Inside ‘The Call Center’

Go behind the scenes with the 360-degree video crew who documented the United Nations’ efforts in Iraq

In November of 2016, filmmaker and journalist Aaron Ohlmann teamed up with a small crew to document the effects of ongoing war in Iraq on those displaced by the conflict. What came out of that excursion was a powerful short film created using 360-degree video, prompting the viewer to explore the occasionally terrifying and often heartbreaking scenes in intimate detail.

We asked Ohlmann what it was like to create such a technically challenging film, why he did it, and what’s next for immersive video formats like 360 and virtual reality.

Why did you choose to frame the film around the call center?

I first went to Iraq to develop a film about aid workers on the front lines. I was interested in telling a story about humans trying to “do good" in a foreign and dangerous environment they do not fully understand. It’s both incredibly heroic and incredibly arrogant to parachute into a foreign country and think you can help. One almost always lands in situations that are a bit morally ambiguous.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]My first thought was: This is too boring to point a camera at.[/quote]

When I was first introduced to the Iraq call center, what stood out was how boring it was. I mean that it didn’t seem to be plagued with the human drama and moral struggles I’ve seen in so many other organizations that are trying to create social change. So my first thought was: This is too boring to point a camera at.

But after closer study, I realized that the same reason the call center seemed mundane was the very reason it was so effective. They’re tool makers. They aren’t there promoting a social agenda. They simply created a tool that connects people with services. It’s intentionally agnostic, and it works. They’re incredibly effective.

What kind of crew and equipment did you use? Did you experience any challenges?

We used the new Omni 360-degree rig, which is basically just a configuration of six GoPro cameras that can be stitched together using Autopano Pro and edited in Premiere. It’s a technology in transition, but it served us well. We had all the challenges one would expect when shooting near Mosul during the conflict, including some surreally uncomfortable moments at checkpoints and a near miss with mustard gas. I think one of the most memorable challenges was also the most funny, and it’s something that everyone that shoots 360 degree can relate to—that’s the question of where to hide yourself once the camera is turned on! I’d become so used to just standing behind a camera. You can’t do that with 360 degree, so you’re constantly turning the camera on and then sprinting around the corner or hiding behind bushes. Kind of hilarious.

We kept the crew small, never more than we could fit in a Land Cruiser. Mostly just myself, Adam Kaplan, and our fixer Maad Mohammad. Al Kamalizad and Rawand Saeed were also key allies during the shoot. Special Order Inc provided critical production support from Los Angeles, and Sinosa Loa and Adam Samuel Goldman created the sound design and music bed that really brought it all together. It’s a remarkable group of individuals, and I feel incredibly lucky to work with them.

Aaron Ohlmann appears in footage using the 360-degree camera in Qayyarah, Iraq.

Why 360?

I’ve been working lately in pretty challenging, occasionally traumatic parts of the world, and when I get back to Los Angeles, one of the questions I’m most afraid of is, “How was it?” It’s a reasonable question, of course, but I hate it! It’s absolutely humiliating because it draws in sharp focus how inarticulate and stupid I become when trying describe a situation or place that moved me, but lacks any shared reference points. It’s frustrating because you know if you really had the vocabulary to describe certain kinds of experiences and realities that are being lived right now, if you could share those with a wider audience, the world would be a much different and perhaps slightly less terrifying place.

That’s exactly the promise of VR (virtual reality), right? I remember reading the Wired article that billed it as an empathy building machine and thought, “Of course! Yes! This isn’t just another medium, this is an actual tool.” If done right, you won’t have to tell people, you can just show them.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It’s both incredibly heroic and incredibly arrogant to parachute into a foreign country and think you can help.[/quote]

Clearly there’s still a ways to go. VR isn’t there yet. AR (augmented reality) is even more exciting, but really isn’t there yet. But this particular project lent itself well to the medium, even given the limitations of 360 degree, because it wasn’t very ambitious. We simply wanted to be in the Iraq call center, hear calls as they come in, and then experience the types of environments where the calls are emanating from. It’s a simple structure, and I like the contrast between this hyper normal-looking office environment that houses the call center and these spaces that are literally still on fire from the war, like the oil fields in Qayyarah or the shell of the Mosul Public Library or the IDP (internally displaced person) camps nearby. Hopefully it articulates a sense of place that I can’t when asked to use words.

Aaron Ohlmann shooting in Erbil, Iraq. Photo by Al Kamalizad

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