Targo Stories has created a number of really well-produced and well-told immersive stories using the 360 VR video medium over the past three years. Their latest co-production with Meta is Surviving 9/11: 27 Hours Under the Rubble, which premiered in September 2021 marking the 20-year anniversary, but it was also selected as one of the immersive stories showing at SXSW.
On the last day of the SXSW XR Experience exhibition, there was a Tweet that went viral showing two people in VR headsets in front of the Surviving 9/11 poster, and the original poster mistakenly thought this was a video game that Meta had paid to exhibit at the SXSW expo in order to promote VR. The tweet was ultimately deleted after learning that it was an immersive documentary curated by SXSW, but it had already quickly spread as most people generally associate VR headsets with gaming. It catalyzed a broader discussion about how this poster and experience came about, and I had already scheduled an oral history interview with the creators to capture the story of journey and how this project came about.
Targo Stories started having their experiences executive produced by Oculus Studios in 2019 after they published The Man Behind Notre Dame, and the cathedral of Notre-Dame burned down. They followed up with the contacts they had made with the staff of Notre-Dame to be able to capture 360 footage documenting the damage from the fire for a piece called Rebuilding Notre Dame.
Then after the onset of the pandemic Targo Stories produced a four-part series When We Stayed Home that contrasted historic 360 footage of tourist areas in the four cities of Paris, Venice, Tokyo, and Jerusalem with the empty streets that happened around the world for the COVID-19 quarantine lock-downs in April 2020.
Targo Stories collaborated again with Meta on Surviving 9/11: 27 Hours Under the Rubble documenting the story of the last survivor of Genelle Guzman McMillan, who was the last person rescued after the Twin Towers crashed down. This immersive documentary includes the technical innovation of converting 2D panoramic photos of NYC in the 1990s into fully immersive, layered stereoscopic photo spheres, which are able to provide the feeling of time travel back to a previous era. The documentary as features CGI recreations inside of the Twin Towers, but also stereoscopic 360 video footage of McMillan returning to the 9/11 Memorial for the first time.
I had a chance to catch up with Targo Stories Director Chloé Rochereuil and Producer Victor Agulhon on March 16th at the end of my SXSW journey to capture more about all of these 360 immersive documentaries as well unpacking some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings about how VR only being about gaming, while they are pushing the limits for how VR can be used as an immersive storytelling medium.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So in today's episode, I'm covering a number of different VR documentaries that were done by Targo Stories. So this is a company that's out of France, and they've been working on pieces on Notre Dame, they did a number of different VR documentaries during the pandemic, and they did a whole piece called Surviving 9-11, 27 Hours Under the Rubble. So this piece actually uses a lot of really interesting techniques from taking photo panoramas that then were converted into this spatialized VR form and then CGI and then stereoscopic 360 video. There's a tweet that also went viral about the Surviving 9-11. There was somebody named Dave Infante who on March 15th tweeted out, a friend just sent me the photo from South by Southwest of a Facebook meta VR booth there. The picture was surviving 9-11, 27 hours of the rubble. There's two people sitting there. I think the impression was that this is actually a video game and that somehow Meta was paying for Ubuntu to exploit this event of 9-11. The tweet was eventually deleted, but there's a lot of misconceptions around what this piece even was. A lot of people thought that the photo was of a video game trying to recreate what it was like to be in the rubble of 9-11. But it was actually a documentary that was following the last survivor of 9-11, meaning that she was underneath the rubble for 27 hours, and it tells her story. And she goes back to the memorial, but also does a lot of different, really interesting technical aspects in order to produce this piece. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Victor and Chloe happened on Wednesday, March 16th, 2022 at the South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:55.287] Victor Agulhon: So my name is Victor Agulon, I'm the co-founder of Targo and producer of virtual reality documentaries.
[00:02:00.814] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah, and I'm Chloé Rocheray, I'm also the co-founder of Targo and the one directing the pieces here at Targo.
[00:02:06.942] Kent Bye: Okay, great. Maybe you could each give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.
