As the virtual reality editor at The New York Times Magazine, I receive a lot of pitches. Most of them would be pretty great … as documentary films.
We are at a crossroads in the development of VR documentary. There are enough good experiences out there to watch and study so that blind experimentation is no longer necessary. We are starting to understand what works, even if what works is still only in our heads. Now is the time for BIG ideas.
I thought I’d share some insights, thoughts I have when I consider a pitch, to help you shape yours.
If you are interested in making a 360 video, you must first do your homework. We, the editors, know when you haven’t watched a lot of pieces, scouring them for new camera moves or storytelling techniques. Watch everything you can first and foremost, and look outside your immediate field to see what’s happening across the industry. Cruise through National Geographic’s 360 selection on Facebook. Download the Within app and spend some time with it. Watch “Notes on Blindness” and everything from RYOT and The Wall Street Journal. And sure, watch our films in the NYT VR app. To see how advocacy pieces work, explore the stories in the UNVR app. If you can get your hands on a Gear VR headset, cruise the Samsung VR app and dive into the Facebook trending section to see what’s happening in the commercial and music worlds. If you can get your hands on a Daydream headset, check out The Guardian’s interactive experiences.
Watch these pieces in a Google Cardboard, then watch them again in 360 mode on desktop and mobile. Seeing how differently a film can work depending on how it’s consumed will help you refine your ideas.
Then, when you can’t watch any more VR, think critically about everything you’ve seen. What pieces did you like? What moments from each film stick with you? What did you totally miss when viewing each piece for the first time? Did you want to watch it again? And why do you think that is? My attention is rapt when something happens directly in front of me, action that the camera was — that I am — lucky enough to witness firsthand, something that changes my understanding of the place or the person or the event. For instance, I became a vegetarian after watching Condition One’s piece on a slaughterhouse in Mexico. And I’ve never again thought about refugees as faceless numbers since watching “Clouds Over Sidra.” Find out what interests you in VR and follow that path. It may be totally different from what interests you in an article or a video.
Then, look at your pitch. How is your story spherical and not linear? Can you actually make the shots you have promised? Will you need expensive equipment to attempt camera movement? Can you capture storyline in each of the shots or will you need some sort of narration? I start every project thinking I won’t need a voiceover, but end up needing one every time. Still, I’m going to keep striving to let environmental audio tell the story.
We aren’t just seeking highly visual environments for 360 video; we are searching for stories that people care about, that are important enough to extend resources to, and that make sense for the medium.
Know that when I receive your pitch, I’m going to take a moment, close my eyes and try to imagine the story happening all around me. Do the shots make me feel anxious, like I’m missing something behind me while focusing on something in front of me? How would scene transitions happen? How would the story arc develop? How would the audio work? Would it need narration or music or subtitles? Finally, the most important question I ask myself after I’ve tried to imagine the 360 experience: Is there something to be gained from experiencing this environment firsthand? Do I want to go there, or need to go there, to understand this story? Or would I rather read something about it, or watch a movie about it?
Because that is the difference, my friends. We all have instances in our lives where we think we understand something thoroughly, but then we actually see it, experience it, and it takes on a deeper meaning. This is the power of VR. This is the power we editors are looking for in every pitch.
We need creative people, innovative storytellers, problem solvers with big imaginations, to be encouraged and inspired to pick up a 360 camera and try something new in this wide-open medium. (Then send me a pitch!)
If you are interested in getting started in 360 journalism, my colleague Graham Roberts and I are teaching an introductory course on VR filmmaking through The School of The New York Times. More information here: