He realised that there was a huge opportunity to bring people closer to the realities of human tragedies in places from Nepal to Burma, without the ‘poverty porn’ dilemma. Technology was now at a point where it could be used to encourage altruism rather than hinder it. A slate of new mixed media tools became available; virtual reality, augmented reality and 360 video. Since its foundation in 2012, Bryn’s media company RYOT has utilised these tools with incredible success to produce a series of exceptionally moving documentaries and shorts both Emmy and Oscar-nominated. Bryn and his co-founder David Barg are betting big that immersive video journalism will transform the news and this prediction hasn’t gone unnoticed. The pair recently sold their company RYOT for between $10 million and $15 million to Verizon.
Bryn is on a mission to bring the tenets of the Peace Corps to VR. Whilst these are certainly admirable aims, he is working against the accessibility of the technology and the paralysing polarisation of the new world in which we find ourselves. We sat down with Bryn to discuss why he’s betting big on this new technology-infused media, how Susan Sarandon became his biggest mentor [Elon Musk comes in at second] and why he would rather just give everyone LSD and move to Joshua Tree.
I’ll be totally honest with you, I didn’t know anything about you or RYOT a few weeks ago, even though you are one of the biggest mixed media agencies out there. So is RYOT a predominantly American phenomenon?
We grew very quickly in America with our specialty of documentary films and then new formats, so virtual reality and augmented reality. As a company, we were the first to shoot a VR film in a war zone, first to shoot in a natural disaster, using the technology to really bring people closer to what’s happening in the world, hopefully to bring about some sort of compassion and then activate people to do something about it.
But when we were acquired by Verizon and AOL, and we were the first VR content company to be acquired, we slowly started to integrate into parts of their company.
So it’s new, but I would hope that in a year’s time if we talk again, you would be saying ‘Oh my god, everyone knows RYOT’, it just hasn’t hit yet.
You have a really interesting background, working in the Peace Corps. I’m always a bit sceptical about entrepreneurs that want to be activists, but you are the other way around – an activist that became an entrepreneur. Tell me about the confluence of those different pursuits? Is it tricky meddling money with your heart?
That’s a really great question. I was lucky enough to move to Zimbabwe when I was 16. My mom was a Fulbright Scholar so I went off with her for a couple years and fell in love with sub-Saharan Africa and the culture there. When I went off to join the Peace Corps it was a case of both of those worlds colliding, doing the things that felt fulfilling in life and that brought me joy.
From when I was a kid, filmmaking and entertainment have always been my passion. So really what I was looking for was that confluence of telling stories, making art and also trying to maybe make the world a little bit better. When I came back from the Peace Corps I had this weird combination of skills. Because I had grown up in LA and New York, a lot of my friends had gone on to become what we now call ‘influencers’ or celebrities, acting and playing music, so I had an interesting network. The other part of it was that I knew a lot about development work. So I started working with celebrities and influencers to help them figure out how they could get involved and do good in the world. I started to travel a lot with them, which is how I ended up in Haiti after the earthquake for a couple years.
I think for me, the part about moving to become an entrepreneur was that I wanted to create a bigger impact, and I wanted to create that impact at scale. I’ve been working with and for non-profits for a long time. I don’t anymore because I finally realised that the impact of non-profits was just too limited and too political.
"I think it’s very easy to throw a celebrity into a far-off place and show a kid with flies in their eyes"
When does what you do tip over into ‘poverty porn’ in your view? Do you ever feel this need to tread carefully and be sensitive to how you frame the narrative of tragedy in your story?
Yes, I think about it every time I embark on a film or on a trip. Look, we work really hard to make sure that anywhere we are going in the world, our stories are empowering people, not taking advantage of them. I think it’s very easy to throw a celebrity into a far-off place and show a kid with flies in their eyes, with the celebrity crying and asking for money. I figure that’s something that we’ve worked really hard to avoid by telling stories that highlight local heroes, like Body Team 12, the film we made about the Ebola crisis.
I think your films are very well made but I find it really hard to watch stories like that. I can’t even watch the news because I don’t want to subject myself to seeing these morbid stories.
I think that whether or not we turn on the TV to see it, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening in the world, so we want to make sure that we are telling the stories. In Body Team 12 about Ebola, we tell the story of a young Liberian female doctor called Garmai who is a hero. When you watch that film, which was nominated for an Oscar, you feel an immense amount of hope in the face of total devastation and despair.
I hope that our work tries to open up that window to the world, letting people experience it and hopefully not making people afraid of it but actually making them want to be a part of it and do something.
So the people in these places that you make films about, say Garmai in Liberia, do they get the chance to see your films?
Yes, 100%. We don’t take the camera out right away when we get there; these are all people that we have built up relationships with. Garmai, for instance, we were working as humanitarians bringing clothes in for her when they were disinfecting different areas. It wasn’t until weeks after that we thought it would be a really great story. Garmai loves the film, it made her a local hero in the community and we went back to do some screenings.