[00:02:12.798] Victor Agulhon: So the journey of Targo started in like 2017, that's when we first got our hands on a 360 camera and decided that we wanted to use it to do stories. My background is in business, I'm interested in tech and I was particularly interested in VR at the beginning when I just tried it and I just wanted to find ways to make the tech more available. and just accessible. So I think the initial drive for me was getting into this tech and find ways to make it accessible to more people. And it was all about democratizing it. And then I got to start talking with Chloe about it. And that's how we came to the idea of doing Targo and just talking about documentaries. But for me, it's more about finding ways to make this tech meaningful and make this tech more out there and that people understand its value and just get to become users, I would say.
[00:02:57.752] Chloe Rochereuil: For me, I have a journalism background. I went to a journalism school and I was doing video and video documentaries. I thought VR would be a great way to tell new things in a different way. I got super interested in technology and how we could use it to tell the true stories of the world. So we started to work with Victor on like what we could do and what we could say and the stories we could figure. And we just found that VR was a lot about artistic experience and also like imaginary world. And we found that telling true stories like real environments, real video, real people would be like super interesting in this environment. So we work a lot on that. And we've actually produced more than 10 documentaries in the past few years, mostly on mainstream topics that speak to everyone. The 9-11 attacks, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the pandemics, and Explorer Crossing Antarctica. All of these topics, they all feature incredible people. It's really about meeting someone who is going to guide you through the experience. And also, they all happen in highly visual environments, which is something important, I would say, in VR. And they're also an amazing story, like surviving 9-11, crossing Antarctica. These are people who are doing just incredible stuff. And for us, it's a way to disconnect people from the real world. It's more about bringing something to them that they wouldn't have done that anyway. They would have not gone to Iraq. They would have not gone to Antarctica. So it's really a way to offer them an experience that they would have not done otherwise.
[00:04:29.800] Kent Bye: OK, yeah, and I first met you at the Laval Virtual 2019 and you had a piece about Notre Dame and trying to reconstruct and rebuild some of the different aspects. And then just a few months after that, there was a fire. And so I was in France and had an opportunity to go to Notre Dame and decided to go somewhere else. And so I just remember being really struck by how VR as a medium is like capturing this cultural heritage and then the importance of being there and documenting these things spatially and telling these stories and then you followed up and told the process of rebuilding Notre Dame and so maybe you could take me back to the origins of that Notre Dame piece and then what your actions were as all those events unfolded.
[00:05:10.352] Victor Agulhon: Yeah, I think the starting point of what you're saying is, you know, the name Targo comes from the idea like there was a doctor who actually discovered the fact that some people could remember everything they had gone through in their lives. And that's what was the inspiration for us, you know, in naming the company Targo for us. It was about like documenting what's happening now and that this ability to create a sort of like encyclopedia of stories of places. And so Notre Dame really fell into that spectrum where we wanted to be able to document the world today. We know we wanted to show we are a French company, so we wanted to show Notre Dame. We wanted to tell the story and go behind the doors of Notre Dame and what people usually know about it. So that documentary really fell into, I would say, what we stand for at Targo, which is true stories bringing people to extraordinary places and allow them to live the experiences that they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. So that's how we got to do the Notre Dame story. It's a building that we loved, you know, it's one of the landmarks of the city and it was just such a famous place that we thought could also attract a lot of people in VR. That would be the kind of thing that people would be interested in. So that's how we got our interest into the first piece about Notre Dame that we did. A few months later, when the fire happened, we had been working for six months on that documentary. So we had started to create a sort of relationship with the building. So when the fire happened, it felt very personal in some way. And we realized that the footage that we had filmed for the first documentary had become precious archives. They were meant to document prison states that were not meant to disappear in any way. And we realized that the footage had become incredibly valuable for people to be able to go back to Notre Dame in the same way that you had not gone, this footage will allow you to do it. So that got us started on like how could we do something that would allow people to go back to Notre Dame but also understand the story of the fire because there was a whole understanding you know people when they heard about Notre Dame they wanted to hear about the fire so we had to like think about it differently and the follow-up piece was a response to that our will to show Notre Dame before the fire show it after the fire keep it open as well but also telling the story of why you know what happened in 2019 what happened in that fire and how do we project it into the future with you know the whole process that's going to happen about rebuilding it. The key learning and I think that's the important thing that we learned in that documentary was we think of VR as a way to take people to places very differently but what we discovered with that piece was the fact that it's not necessarily the place that's going to be important but also the time you know and what we discovered is this ability when we have fade in and fade out from the cathedral today and you know in the past and we have these striking visuals of the cathedral like absolutely pristine and clean and the cathedral completely destroyed from after the fire it creates a sensation that only VR has been able to provide and that's something I think that we're trying to replicate in the PCs like being able to bring you in different time and places and that's something that I think we underestimated at the beginning and that the Notre Dame piece kind of revealed.
