Ph.D. candidate presents VR work at Appalachian Studies conference
By: Yasmeen Ebada
Aaron Atkins, an E.W Scripps School of Journalism doctoral candidate, had his work accepted for presentation at the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA) in March 2019 in Asheville, N.C.
The ASA presentation, a 360-degree virtual reality exploration, “Appalachian Culture: Music and Microbrews - Integrating sustainable development with rural tradition,” was completed in collaboration with Media Arts and Studies Ph.D. candidate Franklyn Charles. Atkins and Charles shot a 360VR documentary short on two Appalachian traditions being kept alive in Athens. They shot a group of local old-time musicians who meet for weekly jam sessions in an effort to keep the tradition alive. The pair shot inside Little Fish Brewery in Athens to highlight the business’ traditional farmhouse ales and local-first business practice. As part of the presentation, they gave a VR demonstration using head-mounted displays to explain the production process and its subjects’ cultural significance.
“We wanted to focus on something local, something Appalachian, something that explored the often at-odds technological modernization with the unique and deep-rooted cultural tradition of the region,” said Atkins, also the chair of the Association for Education and Journalism and Mass Communication’s Graduate Student Interest Group.
Atkins and Charles have worked on various projects together since 2017 when they both realized they shared a passion for culture and production work.
“Working with Aaron is great, we jelled immediately, and we have completed a variety of successful projects together for the program,” Charles said.
This project was done as part of GRID Lab guru Eric Williams’ 360-degree virtual reality storytelling class in the MDIA department. Atkins and Charles entered the project into the spring 2018 Student Research and Creative Activity Expo along with the undergraduate students who helped with the project and won a second prize award for community awareness.
“We had an idea, rolled the dice and lucked out on what we found as far as the story goes, but we were strategic and careful as to how we shot it,” Atkins said.
Both Atkins and Charles are music fans and wanted to explore old-time music since it is a huge part of the Appalachian culture.
“We found a jam session that met weekly at a local microbrewery, Little Fish, and discovered it built its business model on crafting farmhouse ales, another Appalachian cultural tradition,” Atkins said. “We decided to put the two together, using old-time music to set up the segment on Little Fish, then use Little Fish to help tell the old-time story.”
Atkins said each shoot in the project uncovered new challenges for the both of them, whether it was lighting, audio or even something as simple as interviewing.
“We decided we didn’t want the interviewer, me, in the shot, so I had to figure out how to conduct interviews without being able to see my subject. I hid behind walls, barrels, columns and vats. It wasn’t easy, but we made it work.”
Atkins said the project can help others explore 360VR journalism production while still learning some of the fundamental challenges of the medium.