Lessons from Time’s ground-breaking two year immersive VR project, The March

 

The March ()

 

On exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, IL, The March features the most realistic recreation of a human performance in virtual reality (VR) to date, using advanced VR, AI, film production processes, and machine-learning techniques. The experiential exhibit debuted February 28, 2020, and will run until November 2020. [Due to the current COVID-19 crisis, the exhibition is temporarily closed at the moment of publishing this article and will be back after May 1.]

In addition to the VR project, Time created a digital destination and print issue – a double issue of Time, featuring content about the meaning of the March on Washington and the state of equality in America, which was on newsstands Friday, February 21.

 

MLK The March issue ()

 

The Journey

As FIPP wrote in 2019, The March was to be an immersive VR experience on an epic scale. It was to use innovative new technology in virtual reality, photogrammetry, motion capture and 3D animation.

The experience is a co-creation of Time’s Emmy-winning Mia Tramz and leading immersive storyteller Alton Glass. Award-winning actress Viola Davis is an executive producer and narrator for The March.

This VR experience is the third for Time that has been taken to a museum. The first was Remembering Pearl Harbour at the Newseum in Washington DC and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, and the Buzz Aldrin: Cycling Pathways to Mars Experience at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Those were lo-fi compared to The March, Tramz said. The March is “really the first proper, traveling exhibit that we’ve produced that features VR. And this one is really a much more of a full blown exhibit.” 

The exhibit itself has two parts: a VR portion and a separate interactive interview with a civil rights activist. The VR experience has three rooms: a special audio experience that onboards visitors, gives them some context, and prepares them to go into a headset. “It helps you start to put yourself in the frame of mind of experiencing history through the first person perspective,” Tramz explained. “And it also introduces you to our narrator, voiced by The March Executive Producer Viola Davis, who becomes your guide to the experience.” 

Then, each visitor is given a headset and has a 10 by 15 foot play area, where they have the ability to fully move around in the experience. “You are able to walk around in a wholly three dimensional environment, really be amongst of the crowds, people who were there,” Tramz said. “When Dr. King comes on the screen, you are able to walk all around him and kind of explore the area where you’re standing in front of him.”

The next step in the experience is off-boarding, which is meant to help visitors sort of synthesise everything they just saw and learn about the civil rights movement after the March, Tramz explained. “And then very importantly, to help you connect everything you just learned about, back to the present day,” Tramz said. 

The second part of the experience is a unique experience to speak with a civil rights activist, Joyce Ladner. For The March, Tramz worked with a company called StoryFile to make a voice-drive, interactive interview that run off of an AI algorithm. There’s a microphone in front of the screen where visitors can ask a question and then the AI would pull up an answer that she actually gave.

“For ours, we did eight hours of interviews with 500 questions with Joyce Ladner, who was an activist in the civil rights movement, and also helped organise the March,” Tramz said. “You could have a very in depth conversation with her. You could stay in that room and talk with Joyce for quite a while.”

 

  

Building a team

Tramz said that the last three years have been a process of building a team that could pull this sort of thing off, she said in an interview last week. “A big part of the journey has been finding all of the best people to come in and make it happen. Figuring out what that team needs to look like. We had everyone from historians to educators to museum exhibit designers and technologists, costume designers. A huge team came together to bring this project to life.” 

Time tapped some internal resources, like Senior Editor Lily Rothman, who specialised in history, and the title’s consumer marketing and in-house design services to some degree for the digital destination and special print issue.

While The March drew on Time’s journalism, the scale and aims of this virtual reality project was only possible with a team of people with diverse skillsets. “Generally with the projects that I do that are immersive, because each project requires different technology, different types of skillsets, different specialties, we generally don’t staff up for these projects in house,” Tramz explained.

The team building the VR experience came from a team outside of Time that was much more like a feature film production, Tramz explained. “We had a team of both production partners – V.A.L.I.S. Studio, RYOT, JuVee Productions, Digital Domain, CAA – and individuals like my co-creator Alton Glass who came together to bring the project to life,” Tramz said. “In the end, it was a team of nearly 300 people, most of which were not Time employees, but were people that were assembled specifically for this project.”

 

On learning to tell stories with cutting-edge technology

The March features the most realistic human performance in virtual reality to date, through advanced VR, AI, film production processes, and machine-learning techniques.

Digital Domain built the VR experience for Time, Tramz explained. “Alton’s and my job was to create a narrative that could be supported by their processes and the technology that’s available, and create a narrative that works in VR that leverages all of the things that VR is best at, one of them being scale.”

Tramz said VR is really good at showing scale and providing sort of a touch of magic. In The March, for example, there are a few moments of the experience that are time travel moments. “VR is really good at giving you a sense of presence and we wanted to tap into that. There’s a moment at the end where Dr. King actually looks at you and it’s a very powerful storytelling device that you really can only get with VR.”

“I think for me it still starts with how do you want to feel?” said Alton Glass in an interview. “That’s the first question you ask yourself and you work from there. Then you determine, which technology will help you with that. If technology doesn’t necessarily translate for the feeling you try to get across, then you go back to your traditional medium. Or, vice versa. There might be a story you want to tell, and 2D might not get it there. So, I think that’s the special thing about The March. You could watch it, but being able to actually get up close and personal to see Dr. King deliver his ‘I have a dream’ speech, is completely different than watching it on the screen.”

