The Smile Experience

You’ve just experienced something that changed your entire worldview and outlook on life. How do you explain that to someone? Although there's no substitute for real-life experience, virtual reality may be the next best thing. Virtual reality is often used for movies and video games, but entertainment is only one facet of VR. A true VR experience can be educational, inspire empathy and understanding, and provide people a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tonic Design is at the forefront of using emerging technology to create unique, impactful learning experiences. That’s why we decided to help a trusted client transform a simple idea into an immersive VR experience.

Our Collaborators

Johnson & Johnson is known for their work in the pharmaceuticals industry, buy many aren’t aware of their contributions to improving health and quality of life on a global scale. In addition to actively encouraging all employees to participate in community service, J&J also supports Operation Smile, an international medical charity that has provided hundreds of thousands of free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lip, cleft palate, or other facial deformities. J&J wanted a way to allow their employees to preview the volunteer experience in a meaningful way. That’s when the idea to use virtual reality and 360 video came into play.

“You’re in another country, you’re far away in an intense situation, and you’re capturing a lot of emotions – that’s what makes VR the perfect medium for this type of experience,” VR Director Scott Ross stated. “You’d never be able to get this kind of reaction, this intense empathy, if you were just watching through a computer screen.”

We wanted to create something that would transform people from passive to engaged viewers on an Operation Smile mission. Tonic was up for the challenge, but this was going to be something completely different from our past projects.

“From a creative standpoint, the traditional rules of cinematography go out the window in something like this,” Ross explained. “You’re looking at the full environment you want to put someone in, what people you want them to see, and what’s going on. You find or create the right environment and then put the camera/rig in and let it go – nobody is touching the camera as it’s going, there’s no lighting, there’s no set. It’s all real and genuine.”

Our Journey

Finding the right crew to take on such an intensive project wasn’t difficult. Kyle Garvey, our Director of Photography for the project, was more than happy to lend his expertise.

“It’s a good cause and a great opportunity to use VR video. The whole goal with virtual reality is to be transported somewhere in which you wouldn’t normally get to go,” Garvey said. “A lot of people don’t get a chance to go to Morocco, and a lot of the company’s donors don’t get to experience a mission site, so this would be a good way to 'transport' them there.”

It also helped that project participants would get the chance to travel abroad. According to Digital Imaging Technician Xavier Johnson, traveling to Morocco was an adventure in and of itself.

“It was a seriously memorable journey. We had a layover in Madrid before landing in Casablanca, and from then on it was just one breathtaking vista after another. The landscapes, the cities and villages, the people, the food, the language, the sights and smells, the way people socialized - everything was so different than anything I’d ever experienced.”

Despite the hours of prep work, nothing could have prepared the Tonic team for the actual work Project Smile did. Our Managing Director, Justin Mathews, was profoundly moved by what he saw.

“This experience changed my life. It’s so crazy, it’s so intense because you’re in full garb, you’re literally carrying this child who had a facial deformity to his parents after surgery – and one of the mothers said ‘I knew he was going to be repaired but I didn’t know he was going to be perfect.’ And everyone is crying – it’s very emotional.”

Our Mission

The families that seek out the services of Operation Smile were in dire need of help. Children and their entire families were shunned because of their facial deformities. They were forcibly sent out into the hills of their villages and isolated from their communities. Families couldn’t afford the surgery, so they camped out for days waiting for the event, and hoped that their kids would be some of the lucky few that were chosen. Ideally anybody that came would get medical attention, but patients had to meet a strict set of requirements to qualify for the surgery. The pre-op testing process was intense--something as seemingly innocuous as a cold could disqualify a child from surgery.

“During those days, I saw and interacted with more children with facial deformities, often severe, than I had ever seen in my entire life. It’s not something you ever get used to really,” Johnson explained. “Some of the older children, you could tell, understood the extent of their affliction, but many of the younger ones seemed to have no idea that they were any different from anyone else. They seemed blissfully unaware of the countless opportunities they would miss out on if they were not selected to receive the treatment they so desperately needed, and make no mistake, most of them were not. There was simply not enough time or resources. Their smiles were malformed, gaping, and heartbreakingly genuine and full of hope and innocence.”

Making a monumental medical project like this takes a lot of time and effort, but Ms. Fouzia Mahmoudi, Operation Smile Morocco's Co-founder and Vice President, helped make everything happen. Fouzia dealt with arranging transportation, getting medical supplies, and even made sure that the facility, Hopital Provincial El Jadida, was properly cleaned and sterilized before the work began. Thanks to the work of countless Moroccan officials, patient families, and Operation Smile, hundreds of lives were transformed in just one week. In the end our crew took home more than just 360 video footage.

“To say it was an emotional experience would be an understatement,” Johnson explained. “Jet lagged, hungry, exhausted physically and emotionally, I wept for these children. I wept for the ones that wouldn’t receive treatment, I wept with joy for the ones that would. I wept in awe of the nurses and staff and of the massive difference they were making. And then I wiped my eyes and went back to work. We all did.”

When all was said and done it took over 1,000 total hours to complete the final video for Operation Smile. Curious about what it takes to pull off such a massive project? In the second part of our Operation Smile post, you’ll learn more about the technical and planning aspects of the project.