enter, and yet people want to be inside. Being able to enter the cathedral with virtual reality is infinitely better than watching 2D films on the cathedral. It’s like when you are a fan of someone: you want to meet with them. The closer you can get to meeting them in real life is being with them in virtual reality — it’s irrational. Somehow, an irrationality VR taps into.
V. A. - It all comes down to the sense of presence, of feeling more concerned about a topic because it’s happening before your eyes. Our documentary THE WINGS OF MOSUL (link) explores the ruins of the city with a group of friends who survived the ISIS occupation. The feeling of discovering the ruins, of hearing their stories is radically different from the one you’d have watching it on TV — it’s infinitely more powerful. It’s infinitely more powerful because VR makes it feel more real.
On REBUILDING NOTRE-DAME
V. A. - We started working on Notre-Dame about two years ago. We just wanted to show the beauty of the cathedral, reveal its secrets and make it accessible to everyone through virtual reality. We were actually granted full access to the cathedral in December and January. During three days we could film all the details and capture the magic of the cathedral. Three months later, the cathedral caught fire and we realized that all of the footage from this original production had become so precious. The footage was still sitting in our hard drives and had become very relevant because of the fire.
V. A. - It took us some time to mature how we wanted to use it, what we wanted to say with it. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to use this footage for something that was going to be beneficial and meaningful to the people and to the cathedral. So we started working on a project with Oculus, a project centered around the fire, that would be a tribute and a celebration to Notre-Dame. Today, the documentary is available on Oculus TV and starting in July, it will be visible in a VR cinema in Paris.
Festivals are like beacons. They’re able to identify potentialities early on — something that is extremely good for our industry in general. The downside of it is that, this early-on-detection process comes through peer validation and not public validation. Hence, the target of projects become festivals themselves, and not the greater audience.
Targeting the audience outside of festivals too
V. A. - Festivals sometimes are out of touch with the mainstream audience but it is also because their job. They’re here to detect new trends, the next big things. The choice of the public is made later on, on streaming platforms. The good side of festivals, though, is that they are like beacons. They’re able to identify potentialities early on — something that is extremely good for our industry in general. The downside of it is that, this early-on-detection process comes through peer validation and not public validation. Hence, the target of projects become festivals themselves, and not the public. In doing so, sometimes you create works that don’t talk to the mainstream audience or that the mainstream audience can’t relate to. At TARGO, our primary goal is to address wide audiences, if our experiences go to festivals, all the better! But it’s not primary focus.
Bringing game technology to narrative content: the future of TARGO
Today, we’ve proven that there is a clear interest in non-fiction stories in virtual reality — a lot of people watch our 360° documentaries. We think that the next phase is to bring freedom of movement — allow people to walk inside our documentaries. At a company level, it means evolving from video to real-time 3D technology: it means applying game technology to narrative content.
It also opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of business model and ways to monetize experiences. People are rarely paying for video — I think that our minds, video should be free. We are ready to pay for the convenience (Netflix) or for the experience (a cinema) but more rarely so for just a video. What we envision borrows technology from gaming and narrative from 360° videos — it’s a blend.