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October 02
2017

ISSUE

Fall 2017

VR IN HOLOCAUST EDUCATION: BALANCING TECHNOLOGY AND AUTHENTICITY

By NAOMI GOLDMAN

The crew for The Last Goodbye makes preparations to film Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter at the museum on the grounds of the Majdanek death camp in Poland, where Gutter was imprisoned and his family murdered during World War II. (All photos by Lauren Carter/USC Shoah Foundation)

Since its founding by Steven Spielberg in 1994, the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education has captured more than 54,000 audio-visual interviews with survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. This past April at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade, the Foundation premiered its groundbreaking virtual reality experience, The Last Goodbye, the first-ever Holocaust survivor testimony in room-scale virtual reality. This lauded project builds upon the Foundation’s pioneering work with interactive holograms, which allowed people to interact with a Holocaust survivor avatar and receive answers based on prerecorded questions.

What are the challenges in using VR to share historical narratives? How can VR create powerful new digital archives? How does this portend the future of Holocaust education?

The creation of The Last Goodbye underscores the need for balance between the use of VR technology simply because it is available with the responsibility of maintaining authenticity and upholding the integrity of an institute charged with preserving historical testimony. It also demonstrates robust collaboration between the creative and VFX team and documentarians in forging new ground to deepen Holocaust education through a powerful photoreal experience.

In the immersive experience, Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter takes audiences with him on his final visit to Majdanek Concentration Camp where his parents and sister were murdered during World War II. Gutter stands inside each vivid environment as he recounts his story of survival and loss – from the concentration camp bunks to the communal showers to the gas chamber where his family was killed and to the crematorium in which their bodies were burned. The 360-degree video allows viewers to physically walk around and experience the spaces, lending an even more powerful sense of presence while heightening the emotional impact.

VFX Voice talked with Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation and Co-producer of The Last Goodbye about the creative process and the power of place.

Stephen Smith, Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, leads a location-scout mission with producer Ari Palitz in the Warsaw Old Town during the filming of The Last Goodbye.

“How do you tell a real story in a real place and navigate spatially? … There is a meaningful relationship between narrative and the power of place in telling a story.” —Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation/Co-producer of The Last Goodbye

VFX Voice: What was the genesis of The Last Goodbye?

 Smith: Gabo Arora (United Nations Senior Creative Advisor and award-winning filmmaker) and I were on the same panel at the 2016 International Documentary Festival in Sheffield, England. He sought me out with interest in doing work around the Holocaust and we connected on some core questions: How do you tell a real story in a real place and navigate spatially? How does one experience the narrative of the same person in different ways if you are in the space they are referring to? Because there is a meaningful relationship between narrative and the power of place in telling a story.”

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter during filming of The Last Goodbye, the first-ever Holocaust survivor testimony in room-scale virtual reality.

VFX Voice: What were some of the upfront creative decisions that needed to be made?

Smith: First, who do you take and where? We decided not to go to the concentration camp that has the highest level of aware- ness (Auschwitz), but one that people do not know much about (Majdanek), so that through this vehicle we could bring some- thing new to the field of knowledge and understanding. The team decided to feature Pinchas Gutter, the survivor who appeared as the avatar in the Foundation’s “New Dimension in Testimony” project, and traveled with him to Poland to capture tens of thou- sands of photos and hours of 3D video on site.

Then there was the ethics of the testimony itself: how much is scripted; how much is free form vs. deciding in advance and capturing vignettes; what would work with the VR medium? When doing 4K 2D format we let the camera roll, but we realized this medium places limits to come up with something meaningful. We had a hunch that if we created photogrammetry of the rooms and filmed Gutter against a green screen, it sounded good technically, but would we be creating an artificial environment? It hadn’t been done before so we were going out on a limb. It was our role to ensure that we didn’t cross any ethical lines in creating documented testimony.

In the 360-degree video, viewers can physically walk around and visit the vivid locations in the death camp that Gutter survived.

VFX Voice: What’s an example of the balancing act you managed between VR technology and authenticity?