People have been doing this wrong for a long time. There’s a fine line between exploitation and telling a great story of hope, heroism and all those other things.
Bryn Mooser at his office in Los Angeles
You’ve said a number of times in interviews that you feel that video has led to an incredible democratisation for news, that news has always been a one-way stream of information and your goal is to get people involved and activated. I think this forms the crux of what you are doing so I want to explore it a bit. If someone donates money to a cause is that your job done?
I shot a documentary in Bangladesh 4 years ago as part of a UN agency. Afterwards, they asked me to go into a local college and teach a little class about filmmaking. I met a kid there who literally wrote me this morning, and I didn’t even remember meeting him because it was a while ago, but he said in this email: ‘Hey Bryn, I just want to let you know that I met you 4 years ago, you taught a great class and afterwards we had a great conversation when I told you that I loved Western films. Then you sent me an iPhone and because of that I have become a filmmaker, I’ve just become a producer on my first film that comes out in America next month. I’m 40% of the way in my fundraising goal to do my own feature film. I can’t thank you enough for just giving me the spark that got me started.’ To me, that’s what it’s about.
When we first started RYOT, it was about telling stories to raise money for the local organisations so that they can continue their work, but as we grew it became more about how we can use these stories to inspire people. Sometimes the effect of it isn’t as simple as just building a school, job done.
You have stated many times that you are an optimist. Many people feel like institutions across the world are broken – healthcare, the political system and a lot of socials systems. People feel disaffected, and technology certainly hasn’t helped, forcing people into these silos. VR and AR can be these incredible tools, but my personal opinion is that VR isn’t going to encourage empathy. do you agree?
America is a very isolated island. I don’t think people even realised how incredibly isolated it is until this past election; we’ve been shaken to our absolute core. I’m an eternal optimist but I am at breaking point with my own country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a blind optimist at all, but I believe that if I give up that belief that we can actually make things better then we are totally screwed and we will all have to move to Mars.
Anyway, the first VR film I made was with Susan Sarandon in Nepal after the earthquake. As a storyteller I had never been able to capture a natural disaster by showing the true scope and scale of it. But when we put a headset on people and they could stand on the broken streets of Kathmandu, look all around them and see that the entire community was destroyed, they took off the headsets and they were literally crying, That had never happened to me as a filmmaker. I remember at that moment thinking if I went out on the street and said to people, ‘Hey, I just shot a movie about an earthquake in Nepal. Do you want to watch it on my iPhone?’, they would have said no and walked on. But when you are standing there in a headset, people want to see. There is a power in that.
A selection of imagery from an exclusive exhibition curated by Bryn and Susan during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin
Susan Sarandon is a fascinating person. You knew each other before but how did this mentorship project come about?
Susan and I have worked a lot together; in Haiti, Nepal, in Greece during the refugee crisis, and she was asked by Mercedes-Benz to be part of this project to envision what the future of Mercedes-Benz will look like, which I believe is an exciting electric future. Part of this project was about looking at the next generation, so for Susan that was the next generation of activists. Susan asked me to do it, and if Susan asked me to do anything I would jump out of my seat to do it because I think she is one of the greatest living voices for progress and change. She is oftentimes very controversial in what her views are but she really stands by them and takes a lot of heat, which is impressive.
What did you learn through your mentorship with Susan?
To me, Susan is like getting a shot of amphetamines in the arm; I feel excited and ready to go to the frontline alongside her so to speak. I think she’s a very talented artist for one, but she also figured out very early on how to use her platform wisely and what the purpose of her platform is to make real change in the world. She supported Hilary Clinton heavily in the election, which lost her a lot of supporters but also gained supporters, and I think she has been incredibly brave in how she has stood behind her convictions, even in this post-Trump world. She believes that the world we can create is a greater one, even greater than one that Hilary Clinton as president would have been able to make and that we should strive for that.
She’s the person that truly inspires me and that I would go to the ends of the earth with.
Behind Scenes at the Mercedes-Benz #mbcollective Fashion Story Chapter Two shoot in LA
The founder of VR Jaron Lanier has said that VR has the potential to be used as the ultimate behaviourist toolbox. I argued with him that it could, if used for nefarious purposes, be the most evil tool introduced to mankind. You are doing a great service by using it in a humanitarian way.
Look, If I could just give everyone psychedelic mushrooms and take them to Joshua Tree we could really change the world, but I’m not allowed to do that yet so for now I’ll just stick to VR films.
But there’s an interesting thing you should see from this company called Nvdia, who created this augmented reality tool to make it look like the weather around you has changed. It seems like a very simple thing but they show a picture of a road through the windshield of a driving car on a snowy day, and then a picture of the after effect where it’s this beautiful summer day. That’s where you start to see this huge possibility of a reality shift.
Then you start getting into what I think your fear is about, which is gaslighting, where you can actually start to lie to people and manipulate them. My counter-argument to that would be that the media has been doing this forever, if you just look at how our president is using Twitter, so what’s the difference? Maybe VR can be more powerful.
With this Nvidia tool, reality is totally indistinguishable from the augmented reality, so all of a sudden we are asking these great philosophical questions about why we are here, do we really exist, who created us etc. That’s where the rabbit hole takes you, which I find fascinating.
So you have this huge media company with offices around the world, but you are dealing with a very nascent technology. When does VR become this ubiquitous thing in our lives?
I’m not betting on VR with the headsets as the way to look at it. If you look at all of our early films, we made over 200 films meant to be watched on your phone with 360 video. That was very deliberate because the way people consume content now, 80% of people consume it on their phone and 80% of the content is video anyway. So to me, when I saw a year and a half ago that the major players in video, YouTube and Facebook, were going to enable 360 video in their video players, there was a moment that I thought something incredibly practical, as an entrepreneur: if the way that you are going to watch videos on your phone is about to change that means there is a giant opportunity to radically transform every type of content made for video – news, documentary, music videos etc. That was the opportunity, not like you put on a headset at the back of some film festival, have an experience, drink a glass of Chardonnay and eat some cheese. That’s what everybody does now and it’s the worst; it feels elitist, it’s garbage.
I downloaded the RYOT app, zoomed around some of these videos, so as a consumer, explain to me how this is going to change mobile video consumption?
I think that we are at the very first phase of that. For example, this week in the US we brought the Christmas cover of Entertainment Weekly to life where you hold your phone over it, using either the RYOT app or the Time Inc. app, and The Rock [Dwayne Johnson] starts singing a song and doing a little dance.
Again, we are taking baby steps, so while what we are doing might not make sense now, it makes sense as part of the evolution of what’s coming.
There are new places where people haven’t even heard or watched a story before, like I think about when self-driving cars become the biggest thing in the world in 5 years – I don’t imagine a world where there is a taxi driver in New York 5 years from now. So what are you going to do when you are riding in the back of this self-driving taxi? You’re going to want to watch films and stories and videos, and I don’t think you are going to want to watch it on this tiny little screen; I think there are going to be projections and things on windows, a wearable or a contact lens.
I literally believe that we are only at the beginning of what this technology does, and it’s a disservice to everyone to just say that the technology of putting on this clunky headset with a shitty pixelated VR experience is going to change the world, game over, we did it.
"It’s a disservice to everyone to just say that the technology of putting on this clunky headset with a shitty pixelated VR experience is going to change the world, game over, we did it."
You are part of the new guard of media. You remind me a lot of Vice without the cynicism or sarcasm. You are creating great media that will connect people to real stories where they are able to help. You have some of Vice’s DNA. how do you view them?
Although I think our DNA is very different to Vice and I never wanted to be them, I’m glad that they did what they did in arming people with simple cameras and turning around stories really quickly, highlighting artists and new parts of culture.
I think we see the world very differently. Shane [Smith] sees a very fucked up and complicated world where I see a world with an incredible amount of beauty that also has an insane amount of complication, but one that we can see hope in and look at solutions rather than just watch and laugh at it.
I want to know what you think about traditional media in general because it seems like the media institution has become exactly that; so institutionalised that we see the pillars of it falling. It’s disheartening and awkward at the same time, but now new media companies like you can arise from nothing. It’s incredible really.
We talked a little bit at the beginning about the democratisation of storytelling, and I think it’s super fascinating that anyone with a camera and Internet connection can make a media company. That’s the climate where RYOT was born, but it’s also the climate where fake news was born and caused a lot of political upheaval and disruption. But to think that the other way was somehow pure, with people like Rupert Murdoch owning such a huge percentage of what the old media was. I wake up everyday thanking god for the New York Times, but even that is a set of owners with one voice and agenda. So I think that there is a moment in disruption that gives rise to new voices, and what is happening in the US right now around sexual assault and the changes going on in the entertainment and media industry is an absolutely extraordinary thing to behold, and the old system is burning to the ground.
When Trump came into power he talked about ‘draining the swamp’, and even though I campaigned very hard against him, that was the only thing I liked the idea of. I don’t think we thought it was going to be on our side of the political spectrum but this is exactly what is happening. There is an upheaval of everything we know and we are now at a crossroads and we have to make a choice, because the way that we are currently living isn’t sustainable. That might be about something like universal income. Going back to the point about self-driving cars, in something like 20 states in America the number one job for men is driving, so we are moving into a scary moment where a huge proportion of our society may not have a job, especially those with less education or financial standing. It’s a dynamic moment in time.
Bryn Mooser appears alongside Susan Sarandon in Chapter Two of the Mercedes-Benz #mbcollective Fashion Story
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