What is the next step for video journalism? This broad question might find its answer in projects such as 6×9 by The Guardian.
The new media project 6×9 will take users into the experience of solitary confinement by using virtual reality technology. Francesca Panetta, multimedia special projects editor, gives more details about it:
“6×9” is an immersive experience of solitary confinement in US prisons, which places viewers in a virtual segregation cell which they can explore and interact with. It aims to tell a story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation.
The public app 6×9 will launch on April.
The psychological effects create reality
According to The Guardian, 80,000 to 100,000 people are kept in solitary confinement in US prisons. This means 22-24 hours a day within concrete walls, with minimal or even no human contact at all. While for some inmates this experience can last for days, some live under these circumstances for years or even decades.
Psychology specialists were consulted for this project to give feedback on what solitary confinement means for both human body and mind:
Leading academic psychologists Dr Terry Kupers and Dr Craig Haney explain the physiological effects viewers experience – such as vision blur, sensations of floating and apparitions in the peripheral vision of viewers.
Campaigners protest against solitary confinement criticising it as a form of torture, and not rehabilitation. Albert Woodfox, the US prisoner who lived the longest known solitary confinement, for 43 years, was released recently and spoke publicly about it. He now campaigns to ban such practices.
What to expect from VR solitary cell
The 6×9 project aims at giving the users the possibility of seeing the experience from within. Such an ambition would be difficult to achieve with any other current technology than VR. Since it is solitary confinement, one could hardly interact in any other ways to an inmate who lives under such circumstances.
But then how do you create a project like this? How do you document it? How do you get the accurate content you need?
The virtual reality is created based on the stories of 7 former inmates. They talk the viewers into the film, guiding them through what is happening and telling them what to expect.
The makers of the project intended to create an experience which places the viewer in the middle of the video content. They are the ones who experience it as closely as possible, instead of watching it from an outside perspective.
Technology takes journalism one step further
According to the team, the viewers will be able to create and experience their own story in solitary confinement circumstances. They say this will not be a “one size fits all” type of content.
Expectations for this project are high, due to its innovative technology. The Guardian team working on this say:
6×9 is breaking new ground in journalism. Most non-fiction documentaries are 360 videos with the audience as observer. 6×9 places the audience as protagonist, able to interact with the environment.
Using VR technology for journalism and film making might have sounded like something out of science fiction movies a decade ago. Nowadays, with the development of media, as well as neuroscience, filming techniques and digitalization, it becomes a distinct possibility to be explored.
VR projects draw more and more attention in the movie industry, as well as fascinate the audience. Read about 5 VR installations presented at Sundance Film Festival 2016.
When you lead the visual team for a big media outlet such as The Guardian, you might have one or two things to say about multimedia journalism. Xaquin Gonzalez, the head of Guardian Visuals, gives advice to journalists who want to specialize in this type of work.
Xaquin (middle) discusses a few Guardian projects with students from Birmingham City University, together
with Paul Bradshaw and Helena Bengtsson, editor for the Data Projects team
Where can a multimedia journalist start today? Find inspiration in different visual forms, work in a team and place themselves first in the users’ shoes.
Xaquin lists the following as the best advices he can give an aspiring journalist:
- Put yourself in the user’s shoes. And the question to ask, says Xaquin, is:
Why would I waste my time consuming this story?
With the why comes the how as well.
- Edit your piece until you leave every loose, unnecessary piece of information out. The allure of giving everything we had the pleasure to discover about a story temps everybody:
As authors sometimes we get blinded by our attachment to every piece of our work, it’s really good to leave things out.
In my experience, it has been much easier to edit other people’s texts than to cut my own ruthlessly.
- Experiment with non-journalistic forms of story-telling. Xaquin names artistic installations and experimental games as possible inspirations.
A few visual project from The Guardian can serve as example of what the head of the visual team is talking about. I am going to use the visual/multimedia projects from the online version of the newspaper later.
Now I want to give two examples from two movies, each involving techniques from different visual fields to add to the story. Both capture the deep setting of what happens to the characters, giving a more first-hand impression than the traditional third person narrative.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach hallucinates when isolated in the jungle by the other members of the small island community. The hallucination scenes gain strength from using video games like techniques, which also makes them very familiar to a number of viewers.