[00:07:54.597] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah, and I think what was striking is that Notre-Dame really speaks to everyone, like everyone had a story on Notre-Dame. So I think it's one of these topics that are really touching everyone and being able to bring back the cathedral to these people was really meaningful for us. Like when we showed this piece to people, they were very touched and moved by the experience. And I think it was super important and interesting for us to, you know, have history captured and It was interesting because when the fire happened, we were deeply touched by the event and also when we actually put the headset back on our head, we really felt like we went there and we were actually inside a cathedral experiencing it. So even for us who had been in a cathedral in the past few months, it was really something to be back there. Yeah, I think Victor said really everything on that, and it's something we really want to do on other topics, and we also did it with the World Trade Center and being back in places that don't exist anymore.
[00:08:53.140] Kent Bye: Yeah, so I guess with some of these pieces, they've been distributed through the Oculus TV, so at what point did Oculus come in? Was it after you had already produced it and they were a distributor, or did they come in earlier to help produce either the first or second piece?
[00:09:07.560] Victor Agulhon: So for the Notre Dame piece, we had made the first piece and made it available online and we reached out to Oculus about the fact that we had this footage and we wanted to make something about it. So we started pitching them ideas around Notre Dame and then they produced it. So they were involved in the production and I think it was Very interesting also for us to have at this moment, you know, their inputs on VR storytelling because I think it's a team that's really trying a lot of things. So for us it was very interesting to have their input on, you know, just how do you create like an interesting documentary and having all these conversations. Because I think what Oculus TV allows us to do is just distribute to a lot of people. I think that's just the most effective way to distribute any kind of documentary today in virtual reality. That's where the people are. So it was very interesting for us to really touch for the first time the idea of crafting something that a lot of people are going to be able to see. So being able to understand the pace and, you know, work on that, refine it. So they were involved in it and it was like a very interesting creative conversation with them. And then it's the same that happened with the piece on the pandemic and the piece that we presented here. Okay.
[00:10:07.409] Kent Bye: So it sounds like that they were involved in helping to both fund and produce some of these other pieces. And that was the first time that you had worked with them?
[00:10:16.192] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah, it was actually the first time we worked with them on producing a piece. And of course, the past pieces that we did were also distributed on Oculus TV. But it was the first time we were producing a piece with them. And it was great just to work with them and being able to share ideas and stuff. It's also interesting to work with them because they give you this freedom in terms of creativity and what you want to say. And they're always very open to new ideas. And yeah, they really let you have this space to create your own thing, which is very precious, I think.
[00:10:46.877] Kent Bye: So then if we fast forward to around March of 2020 is when a lot of the lockdowns started happening around the world. And then in that following April, when all these cities were closed down, you actually start to shoot some footage. So maybe you could give me a bit more context as to how that project came about. And, you know, if this is something you pitched to Oculus or something that they pitched to you, I mean, a lot of people were not traveling and not doing anything. And here you are capturing the footage of all these cities.
