The PBS broadcast Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is a documentary film about an American couple’s mission to help refugees escape Nazi-occupied Europe in 1939. Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, social worker Martha Sharp, left their two small children in America to smuggle dozens of Jews and dissidents out of Europe before the start of World War II. Over two dangerous years, they helped to save the lives of hundreds of people.
The Sharps’ grandson, Artemis Joukowsky, teamed with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to make the 90-minute film. A film producer and co-founder of No Limits Media, Joukowsky has spent decades researching his grandparents’ story.
Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War inspired the creation of a companion virtual reality experience that puts viewers on an immigrant ship with those refugees. Viewers are taken on a voyage across the Atlantic and can hear the range of emotions in the survivors’ voices, including the joy of reaching safety as the ship approaches the Statue of Liberty and New York harbor. The VR piece was produced by VR Playhouse in association with Joukowsky and Farm Pond Pictures, and directed by Elijah Allan-Blitz. LIFE VR is the exclusive distributor.
VR plate of New York harbor and Liberty Island
VR Playhouse was founded in Los Angeles in the summer 2014, shortly after its co-founders, Christina Heller and Ian Forester, saw virtual reality’s potential at the Sundance Film Festival, where virtual reality projects using the then-brand new Oculus VR headset were being showcased. Heller and Forester brought together a like-minded group of filmmakers, game designers, visual effects experts and journalists to form VR Playhouse. Since its founding, the company has been involved in two dozen productions, some as consultants and others—including a Red Bull art installation—from conception to completion.
Through a relationship with director Allan-Blitz, the VR Playhouse team began developing the ideas and building the assets—including the Statue of Liberty and the Atlantic Ocean—for the VR piece that would accompany Defying the Nazis. At the same time, VR Playhouse was talking with Time Inc., which was preparing to launch LIFE VR, its virtual reality platform for publishing immersive content related to its brands.
“We were pitching them ideas and mentioned we were working on this PBS production with Ken Burns, which is how they got on board,” says VR Playhouse creative director Dylan Southard. “That’s how the VR piece became a co-production with PBS, Time and us.”
Defying the Nazis
, photos of historical figures appear in the sky—“not something you’d typically see in a documentary,” says Southard. “If you’re using virtual reality to re-create reality, you’re selling yourself a medium short.”
As part of the VR co-production, PBS provided archival footage for some of the assets, and Burns acted as an advisor.
After watching Defying the Nazis several times, the VR team, led by Southard, brainstormed ideas. They initially focused on a section in which Martha Sharp has a clandestine meeting with a dissident she is attempting to get to safety. “It was very cloak-and-dagger,” Southard says. “We were also looking at creating an interactive experience inside her office in Prague.”
This idea was ultimately rejected. “Cloak-and-dagger is best executed in a room-scale environment, and we’d need to film actors,” continues Southard, who notes that all their ideas had to be “VR-proofed” by Joukowsky and Allan-Blitz. “Logistically we had to pick something that fit the time frame and budget we had, while also making sure it would have the maximum distribution, which we could achieve on smartphone-based Google Cardboard VR or Samsung Gear VR devices.”
The next idea was to put viewers on the boat with refugees and dissidents saved by the Sharps, headed away from danger and to the safety of the United States. “The boat sequence was the one richest in the kinds of emotions we were interested in evoking,” says Southard. “That mixture of joy and sadness, saying goodbye to the parents who the children would never see again. That’s what we were interested in.”
Once they began to develop that idea, says Southard, they knew they wanted to incorporate the experiences of those whose lives were saved by getting on the boat. “Getting their voices and photos into the experience became very important,” he says. Because those survivors had been interviewed, and the PBS documentary also featured archival footage and photos, those became key to the VR piece. “We showed a rough cut to Ken [Burns] and he encouraged us to use the same techniques—slow zoom-ins or tracking on photos—that he does,” says Southard. “We started to implement those techniques and it had a great effect.”
Burns wanted to make certain that the piece would be designed for virtual reality, not simply a VR version of his documentary in 360°. “He was excited to see us pursue something more emotional,” says Southard. For that reason, they were less interested in creating an objective reality, Southard explains. “Our point of view was that there’s a great deal of subjectivity involved that can be represented visually. When the event lives in the memories of these people, it gives us license to be artistic and create impressionistic moves.”
The experience is also firmly based in reality. The team relied on historic photographs of the Statue of Liberty, the New York City skyline of the 1930s and an actual boat that would have been ferrying immigrants, all generated in The Foundry Nuke, Autodesk Maya and SideFX Houdini. Southard adds that “a lot of game design and engineering went into how the water moved, how the sun rose and set, and the light it’s throwing. If you see a smokestack, you’ll see the smoke coming out of it,” he says.
But they took artistic license to visualize the survivors’ memories. “We have the sun rise in the north,” he says. “We were aware of that but chose to do it anyway, so that the sun throws an incredible light on the Statute of Liberty—which is actually the memory of one of the people profiled. The light hitting the Statue of Liberty was one of the most joyous moments of that person’s life, even if it wasn’t scientifically possible.”
Wireframe of the ship in Houdini
Still photos of the documentary’s subjects float in the virtual sky—another “fantastical move” in the VR experience. “That’s not something you’d typically see in a documentary,” says Southard. “But people are reliving this, they have concrete memories of the lives they lived. If you’re using virtual reality to re-create reality, you’re selling yourself a medium short.”
One aspect of the VR experience required a practical shoot. “You’re standing on an upper deck of the boat, looking out and forward,” he says. “But you can also look down on the deck and see other passengers.” To create those passengers, VR Playhouse set up a giant greenscreen in its parking lot and put its employees and their children in appropriate period costume, with heavy coats and newsboy caps. Using its own VR rig with Sony Alpha A7 full-frame digital cameras, they shot the crowd and then composited footage into the CG shot of the lower deck. In VR projects where the material is acquired with multiple cameras, the post process is to “stitch together” the images; in this case, because the imagery was all CG, with the exception of “real” images composited into CG ones, no stitching was required.
VR is often touted for its ability to evoke “presence” and “empathy,” and Southard talks about the way the VR companion piece works vis-à-vis the documentary. “Even watching a documentary as poignant as Defying the Nazis is, it still lives in a framed environment,” he says. “By looking away, you can leave that world. VR triggers feelings that are more primal, more visceral. Inside that personal experience, you author it every time you turn your head.
“The takeaway is that this covers very difficult subject matter and doesn’t use typical VR tricks to make you look around,” he concludes. “This experience is slower, more meditative. It’s about being in this intimate space. That’s the kind of VR we really believe in, and this experience proves it can be done.”