On Thursday, the Guardian’s Special Projects Editor, Francesca Panetta, paid a visit to the YouTube Beach in Cannes to discuss her virtual reality project 6x9, and the role VR has to play in the future of journalism.

As Special Projects Editor at the Guardian, Francesca Panetta has spent a lot of time thinking about the interaction between new media and journalism. Although the Guardian already makes use of animation, podcasting, and video in their reporting, it was their recent virtual reality piece, 6x9 , that propelled them to the forefront of a new wave in digital storytelling. Giving the viewer the perspective of someone in solitary confinement in an American supermax prison, 6x9 is both a powerful piece of journalism, and a compelling example of the potential of a new medium.

For Francesca, the most obvious journalistic quality of VR is its ability to give the viewer a deep understand of place. So when she began looking for a story that might work in VR, it made sense to think of somewhere where the place was inseparable from the story. The Guardian had already written extensively on the subject of solitary confinement, particular in relation to the story of the Angola Three , so the subject felt like a natural fit.

There aren’t any rules yet about how interaction works in virtual reality. We felt like we were starting from scratch.

Francesca Panetta, Special Projects Editor, The Guardian

Once the story had been decided, another set of questions emerged that have relevance for anyone thinking about creating VR content. Are you giving people an experience, or telling them a story? Most video journalism follows the traditional documentary format, with a narrative arc providing a through-line around which the filmmaker can build. In contrast, by placing the viewer within the physical space of the story, VR has the capacity to be purely experiential. In a theme the developed throughout the talk, Francesca emphasised that there are no set rules or audience expectations yet in VR, so the key is to follow your instincts in deciding which approach is right for your project.

Next comes the question of point-of-view. Again, while traditional film generally provides the viewer with the experience of watching other people’s actions, VR can place the viewer in the role of protagonist. Moving from vicarious to active experience gives VR filmmakers a powerful tool in creating empathy, but by placing the viewer in charge, some control over the direction of narrative has to be surrendered. In the end, Francesca and her team settled on a hybrid model for 6x9, providing a virtual experience of sitting in solitary, with narrative elements augmented by audio clips of prisoner interviews and visual effects reflecting the passage of time and the psychological distortions caused by such isolation.

Journalism and Virtual Reality

The decision to shoot in CGI rather than 360 video was a difficult one, with ethical concerns about giving viewers a purely ‘manufactured’ experience. Ultimately the logistical difficulty of gaining access to a supermax prison made using anything other than computer graphics impractical, though this did provide an upside in terms of easing the creation of interactive elements. Francesca cautions that “there aren’t any rules yet about how interaction works in virtual reality,” and that the user experience is difficult to get right without feeling game-like. To avoid these pitfalls, 6x9 uses choreographed motion, guiding the viewer’s movement through the cell during the nine minute experience.

6x9 launched on April 27th, on Android, iOS and Samsung Gear VR, supported by a hub page on the Guardian website full of supplementary stories, FAQs and other content. To promote 6x9, the team also built an installation which they exhibited at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. With the experience of developing and launching 6x9 behind her, Francesca left the audience at Cannes with some lessons she’s learned about turning journalism into VR:

  • Think about why you’re placing the viewer in this VR world: do you want them to watch or participate?
  • If the experience is going to be interactive, invest time in creating the right user interface.
  • Using sound in VR can provide an equivalent to the narrative through-line of traditional film.
  • Be aware of ethical considerations - standards for what is acceptable in VR filmmaking haven’t been set, but experiences shouldn’t feel manufactured or manipulative.
  • Have faith - trust your instinct for how a story should be told.

VR is an immersive medium, more easily experienced than described. To fully appreciate the power of Francesca’s film, slip your phone inside a Google Cardboard and see it for yourself.