At Guardian News & Media’s London headquarters, Francesca Panetta, executive editor, virtual reality, leads a team whose backgrounds include journalism, documentary, film, and hybrid forms. With nine virtual reality films by the Guardian on view at the Phi Centre’s Virtual Reality Garden, we spoke with her about these works, the studio, and bringing VR into journalism.
What’s your approach and the story behind the Guardian’s VR studio?
We did a prototype piece, which launched April 2016, 6X9, and after that, set up a studio and an in-house team. In terms of our strategy and approach to VR, it's been very much about looking at what the form uniquely does, which is give you a sense of presence in a place and possibly give you a role in that scene, so we've been very much thinking about what kind of stories the Guardian is interested in that really relate to that form. A lot of the time, it's been first‑person storytelling, where you are given the position of... whether it’s through the eyes of a baby, or an exploration, you are essentially taking someone else's point of view. We also work with situations where embodiment makes sense.
And at the same time, you’re covering stories that are newsworthy and of the moment.
Yeah, exactly. I see our work informed by our journalism. Before we make any piece, for instance, First Impressions, we spent a good couple of months talking to experts in baby labs about what visual development is, what sensory development is for babies, talking to academics about the effects of neglect and lack of social contact. Then, we interpret that as an embodied experience. You might not necessarily need a whole lot of audio information, for example, or facts coming at you, just very sensitively visually realizing (in that example) what it looks like for a baby—in a way that tells a very journalistic story in itself, even though you don't have lots of voice-over saying, “This is exactly what happens at week three...” Just the fact that it is unfolding gives you a good sense of what it's like. It's trying to basically take the journalism and put it as well as possible into that form.
These works represent a variety of subjects and range of styles, from the relatively light‑hearted Beat the Hustler to the surreal visuals of Limbo. Was this variety part of the studio’s intention from the beginning?
We are interested in innovating and experimenting. There needs to be a cohesion to all of our pieces, which there is in our approach; kind of experiential storytelling. But I think in terms of the aesthetic of it, we're totally up for experimenting and finding the best approach for each piece. It might be CGI; Underworld and 6X9 were modelled worlds. Limbo was a piece in which we wanted to give the sense of disembodiment, of being disconnected and set adrift in a world that's very unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable. Like when you reach a new country and are given very limited things that you can do. And also, that experience of being in limbo and not knowing if you're going to be able to stay before you're given refugee status; we really wanted to give that sense in the aesthetics of the piece.
Can you please share some insight about your studio process?
We do the research first of all, and figure out what the storyline is. In that case, we interviewed a lot of people around the country who had either been refugees and had gone through the asylum-seeking process or were currently still seeking asylum in this country. We take those interviews and try to figure out: What are the strongest elements in that story, and what is it that we really want to convey? Once we've figured that out, well, is it interactive? What is the perspective? Are you the asylum seeker or are you watching one person's story? Do you see them? Is it a montage of different stories? Are you listening to them? All of these things… very much of the conceptual stage is figuring out what that focus is, and also the logistics of it; is there one person that's strong enough out of everyone we've interviewed, or is it better to have a number of different perspectives? And then, really, what is it? What's at the heart of the piece, and what is it you're trying to convey? What is the goal of the piece and what is it you want people to leave with?
It’s also interesting to see how VR can work together with other forms. You can do the VR piece, experience the feeling, and if you like, access more information through a written piece or other form.
We're very lucky here because we are a large media organization. We can write complementary articles that sit alongside the pieces. For instance, for the baby piece, our science reporter wrote a piece about the trips to the baby labs and the latest science out there. Here, we can do podcasts, videos... The Guardian does media in every single form, really, so we just pick the most appropriate form to tell the additional material around that story.
What have you learned so far?
Well, I'm doing philosophy courses in the evenings. So I'm thinking a lot about reality. I've been spending evenings thinking of how we perceive reality and how fixed it is, and spend my daytime trying to create various types of reality to step you into. I think they all kind of follow the same structure, which is, essentially, there isn't one fixed reality. And what we're doing, whether it's in our real lives or whether it's in the works that we're making, is kind of portraying different ways of seeing the world and the sense that there isn't one fixed perspective, but that in our individual lives we narrate our own stories inside our heads and tell ourselves what our reality is. Now, as storytellers, we're very interested in trying to narrate other people's reality and other experiences. So it is very interesting from that perspective.
The Virtual Reality Garden offers this program for the duration of the exhibition Lucid Realities in which it's featured. Tickets for the exhibition will be required to visit the Garden.
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