About the Distillery
The Distillery are a creative agency of Social Filmologists. We like to think of ourselves as Distillers of great ideas to create conversations and connections around content that help brands and audiences connect in meaningful ways. The Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) is the world’s leading independent international development organisation that offers volunteers the chance to work abroad to fight poverty in marginalised countries.
Our Brief from the VSO
The VSO wanted a film to ignite interest and inspire UK based 18-25 year olds to actively sign up for their international volunteering programme. This is a tough challenge of recruitment: many volunteers drop out in early stages because they don’t fully comprehend the value of the VSO’s work, or don’t really understand what the placement work will involve.
Why We Chose to Work with VR
We really needed to make a film that gave the potential volunteers a chance to understand what their trip would involve and the impact they would have. The VSO’s mission is to change lives. We wanted young people to really experience that change themselves, and so proposed an immersive VR idea: a full 360 insight that would take the audience right into the heart of a tiny village in a developing country, but through the eyes of one young volunteer. We proposed a VR film that could be seen on Google Cardboard at events such as Freshers’ week, and also be shown online on the VSO’s YouTube channel.
However, the target audience were a young, VR native group, so we had to make sure they would watch the whole film; it had to be authentic and engaging without gimmicks.
The Idea – splitting the 360 world into 180 by 180
We created a unique 360 VR experience that for the first time split the world into two directly contrasting 180×180 hemispheresso we could show the direct contrast between the homelife of our volunteer and their in-country experience. So, through the eyes of one real life volunteer, we would show their UK life; hanging out with friends on a park bench, and contrasted this with what life was like on a placement: helping clean waterways in a Kenyan village at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The Challenges we Faced Throughout Production
The idea of splitting the 360 experience into two so you experienced two worlds at the same time had never been done before. We knew it was an innovative approach, but weren’t too sure how it would work in practice, we were however determined to work it out because we felt that, the theme of duality was crucial to the project and emotionally resonant with the viewer. We shot tests to work out how we would split the frame and where; side to side, front to back, or across quadrants.
Creatively, we knew we were being ambitious. The budget was small and the VSO were dealing with all the logistics, so we needed a small, tightly knit production team that would be happy to bump along with basic accommodation, long hours and an unpredictable schedule which worked alongside the volunteer’s commitments. Good humour would be essential, luckily we had a lot of that. Authenticity was crucial to the success of the piece, so we also felt the project needed an actual volunteer as the main character.
We worked with the VSO to find Naseem, a keen 18 year old from Newcastle who was excited to be involved in our project. We also needed a director who was creative, quick thinking and able to direct non-actors. It was serendipity when Nono called into our office. His attitude, creativite instincts and passion were obvious and we just knew he was ideal for this project.
True enough, he put together a mood film that really captured what we were after. It was Nono who brought boldness to the concept and decided to split the frame at different points in the frame depending on the story.
The shoot was in two parts. One in Kenya and the other in Newcastle. It was a big decision on kit; what 360 rigs to take, would there be enough battery life, would there be enough hard drives? We shot everything on GoPro’s and brought some huge hard drives to accommodate all the footage.
In pre-production we worked closely with the VSO to set up the Kenyan shoot to make sure we had support on the ground for the team to get around safely and with enough freedom to recce and go where they needed to get the shots they needed for the story, for the team to have electricity to charge batteries and computers, and for their to be a translator to help communicate to everyone.
Coordination was via a WhatsApp group, which was slightly worrying having a team in-country that I had limited comms with. Lex, our producer is incredibly experienced and always sees the funny side to everything, so I was confident even if nothing was arranged she could make miracles happen and we’d get a film. Although being messaged a video of their near escape from a mountain top when a sudden storm took hold, wasn’t ‘that’ funny!
Filmmaking is an organic process and a lot of the best work actually comes from a sense of unpredictability on set. Our crew had a wonderful experience immersing themselves in the little village of Lokitok. The whole team worked together and had a great time, with Naseem our volunteer very much becoming part of the crew. It was fun to meet his friends and family when we shot in Newcastle, and to visit some of the haunts he grew up around. In many ways, Naseem helped shape the project in a really fundamental way beyond being our main character.
Navigating the Post-Production Process
This was our first time editing 360 in-house, so we learnt a lot about storytelling in VR. Since you can’t control where the viewer is looking at any given time, the rhythm of the piece becomes much more important. We did a lot of test viewings in VR headsets to get the pace right so the viewer was fully immersed and yet had time to take in the duality of worlds, without becoming overwhelmed with the split frame.
We relied on the support of Steve Doran and Jonny Allan at our wonderful post house Coda Post Production about sound recording for a 360 film with a 180 split and laying down a dub that would follow where the audience was looking, but also help guide their attention to turn or look one way. We worked hard on the VO script to make sure it told the story of the VSO’s work, but with a lyricism that was inspiring for the viewer.
At first the VSO pushed back on our our first draft, wanting more of a predictable corporate facts led piece, so after a few tweaks we recorded the VO to show them how this would work in the film. It’s very different looking at words on a page to seeing how it works across a film, translating the core message of the piece and communicating that clearly is a real challenge.
Finally, I headed down to the VSO HQ with a headset and our film, gradually, person by person, I showed the VSO team our edit. I was extremely nervous; first views and impressions never change. Our creative instincts were right: the first edit that we showed the client was the final film that went on to have amazing views. Creativity, ingenuity and originality defined our ambition for this project, and the success of the final video showed that its aims were realised beyond what we had hoped and expected.
Results and Impact
Our film has directly encouraged young people to actively volunteer for the VSO, benefiting themselves and the host country and making a positive impact for social good. There was huge engagement with the targeted audience. The film has reached more than half a million people on VSO/ICS’s Facebook, brought in 115,000 views and created more than 2,000 reactions, comments and shares. The film was viewed at recruitment events on Google cardboards and watched online on YouTube.
During a two month recruitment campaign, the video generated 775,000 impressions, 11,000 unique views and 154 volunteer applications which was huge for the VSO. We won two Lovies Awards, one voted for by the people, a British Media Award and were shortlisted for Marketing New Thinking Awards for AR/VR excellence and we also made the shortlist of the second annual VR Awards. This was huge for a small company in only our second year of existence.