On a project like this, collaboration becomes really important because there isn’t really any one person that can figure this kind of thing out, Tramz said.

“It’s a collaborative process because so many of these production processes and storytelling techniques are evolving as we are doing them. It really takes a team and people who are willing to think outside of the box and kind of go back and forth to find something that works. I think there’s equal magic and frustration… It is an industry right now that benefits from collaboration and from having different perspectives in on solving various narrative and technological problems.”

Understanding how to create a narrative in a virtual environment is different than writing narrative for print, or performing narrative for broadcast. VR content and experience creators have their own ways of doing things, which are intuitive at this stage, Tramz explained.

“There isn’t really anything that’s standardised for the industry in terms of tools or processes. But, when you’re telling narrative where the viewer is the camera and they are determining their own experience, you can’t tell that story in a linear fashion.”

Creating for VR is more akin to an amusement park than a film. The visitor is the camera. They’re determining their story as they go through. VR is much more like that than it is like a film, she said. 

“Imagine being able to step inside of a movie screen and instead of you watching it from a distance, you can actually walk around and experience the fullness, and magnitude of the crowds, the sounds, so you’re immersed and fully involved in a scene. A really experienced storyteller can get you there,” Glass said. “Now, it’s something that can be realized. Virtual reality has been around, but not readily available and accessible as it is now, in terms of capabilities. But even now, it will continue to get better, lighter and faster. The possibilities continue to grow.”

 

 

Experiential creates emotion

Tramz explained that since the exhibit has opened in February, she has spent a lot of time at the DuSable museum watching people experience The March. “We’ve had visitors of all ages,” she said. “I spoke to a gentleman yesterday, 85 years old, who came through the exhibit and he said, when he read about it, he had to come. He made it a mission to get to this experience. Then we’ve had visitors as young as nine come through and they have their own experience of it and are engaged with the technology in a slightly different way.” 

The March has had a high level of engagement since it debuted in late February, and Tramz explained that it does seem to impact a lot of people.

“A fair number of our guests come out of the headset in tears. We had a mother and daughter come through the other day that were crying so hard when they came out of the headsets, they had to sit down and hold each other,” she said. “We have people clapping and cheering through the whole VR experience. There are visitors of older generations who come in and they know speech and they’ll recite it with Dr. King while he’s saying it. There’s a younger generation that is exploring physically with VR experience in a really interesting way.”

When they started out, Tramz explained that she and co-creator Alton Glass wanted to teach history, and to try to change the narrative of how the event in history and to some extent how the civil rights movement was understood. “There’s so much about the civil rights movement that isn’t talked about, that isn’t taught in school. There’s so much about this event that is misconstrued,” Tramz said. “We really wanted to, in a very nuanced and thoughtful way, present it to you with fresh eyes. But we also want it to awaken in each visitor, their own sense of the light that they can bring into the world and their power to make change.”

“For me, its about the power of infinite imagination, because these tools are so new and so untrained and that’s what sparks me, keeps me fueled and passionate about it. The possibilities are endless. To me, to be able to make this project is very, very exciting because I hope will inspire creators to lean into, to really push their imaginations,” Glass said.

 

 

Sponsorship

The March wouldn’t have been possible without the sponsorship of American Family Insurance, and the support of the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., which granted Time development rights for this project.  

“We had an incredible sponsor that truly made this project possible, Tramz said. “They got behind this project early on and provided the funding for us to make it possible. We were very fortunate to have the sponsorship and support of American Family Insurance to make this happen.”

As magazine media companies consider creating immersive projects themselves, Tramz suggested to look for sponsors, as projects like The March involve budgets most media companies could not support on their own. “Find sponsors who can also become partners on the project. You will have to create sort of an untraditional sponsorship for these kinds of things,” she said. “It’s not going to look like a print package or even a digital package. The investment opportunity and ROI are fundamentally different.”

 

Martin Luther King VR Time ()

 

Lessons for publishers

For publishers who would emulate Time’s immersive experiences, Tramz suggests to spend the time on the front end doing research and development.

“Anything you try in VR right now, for the most part will be new or newish and you want to make sure that you’re working with the right people, and that you understand the production processes and technology as much as you can,” she said. “There are definitely experts out there who can make beautiful work for you. But I think having some in-house expertise to the best of your company’s ability is really important to getting that good final product out the door.”

Collaboration will always make these kinds of projects better, she said. 

“Finding the right combination of minds to bring it to life is something I would always recommend,” she said. “I think the kind of creativity and invention and out-of-the-box thinking that we had on this project is the result of people of many disciplines coming together, not just our people, but educators, musicians, historians, everyone brought really invaluable expertise, insight, creativity.”

There is a line in Martin Luther King’s speech where he says, “1963 is not an end but a beginning.” That’s sort of the situation Tramz and her team are in now, she said.

“We launched our first location at the DuSable Museum of African American History and what we’ve created is meant to be a traveling exhibit. This is a project that will have a life for, we hope, many years,” she said. “We are in the process of bringing on additional museum partners… the hope and goal is that it travels and reaches as many people as we can reach.”

 

 

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