Above, Benjamin Crockett spent one week in Lebanon serving with Jesuit Refugee Service to document life in a refugee camp; he believes that true storytelling is putting oneself in others’ shoes. He is also shown preparing to film refugees in Malawi. (Photos by Jill Drzewiecki and Isabelle Shively, JRS, as well as YouTube videos)
Meet the Millennial Who Is Taking Virtual Reality to the Front Lines of the Church
Harvard graduate student pursues his dreams in Rome.
Disney-raised and Harvard educated, Benjamin Crockett, 28, dropped everything during the second year of his thesis at Harvard Divinity School to take a sabbatical in Rome.
His mission is to use the latest technology in virtual reality to document the Church and her advocacy.
“I want to resurrect that sense of heroic Christianity that the Church has always been involved in but that I think has largely been forgotten,” said Crockett.
What better way than virtual reality, he thought.
Virtual reality — VR — immerses oneself into a near-to-real-life environment, usually discovered through VR goggles or hand-held devices.
As a growing professional in virtual reality, Crockett explains that VR registers in the brain as a memory. It captivates the audience by allowing them to be in the shoes of the protagonist; therefore, the body “becomes” part of the experience and the memory hits deeper and lasts longer.
“You’re able to empower people and create this idea of first-person storytelling, where the audience is at the heart of the experience,” he told the Register.
Collaborating with EWTN’s Rome office, Crockett films multiple virtual-reality projects using the Samsung Galaxy Gear 360 camera and the GoPro Omni, which is comprised of six GoPros shaped in a cube. He also helps with the social-media networks from the Rome office.
“By harnessing and employing this technology, EWTN remains at the forefront of constantly developing communications technologies,” said Alan Holdren, EWTN Rome Bureau chief.
Thus far, Crockett has filmed a pilgrimage series through the 44 “Station Churches” of Rome and collaborated with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) to film refugee camps in Malawi and Lebanon, as well as other celebrations, events and interviews in Rome.
In Malawi, he gave the 360-degree camera to refugees to give a tour of their lives in the camp. Jill Drzewiecki, campaign and philanthropy officer at JRS, used this VR content to promote their work in advocating for refugees on social media, and she is excited to explore what more potential VR has in the future.
“Rather than simply telling the audience a story, I want to give them an experience,” Crockett said.
With his aspiration to link every story to an action, his most sought-out endeavor is to create the Church’s first virtual-reality news program called VR2 (pronounced “virtue”), an immersive media brand to inspire, inform and educate the new generation of Catholic youth that takes people to the heart of the Church’s mission.
“I desperately want to go where people aren’t going, tell the stories that people don’t want to tell, and I want to rebrand in the sense that’s attractive to young people,” Crockett said. “I want every piece we do to ‘punch’!”
Crockett grew up with his two younger brothers in a French-cultivated home in Southern California. He studied French every Friday and vacationed to places many American children don’t have the opportunity to go, like Tunisia and Morocco.
Like many SoCal citizens, he developed a love for cinema. Having an uncle who works for Disney, he was glued to blockbusters and realized the power of film at a young age.
This led him to study theater, dance and performance studies at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008. Through acting classes, he grew more comfortable on camera as the news anchor for CalTV, Berkeley’s television station, and spent all of his energy on production.
This paid off when he was accepted into Harvard University’s MFA program that was partnered with the American Repertory Theater and the Moscow Art Theatre at the time.
After studying under some of the Russian master’s teachers, he moved back to L.A. in 2014 and got an agent, Thomas Duffy, who led Crockett through the hoops of the film industry.
Although he was a “starving artist” sleeping on his brother’s couch, Crockett shared how he met a lot of important people in the film world and was cast as an extra in some films, like Room (2015) and The Last Face (2016).
However, his prospective changed when he was auditioning for a Lacoste internet commercial. He remembers playing on the tennis court with hundreds of young men competing for the commercial.
“And I remember thinking I didn’t really want this job. It had no significant consequence,” Crockett acknowledged.
Hurricane Matthew just hit Haiti and the Syrian Civil War was going on, and he started to question what he wanted to do with his life.
“I was saying to myself, ‘Wait, all of this is going on, and you’re spending your energy playing tennis for a commercial where someone is just going to make a buck off you.’”
Soon after, he was reading an article on virtual reality and realized that that technology was what the world needed to document the important events in life. Not knowing exactly how he would take this on, he left theater behind and pursued a master’s of divinity at Harvard University.
“I knew it was a place that all the doors were open, a place where I could take a chance,” he explained.
He took two virtual-reality courses, “Production and Storytelling in VR” and another focused on audio and education. During his studies, he came upon a virtual-reality content filmmaker, Bryn Mooser, who was the first to create VR breaking news in disaster zones. That sparked his idea of taking virtual-reality storytelling to the front lines of the Catholic Church.
“Anything we can do to document, witness and accompany the Church, we have to do it,” he said. “We call ourselves Catholics, and this is our mission.”
But how did his Catholic faith sustain his studying at such a secular university?
“You’re absolutely not protected,” Crockett remarked. “It’s a place that’s going to challenge you, rather than confirm your belief system, and I think in graduate school you’re ready for that.”
With the spiritual support of Harvard’s Catholic chaplain, Father George Smalzman, Crockett brought his idea to Harvard Innovation Labs, an entrepreneurial incubator to unleash innovations through the help of advisers.
“Ben is capable of seeing what’s possible in the media for the Church and to pass on the faith to people in model ways,” Father Smalzman said.
Crockett was introduced to the Harvard Vatican Leadership Summit, and one thing led to another. He was on a plane to Rome to pursue his dreams.
One of Crockett’s main supporters, Dudley Rose, Harvard associate dean of ministry studies, hopes to see his project bear fruit in the way he imagined to bring immersive content to thousands of young people.
“We are also very interested in seeing him experiment, research and test hypotheses,” Rose added. “As his work resides in the technology field and makes use of social media and other electronic means for distribution, he has the ability to learn what demographics he is reaching.”
Crockett says there is so much technological stimulation in the world that is impacting young people dramatically:
“I know sharing is going to change because each generation reacts differently to evangelizing, so we have to change the approach.”
He believes he can succeed in this by equipping the Church with VR technology to reach the young people who aren’t being reached.
“It’s immersive, it’s graphic, and it’s calling you to something much bigger than yourself,” Crockett said.
Halfway through his sabbatical in Rome, Crockett is working full-speed ahead to carry out this venture and will continue his leave of absence from Harvard to do so.
“Now is the moment to jump and take a leap of faith.”
Rachel Lanz is the journalism intern for EWTN in Rome. She blogs at NCRegister.com.