Smith: A key element in Gutter’s narrative is his recollection of a cattle wagon and its use in transporting people and personal effects. There was no cattle wagon available in post, but it was a key element of what happened. So we made the choice to allow him to tell the story and created a photogrammetric version of a cattle wagon in Los Angeles. We created aversion filling the VR wagon with found authentic pieces from the period, but they weren’t his artifacts. He was talking about what the items meant to him, but since they were not his, the applied ethic prevailed and we took them out. That’s the crux for us – just because you can create a visual effect does it mean that you should? The team worked very collaboratively to find a balance we could all work with and remain true to Gutter’s story and stay historically grounded.

Stephen Smith, Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, works with Holocaust survivor Roman Kent, the narrator of the VR film Lala, during the filming.

“The preservation of history is at the heart of what we do. We came to realize that by doing photogrammetry inside of the rooms at the concentration camp, we were creating a historical legacy document in a different medium. We see this as a digital hi-res archive, a way of preserving dynamic testimony and a whole new data set to pass down to the next generation as a point of reference.” — Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation/Co-producer of The Last Goodbye

VFX Voice: What were you hoping to achieve with the  project?

Smith: The preservation of history is at the heart of what we do. We came to realize that by doing photogrammetry inside of the rooms at the concentration camp, we were creating a historical legacy document in a different medium. We see this as a digital hi-res archive, away of preserving dynamic testimony and a whole new data set to pass down to the next generation as a point of reference.

This use of VR represents a new way of capturing truth for the future. We aren’t afraid to push boundaries, but we are carefully considering using any innovation so that the awe of technology does not overtake the story. We’re very early in our understanding of what an immersive experience can do as people become voyeurs of others’ painful experiences. And we are cautious that with issues related to human suffering and struggle, these types of exposures can sometimes elicit pity but not compassion and empathy … and I’m not sure a headset creates that connection. But I believe the potential for education and impact is there, as long as it’s contextualized and avoids the specter of technical gimmickry.

Holocaust survivor Roman Kent narrates his story for Lala.

VFX Voice: Can audiences experience The Last Goodbye? What’s next  in the realm of VR-based education?

Smith: We are being thoughtful in developing the optimal venues to share The Last Goodbye. Since we made decisions about doing real-scale photogrammetry, it is quite difficult to place in multiple locations. For Tribeca, we had a designer create an experience including a trained actor to take people from the film festival floor to a curated space to experience the piece and then to a debrief afterwards. We believe there is a contextualized learning experience bigger than the VR piece in and of itself and that people should experience this in a safe and supportive environment. So we are working with Holocaust museums around the world to create installations in that contextualized environment. And we will likely present more than one experience at a time for the public to experience.

[Author’s note: USC Shoah Foundation is also showcasing another VR project, Lala, an animated and live-action retelling of a story told by Holocaust survivor Roman Kent. The film is narrated by Kent himself, with the story of Lala (the family dog)  illustrated through animation. Lala can be viewed on a smartphone with a cardboard VR viewer, on a smartphone or mobile device on its own, or on a computer screen through YouTube, which allows viewers to click and drag the video around with a cursor to view the film from all angles. Developed in partner- ship with Discovery Communications, Discovery Education and Global Nomads Group, Lala is part of IWitness360, a new space on IWitness for virtual reality films and supporting educational resources that made its debut at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Antonio this summer.]

Smith: Lala is a short animated piece for children aged 5 to 10. It’s already breaking boundaries with young children as the target audience, and we’re thinking about the best ways to distribute it. We are trying to stay true to that ethical through line with the survivor serving as the narrator and appearing in live action at the beginning, middle and end of the animated piece. It’s tightly scripted, but the words are all from his testimony, which is essential in staying true to our mission.

Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter and USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith (both facing the camera) conversing with filmmaker Gabo Arora (back to the camera) at the site of the sorting grounds at the Majdanek death camp.

VFX Voice: And what has your experience been like working  with the VFX team?

Smith: The Last Goodbye was a wonderful collaboration between USC Shoah Foundation and a tremendously talented and committed team –filmmakers Gabo Arora and Ari Palitz, Here Be Dragons, MPC VR and Otoy, in partnership with LightShed. The goodwill and genuine enthusiasm in the visual effects community has been outstanding. We’ve enjoyed great partnership on our path to harness VR to create poignant and accessible testaments to hope and survival.


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