Students demonstrate how to use VR equipment at the LA Mission’s gala. Photo/Mikhail Gershovich
By Tommy McArdle ’19
In late October, the Los Angeles Mission, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in the city, held its eighth annual Legacy of Vision Gala—and Emerson College students were on hand to showcase a 360-degree virtual reality film they produced for the organization. The film highlighted the nonprofit’s goals and raised awareness about homelessness in Los Angeles.
When Emerson College LA partnered with the Los Angeles Mission for its Virtual Reality Workshop: Empathy Machines course, taught by faculty member Eve Weston, students were tasked with creating a film for the nonprofit as part of a semester-long project. Weston said that project turned more intensive when the Mission announced that the gala, where it planned to showcase the film, was scheduled barely two months after the start of the Fall 2018 semester.
“[Students] were really excited and proud of the work they did,” Weston said. “I think a little tired, too. It’s a lot to take on a big project like that in addition to their internships and other courses.”
The class is one of several engaged learning courses that Emerson LA has offered over the last several semesters in which the College partners with nonprofit organizations. The work that students do in these courses helps advance the causes of the Elma Lewis Center in Boston and is a way of bringing civic engagement into the classroom.
The five students in Weston’s class created a five-minute film about the Los Angeles Mission and the work the nonprofit does with the community, focusing on Skid Row in Downtown LA, an area with a large homeless population. Students produced, filmed, and edited the documentary.
Sofia Barrett ’19 said the production timeframe was the most challenging part of producing the film.
“We entered the class knowing we had under two months to learn what VR was, how to use the technology associated with VR, and the philosophy behind the technology,” Barrett said. “…On top of learning about the history of the Los Angeles Mission and homelessness in LA; location scouts in Downtown LA/Skid Row; and producing, shooting, and editing a pretty heavy five-minute piece chronicling all of this.”
The Los Angeles Mission was happy to share its story through virtual reality filmmaking, said Mission volunteer and virtual reality filmmaker Georgia Van Cuylenberg. Compared to viewing a traditional film, Van Cuylenberg said virtual reality experiences, like the one students premiered at the gala, make participants more likely to donate or otherwise involve themselves with an organization.
“When someone watches a TV show or a YouTube video or whatever, they can turn away,” Van Cuylenberg said. “They can turn it off and it isn’t really in their world. When somebody has a virtual reality headset on, it steps into what I like to call their peripheral comfort zone. The video is in their eyes.”
Weston commended the response the film received at the gala, where students were able to speak with attendees about the film and project as well as demonstrate the Oculus Rift headset. Barrett said she felt the final project reflected students’ tenacity through the first half of the semester.
“For a group of only five students, the amount of time and effort we all put in shines through our final product,” Barrett said. “The almost-five-minute piece fully captures the reality of Skid Row and how isolated it is from the rest of the city, but also highlights the Los Angeles Mission and their efforts to combat the homelessness issue downtown.”
Weston compared her students’ efforts to a program that Oculus, the virtual reality technology company, runs called “VR for Good.” Through this initiative, Oculus programs with experienced 360-degree filmmakers and gives them a months-long timeframe to create a film that supports the work of a nonprofit.
“We took students with zero 360 [filmmaking] experience and gave them two to three months to do the same,” Weston said. “It was a big ask, and they really came through.”