The Incredible, Urgent Power of Remembering the Holocaust in VR

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A new virtual reality experience aims to preserve one Holocaust survivor’s story in a whole new way.

PINCHAS GUTTER HAS returned to Majdanek at least a dozen times, but this trip is his final one to the onetime Nazi concentration camp. His first was one he was 11, when he was taken to Majdanek; now he’s 85 years old, and this is the last time he’ll come here to tell people what the Nazis did to his family. As he rides up to the shuttered camp in the backseat of a chauffeured sedan, he talks about why he’s told his story so many times. Without that living, breathing reminder, the Holocaust becomes easy to forget—or even deny. Without personal accounts, Gutter says, it’s hard for people to accept its atrocities as “the gospel truth.”

“Knowledge is one thing, but connecting to history enables us to think about consequences in a deeper more personal way,” says Shoah executive director Stephen Smith. “What this technology allows us to do is learn in a much more immersive way so you don’t forget this.”

Virtual Reality, Not Fake News

Preserving history is more necessary now than ever. Just last week White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, referencing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of sarin gas, said that Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” The misstep led human-rights nonprofit Anne Frank Center to call on President Trump to fire Spicer. The problem runs deeper than gaffes, though; as a recent New York Times story reported, understanding of World War II and of the six million people who died in the Holocaust is fading as the number of survivors diminishes. (Estimates put the number of remaining survivors at around a half-million, and most are in their 80s, if not older.) As Holocaust deniers get bigger megaphones thanks to the internet and anything can be labeled “fake news,” a survivor’s testimony—captured in the camp where he was imprisoned—is about the most powerful tool imaginable for preserving history.

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But, technologically speaking, capturing Gutter’s story wasn’t easy. A standard 360-degree video could have captured Gutter telling his story at Majdanek, but the experience would have been limited; users wouldn’t have been able to move closer to Gutter or get a better look at the camp’s various rooms. For that, you’d need to use a videogame engine to build a CG environment. But then co-creators Gabo Arora (Ground Beneath Her) and Ari Palitz found a workaround: photogrammetry. When they went to Majdanek to film in July 2016, they brought along a crew from graphics company Otoy to capture thousands of images and 3-D scans of the camp. They then captured Gutter telling his story at the camp against greenscreen. When they returned, the team handed over 30,000 pictures and 300 million polygons—basically the pixels in the mesh of a 3-D scan—to VFX company MPC, which then spent the next six months stitching them together to create a VR environment users could explore with Gutter by their side.

It was important that we film Pinchas Gutter in the spaces that he experienced these things during the Holocaust—that we captured those rooms in photogrammetry and he was really there. That way, when users go through this experience they feel like he was connected to the space, as opposed to filming him on a stage in Burbank.LAST GOODBYE CO-DIRECTOR ARI PALITZ

Making the recreation accurate to a pixel-by-pixel level was absolutely integral. Holocaust deniers, Smith notes, often point to small details as proof that something was falsified, and the very point of Last Goodbye was its authenticity. Tim Dillon, MPC’s head of VR, says that as his team went through and pieced together the experience they had a “really important agenda to keep everything extremely factual. … We didn’t want to do anything in modeling or CG terms that seemed fake in any way.” This became particularly tough when the team was trying to remove signage—Majdanek is a museum, now, after all—from the background of shots. It was a tough process, but the result feels as real as anything in VR can right now.

“It was important that we film [Pinchas Gutter] in the spaces that he experienced these things during the Holocaust—that we captured those rooms in photogrammetry and he was really there,” says co-director Ari Palitz. “That way, when users go through this experience they feel like he was connected to the space, as opposed to filming him on a stage in Burbank.”

History Presented by Hamilton’s Set Designer

When users go through Gutter’s experience this week at Tribeca, they’ll be doing it in a room-scale HTC Vive setup. They’ll also be going through it on a set created by David Korins, Hamilton’s production designer—who has also designed stage sets for Lady Gaga and Kanye West. The structure sits atop a bed of gravel and is covered in mirrors. The idea, Korins says, was for the space to reflect its environment and also each person’s reaction. “There are so many emotional on-ramps that people have with regard to this subject matter that I think I would be presumptuous to try and prescribe,” Korins says. “My hope is that the kind of environment we’ve created allows for anyone’s attachment to history, whether it’s incredibly specific or it’s just a vague idea, can have a place to live.”

Artist rendering of the Last Goodbye VR installation.

After Tribeca, Last Goodbye will become part of the Shoah Foundation’s archive of thousands of testaments from genocide survivors. But it won’t just be shut away; it will appear in a stripped-down form on VR app Within. (Here Be Dragons, Within’s VR production sister company, co-produced the experience with Shoah, MPC, and Otoy.) It will also, Smith says, be made available to classrooms via Shoah’s IWitness website. There’s also the possibility that it could find its way into museums or other installations.

As Last Goodbye winds down, Gutter sits on a bench in a Warsaw park, not far from the ghetto where his family was held before being taken to Majdanek. Aa young boy on a scooter rolls up, sits down next to him, and tries on his pageboy-style hat. In voiceover, Gutter says he hopes one day there will be an end to the kind of violence he witnessed: “I don’t know if it’ll be my lifetime. But maybe yours? Hopefully.”

That’s the future Goodbye is trying to bring about. “He’s been there multiple times, spoken to multiple groups, and reached several hundred people,” Smith says, “but now what this does is reach hundreds or thousands or maybe millions of people, ultimately, with a very similar experience of what it means to go to these places.” And, perhaps, not make them feel so far removed.

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