Edward Norton’s monologue in The 25th Hour stays memorable because of the technique used. Such monologues come from a strong theatre tradition. The images inserted give a documentary-style view of what the character is talking about.
Journalists can approach their video projects the same way, combining techniques from different fields. We can study and experiment until we can bend that technique to the needs of reporting or visualising our stories.
- How are you going to set the narrative structure? Xaquin says:
Really think about the narrative structure, like non-linear storyline in a linear story form (Memento, Rashomon, Reservoir Dogs), or a linear storyline in a non-linear story form (most timeline-based step-by-step guides).
Let us go back to The 25th Hour (spoiler alert).
What director Spike Lee does here is take the last day in this guy’s life before he goes to prison for drug dealing. The character spends time with his friends, tries not to think about the next day, and then get a lift with his dad to prison. Despite going with a very linear type story (what a certain man does before getting locked away for a few years), the storyline is filled with scenes from the recent past, showing how the character got here.
Also, Spike Lee twists the whole plot with the 25 hour of the day: what if his father did not take him to jail, but across the border, in Mexico, how will this choice change his life?
I have talked to a few people about this movie and some of them do not agree the man accepts his fate and goes to jail. They believe he actually goes for the alternative. I remember it otherwise.
Interrogative techniques of seeding the question in a non-evident way are also to be taken into consideration.
- Know what you want your work to show. As Xaquin explains:
Think of the purpose, the mission of your work. Is it to reveal something hidden to a general audience? Or do you want to help a community heal through storytelling? At any rate, don’t think the story belongs to you, but to the audience or the subjects, you’re the messenger.
This brings us to the necessity of being impartial and not bending a story as to express what we think is right. We, as journalists, are reporting, not fabricating stories or filling gaps with what we think should be there.
It is the reason why you are required to have as many sources as possible, and at least 3. Your reporting needs to be accurate and cover all sides of the story so it makes sense to your readers/users.
- Team work makes the difference. Xaquin explains why:
If you want a nuanced, multi-layered, rich, visual experience, you need multiple skills. You’re likely not going to have them all. And no skill should be held as more important than another.
So being democratic in your team approach is also an absolute must.
A good example to illustrate Xaquin’s words on this is the Unafordable country project. The Data team collected and provided the information, they found the actual story, which the visual team brought to life with their work. Would any of the two sides of this project worked if the two teams did not work together?
I must say Birmingham is possibly the best city in the UK to report on faith. Since I have started to know the communities around churches and mosques, the charities such as St Basils, the social activists here, it gave me that feeling of real community cohesion.
When you find that in a city of over 1.1 million people, it is quite something, don’t you think?
Since I have started my MA in Online Journalism with Paul Bradshaw at Birmingham City University, I discovered multimedia as a form which can be used to its full potential on the web. All I have done so far (including this blog, which is due a renovation soon) seems just child play compared to what I could do.
With a BA in Theology and Literature, I decided to cover Faith for the local news website quite soon into my MA studies. It took a while though to figure out how to make a presentation for the new section.
Using a few sterile words, some links and photos did not seem enough.
Doing a documentary-style presentation which would involve local representatives of different faiths seemed too much. Overstretching my skills did not sound like the best idea and it could have taken a lot longer.
So I decided to go for this.
Filming myself: mistakes
For starters, let us consider this video.
I have never filmed myself before, and through trial and error, I have managed to record a piece which works for its intended purpose.
What do I mean by trial and error exactly?
First, I wrote down a text. I did not feel confident enough to speak freely in a video which represents Birmingham Eastside and the Faith section I see as future investment not only for myself, but for other young journalists as well.
Writing a script was good, trying to use it as a prompter version, like in broadcasting, guaranteed my nervousness, rigidity and a lifeless speech. My partner helped me with the first trial session and he gave me a good lecture over it. He has worked as a cameraman in a local TV station.
