We talked to Francesca Panetta, Special Projects Editor at the Guardian, on the lessons she learned from the Guardian’s landmark piece on solitary confinement, proudly supported by the Google News Lab.
“Welcome to your cell.”
With those first words, “solitary confinement” ceases to exist in abstraction, reserved solely for conversations about prison reform or criminal justice. Spoken by Five Omar Mualimm-ak, who himself spent a total of five years and eight months in solitary confinement, those words immediately place the viewer in an immersive, disturbing reality.
Since the emergence of immersive VR technology, its storytelling potential for journalists has been promising. VR has the potential to get at the heart of what quality journalism does best — placing the reader or viewer in someone else’s experience and offering additional context to deepen their understanding (and emotional attachment) to an important story.
The Guardian has been committed to investigating and reporting on the use of solitary confinement and has often written about the subject with great resonance. But until recent developments in VR technology, The Guardian hasn’t had the opportunity to allow its readers to viscerally experience the effects of those environments. “6x9: a virtual experience of solitary confinement” is the Guardian’s first foray into immersive VR storytelling and we were privileged to have helped them make it happen.
The piece launched on April 27th on theguardian.com homepage along with instructions on how to download the app for Google Cardboard. A physical installation at Tribeca previewed the public launch and allowed people to enter an exhibition replica of a 6x9 cell and meet the former inmates who feature in the piece.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to Francesca Panetta, the Special Projects Editor at the Guardian, on what she learned from the experience.
How did the idea for a VR piece about solitary confinement originate?
We’re always looking at new ways to express our journalism at the Guardian and find ways to innovate. Virtual reality was a form we had been thinking about and wanted to experiment with. It obviously had huge potential. Simultaneously, at the Guardian, we had been talking about solitary confinement. The two things came together. VR is a medium which is all about space. Solitary confinement is, too — albeit a small and very undesirable space. It felt obvious that this would be a good story for the form.
Creating a VR experience takes a lot of moving pieces: resources, journalists, developers and partners. What surprised you about the process and collaborations it took to bring this piece to life?
We started by doing the interviews, making audio recordings of them. There were seven people who had been in solitary confinement in California and in New York. We also spoke to two psychologists who have been studying the effects of isolation for decades.
Then, we did a rough cut and wrote up a storyboard and went to the Mill for the visuals and technology. The Mill are amazing at what they do. They had mocked up a prototype for us which was fantastic but we had no idea really of what they were about to do.
We had many questions. We had no idea what ‘building’ a cell meant. Who did that? What were they doing, and how long would that take? What would be possible in that virtual environment? And — with our time and resources — what was realistic?
From October to April we had numerous meetings. We went over references and sketches. How subtle would this be? If you missed a detail — some scratchings on the wall or drops of blood — did that matter? Were we having a day in the life of someone in solitary confinement or stretching it over a longer period of time? How did we represent time?
We worked closely with them throughout, even sitting in their offices towards the end, iterating throughout the day, every day.
Why did you decide to use computer generated images (CGI) for this piece? What did this method of storytelling afford you that live shots could not?
We used CGI for a couple of reasons. The first was access. It can take months or years to get access to a supermax prison, and even then we might not have been able to film the way we wanted. There could have been restrictions. The second reason is flexibility. Having a virtual model cell meant we could interact with it.
What kind of unique, ethical questions came up in using CGI? Can you provide an example?
This is a piece of Guardian journalism and needed to have the journalistic integrity of any of our other output, even if it was made in CGI and in a gaming engine. This was at the forefronts of our minds throughout the process of making this. Here were some examples:
- The voices you heard were people who had experienced solitary confinement. They were interviewed and none of the material is scripted.
- The sounds you hear in the background are from Maine Supermax penitentiary. They were donated to us from a wonderful documentary called Solitary Nation, produced by Frontline.
- The books in the room are books our interviewees remembered reading.
- The room is a composite room based on multiple cells. We worked on what this would look like with Solitary Watch and our interviewees. We sent early stills to our interviewees to comment on along the way. They responded with details: “the toothbrush would never be full sized. It would be stubby and made of cardboard,” etc.
- Our portrayal of the psychological disturbances — disembodiment, hallucinations, blurred vision — all come from reports written from psychologists and from the testimonies we collected. The material was reviewed by a psychologist in London to confirm that this was a fair portrayal.
- Self-harm is a problem in solitary confinement. People become angry. They want to get attention from the guards. They say they want to feel alive and human. Many of our case studies had brutal stories of self-harm and attempted suicide — but when we started putting blood into the scenes, smearing it on the walls, it became obvious that it would be very hard to stomach. A foot in front of your face and feeling trapped in a small space , we felt that blood may be too hard to take. But what did that mean for us editorially? We iterated, building several versions and ended up with a few drops of blood on the floor.
- We included footage from the people we interviewed to project on the walls to represent their memories from solitary confinement.
- All facts painted on the walls were verified by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.
How has the experience of putting together the 6x9 piece changed the way the Guardian team would approach VR storytelling in the future?
I’m currently thinking about what other pieces we should be making in this form. My key learning from 6x9 and from other VR journalism is that the pieces that work best are those in which being there makes sense to the story.
Were there any major technical challenges or storytelling challenges your team faced along the way? How did you overcome?
The hardest aspects were definitely the interactive parts. One scene has hot spots which you trigger by looking at them. This sounds easy, but it wasn’t. When you moved your head you got a jumble of different voices. It brought up all sorts of questions. How many stories could you put in there and how did you know that you were triggering the story yourself? Was that even important? And could this be done without breaking you from the immersive environment?
A huge challenge was time. This is a piece about being in a space with little to do and minimal interaction for days, months, years, or even decades. How could we make a piece that was engaging and kept people from taking their headsets off? On the other hand, we didn’t want to entertain, or even worse, turn the piece into some kind of horror house.
What advice do you have for smaller organizations that want to experiment in VR?
Start small. Especially if you are going to include interactivity. That will take lots of time.
How has the piece impacted the conversation around solitary confinement? Has it been able to contribute something that more traditional forms of storytelling couldn’t?
Absolutely. One thing is reaching new audiences. We had 6x9 at the Tribeca Film Festival and the responses I heard from people were really interesting. People hadn’t thought the cell would be so bad, or so small. They didn’t realise that people were in for non-violent crimes, or for so long. The piece also can be taken as a tool for advocacy groups. They’ve told me that this demonstrates in nine minutes what they can’t begin to express in words. They are taking cardboard around on their talks and showing it to people.
A special thanks to the Guardian for their collaboration on this piece. To learn more about the Google News Lab’s work in VR storytelling, please reach out to Erica Anderson.