Virtual Reality Storytelling at The New York Times: My First "Annotation Tuesday" Piece for Nieman Storyboard

At the invitation of my old friend and colleague Michael Fitzgerald, I spent some time studying the New York Times' foray into virtual reality filmmaking and wrote a review published today by Nieman Storyboard, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard that focuses on the craft of journalism.

The article takes a look at some of the technical, logistical, and journalistic decisions that went into the making of The Displaced, a dazzling virtual reality film about refugee children, released for mobile and Web platforms in November 2015 by the Times Magazine.

Following Nieman Storyboard's "Annotation Tuesday!" format, I interviewed Jenna Pirog, the NYT contributing editor who produced the film, and matched my questions and her commentary with specific time codes in the film. It was a fun way to get into the material.

In introducing the annotation section, I tried to probe a little into what makes VR films so compelling for viewers, and so potentially powerful as a new tool for storytellers. The easy answer is that it's the sense of agency and immersion the viewer gets from a wrap-around view that can be explored at will, just by turning one's head or moving one's body. It's almost like being inside a video game. But the real genius of The Displaced, which was produced in collaboration with L.A.-based, is that the directors and editors also made subtle use of sound, camera movement, music, titles, and other cues to direct viewers' attention to important action in the surround.

In other words, there's a collaboration going on here. While VR forces the videographers/cinematographers to give up much of their traditional control over the audience's point of view, the reward may be that they're able to prompt viewers to weave their own narratives. For me, as a viewer, there's a sense that I'm discovering the story alongside the filmmaker, or even different stories, on repeated viewings. One impact may be to make the scene or story far more memorable. I haven't seen any audience research on this effect yet, but I expect we'll learn eventually that VR's immersiveness can enhance the material's emotional resonance, and therefore retention and comprehension on the part of the viewer. Pirog calls VR an "empathy machine," which I think is apt.

Of course, new media always come with tradeoffs, and one of the bugaboos with VR right now is the danger of motion sickness. Personally, I can't watch a VR film using my smartphone and my Google Cardboard without experiencing nausea, to the point that I have to rip off the viewer and lie down for a while. I took my lumps for this Neiman Storyboard assignment, and I'm assuming (and Pirog assured me) that technical fixes for this problem are on the way. But at the moment, it's a literal stumbling block.

Also today, Nieman Storyboard published a fascinating interview between Fitzgerald and New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein about VR filmmaking and the magazine's decision to commission the story as the launch project for its virtual reality unit. Finally, there's an insightful "Why Is This So Good?" piece by Abeer Najjar about Susan Dominus's profile of Hana, one of the three children featured in the VR film and the accompanying print story.

Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist