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Frontline’s #VRWeek Brings Climate Change in Greenland and Carnage in Mosul to Life

PBS series is taking viewers inside ISIS tunnels and to Iraq’s burning oil fields — in virtual reality

“Frontline” has been a media mainstay since it debuted 34 years ago on PBS, bringing viewers its trademark investigative documentaries from across the globe. As the program continues to evolve, it’s increasingly turning to new forms of technology — and in particular, virtual reality — to shed light on its subjects.

The show has featured several pieces in the last few days as part of its #VRWeek, including a return to Chernobyl 31 years after its nuclear disaster and a look at climate change by flying over Greenland’s melting ice sheets.

“We really felt an immersive experience with some of our really challenging stories could actually capture people’s imagination and also have them understand these bigger issues that we’re all figuring out how to tell stories about,” Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath said in an interview with TheWrap.

Immersive is a word that’s become synonymous with VR. The medium gives viewers a point-of-view they normally wouldn’t see — and this was best illustrated by the brisk four-minute doc “Battle for Mosul.” As Aronson-Rath put it, most western audiences will never experience a war zone, “but we know there’s a desperate need to understand what’s going on in Iraq.”

You see the carnage the city has been put through while under ISIS occupation, with oil fields burning for months on its perimeter. The camera then takes you inside a dark and cramped underground network of tunnels ISIS built to hide from airstrikes.

As an Iraqi journalist narrates, viewers are taken inside a hospital after three suicide bombers attack a Kurdish marketplace. “This is what happens nearly every day,” says the narrator. The piece ends in a dreary displaced persons camp, with Iraqis wearing tattered clothes and surrounded by clutter. The hapless situation is only exacerbated by VR.

“That’s the perfect application for virtual reality, where you’re underneath, inside a tunnel,” Aronson-Rath sais. “2D filmmaking is awesome, too, but it just isn’t as visceral as going inside that tunnel or going in the burning fields … you feel like you’re in the middle of something [in VR].”

“Frontline” has been experimenting in VR for the past few years, and has been working with Emblematic Media on its features.

As VR continues to move beyond its niche audience, expect to see more immersive content from “Frontline” — including an extended look at the climate crisis in Greenland this fall.