Another mistake I did was trying to film it in the evening. All I can say is DO NOT film with artificial light unless you have professional lamps available or any other lighting system which will allow for the following:
- Get rid of the shadows behind you (you do not want to appear as a character from a Hitchcock movie or the Twilight zone).
- Get rid of the shadows on your face (if you do not have the tinniest prettiest nose in the world, as I don’t, having it cast a shadow on half your face might not be really flattering).
And the third major mistake I did was to sit down while I delivered the speech. It just did not work, for a few reasons:
- When you speak sitting down, you are either in a group of people, in your private space or with one other person.Talking to the camera and sitting down might not feel natural at all, hence you might look tensed and deliver a robotic speech.
- It restricts your movement. If you are not an actor who can be expressive enough in front of the camera with just small changes of their face, it will not work. In this video, I rely on my hands to help me do the talking, while my face stays reserved as to fit the subject.
A better approach to self-filming
Everything went smooth as soon as I changed the previously mentioned mistakes. So this experience has taught me that you need to:
- Use your previous experience. You might have never filmed a video of yourself before, but have you on any previous occasions talked in front of a group? What made it work ? For me, it was teaching. Standing up, gesturing, not too much, but enough as to deliver a convinced and convincing speech.
- If you make a mistake, do not change your face too much. Keep the same face you had, and start again where you made the mistake. This might make editing easier.
- Do not stress with sticking to a script. Remember, you are not doing broadcasting. Repeating the pars I have written enough times helped me memories them, but not down to the last word. I felt more relaxed then.
- Leave space and breath between different parts of your speech. This will be useful in editing, as well as with adding photos or other videos later on (a short footage of an event you talk about, for example).
Final conclusions on self video recording
I’m hardly an expert after just one video of myself, but I am pleased with my work so far. Making this video first stressed me out, made me think I am no good in front of the camera like this, then made me really think.
It might not be for everybody. But trying and learning cannot hurt. Not that much, after all.
My next plan is to start vlogging, which will happen by end of March – beginning of April.
Would you like to see the studio where BBC Breakfast is made? Take a tour of the productions floors at MediaCity UK, in Manchester, together with a group of students from Birmingham School of Media.
Facts about MediaCity UK
- About 3,000 people work here for the BBC, according to Aziz Rashid, Head of BBC North West.
- BBC Children, BBC Learning, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Sport, BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Breakfast as well as Religion & Ethics and the BBC Philharmonic are housed here.
- Around 7,000 people in total work in media production here.
- ITV’s “Coronation Street” is produced here as well.
The group went on a tour through the production rooms, the studio and the gallery where news are released on air. Aziz Rashid, Head of BBC North West, talked about the advantages of this studio. One of them? Having non-halogen lamps means TV presenters do not feel like their make-up is melting due to the heat generated.
As Aziz Rashid explained, the BBC Breakfast studio has real plasma screens in the background.
A very sleek look.
In reality, the BBC Breakfast studio is not as big as it seems on screen.
The gallery for this studio resembles a star ship, at a first look. And a second. And a third. The only bigger thing I have recently seen comprising so many screens is the NASA centre control room in “The Martian”.
Aziz Rashid pointed out:
Everything needs to be working like a well oiled machine. If it doesn’t, mistakes show on air.
Just a corner of the “control station” of the BBC Breakfast (and news) ship at MediaCityUK.
According to Aziz Rashid, on big news they run out of outside sources screens
(upper middle rows, as seen here).
The sound station, in the same gallery. Looking at all those controls,
don’t you feel a bit lost?
If you want to visit the BBC at MediaCity UK, you have to know you cannot go in and out as you wish. As a visitor, such as this group of students, you will be met at reception and taken exactly to where you need to go. Nor can you get out as you wish. The revolving doors are operated only by magnetic ID cards. Without one, you are stuck there.
The whole building in itself is massive, very contemporary and presents lots of open space. Have a look below.
Rows and rows of desks for BBC production at MediaCityUK.
And another production floor.
“Children in need” is produced on site.
At the end of the tour, Aziz Rashid gave two main pieces of advice to media students who would want work experience with the BBC. Watch below what he said.