[00:11:13.233] Chloe Rochereuil: When the lockdowns happened, we were all stuck at home and we had the feeling that VR could be a way to escape these lockdowns and also to document this world. It was an external situation and we wanted to capture these things. We were in Paris, we were based in Paris, and when we were going to the streets, completely empty, this was like a very weird feeling. And we thought that VR was the only way to capture this feeling of space, like empty space. So we thought that it would be great to just capture this moment of history. We thought about different cities, like how could we have a sense of what was happening in the world, why we couldn't go everywhere of course, but we thought that we should focus on iconic cities such as Venice, Jerusalem and Tokyo. It was hard to imagine filming in big cities because there's always a few people and it was hard for us to, when you're in the headset, to understand if it's a normal situation or not. So these cities were really tourist cities, super popular cities, and it's really striking to see them empty, like when you see the Plaza San Marco completely empty in Venice. the banks of the Seine in Paris, it really means something to everybody. So we got this idea of capturing this moment of history and we pitched the story to Oculus and thought it would be like a great way to just like try to connect between people within the VR headset while being at home. so we actually didn't travel to the city like we did the one on Paris but we work with different local teams to film in other cities because we couldn't travel as well so it was a lot of work to just like tell them what we had in mind and what was our vision on like visual shots because we have like This idea that 360 video and 360 filming can also be very artistic and beautiful. So we have this shot that we wanted to make. We wanted to have symmetry in shots, to be right in the middle of a point of interest and stuff. So we teach them how we wanted them to film the city. They went there and then we also wanted to give the speech to people who are actually experiencing the lockdown. So each episode is about someone experiencing the lockdown, like someone who is local to the city and who is doing some kind of iconic job, I would say. So there is a gondolier in Venice, there is someone walking on the back of the Seine. in Paris, a photographer in Jerusalem, so all these very iconic people of the city and they're sharing their experience of being locked down and being in this empty city so it really captures this moment of history and it would be hard to see like these empty cities again so VR really captures that at that moment.
[00:13:55.630] Kent Bye: I don't know if the piece in Notre Dame was the first time that you started to take the footage that you had shot and then take updated footage and fade between the past and the present and it was another conceit that you were using within these lockdown videos where you would have archival footage that you had acquired from a variety of different 360 video photographers and then re-establish that same shot and then fade back and so I thought that was a really interesting both for what you did with the Notre Dame and then also with these lockdown pieces to connect the past and the present in a way that was really showing the changes that were happening and so was the Notre Dame piece the first time that you had really started to do some of that?
[00:14:34.412] Chloe Rochereuil: We really discovered the power of being in the past and in the present and just like mixing this temporality. We discovered that in Notre Dame and when we stay home it really allows you to break some context on what you see because people who are not familiar to the banks of the Seine It's hard to just imagine how they were actually crowded in normal times. So it allows you to understand that the situation is just crazy and not normal. And it really brings some context in when we stay home, whereas in Notre Dame it's just a way to blend times and past and present.
[00:15:05.868] Kent Bye: Yeah, I noticed that in the Surviving 9-11 piece, there was a number of shots that looked like they were probably originally a monoscopic shot, and then you spatialized them in a way. When was the first time that that technique that you started to use in all these different pieces?
[00:15:20.673] Victor Agulhon: So I think the idea of blending times, past, present, we started with Notre Dame, evolved when we stayed home, and I think we really leveraged the most in the piece Surviving 9-11. Actually, the thing that got us started on this project, it was when we discovered all the 360 pictures, panoramic pictures that were taken by photographers you know in the 90s. It was just panoramic pictures taken on negatives that had like no goal of ending up ever in a VR headset. It was just to be seen you know as a 360 sort of like Google Street View in the 90s on the early versions of the internet. And when we discovered these pictures we knew that we could like bring something to it like with VR and that we could give them a sort of like a second life you know. So we started like investigating finding these pictures converting them in like fully 360 So actually it's like recreating the full 360 and then we did the 3d conversion The thing is that what it is about like in 9-11 for us and in this project is more about like the work on archive media and being able to talk about topics in the past Because everything in Notre Dame and even in when we stayed home are topics that were filmed actually in 360 today with modern techniques and that required little work. What we did with Surviving 9-11 was trying to find a way to talk about things that happened like 30 years ago, you know, like what was New York like in the 90s. and just even go back in the past because it feels like VR today is pretty much stuck into what happened you know in the past like four or five years or we have to go fully CG to show it. So our goal is to be able to like show the real things, show archive media, show videos, pictures, bring you back in time but like in a VR friendly way in a way that you know that makes you feel like you actually belong in the space and it's made for VR. This technique that we used, you know, 360 monoscopic, doing it into like 3D, you know, going through the stereography process just to make it like actual 3D for you to be able to look at. And small animation is very new and that's something that even the teams we worked with had never done it at this scale, you know, and like being able to animate like 360 picture that they had converted to 3D was a push in terms of what's been done in the industry. And I think it opened just a whole new landscape of topics and content that we can talk about, you know, that happened in the past that was not possible or not conceived to be possible before this piece.
[00:17:25.094] Kent Bye: Yeah, it was really quite striking when I first saw it. I had never seen anything quite like that, and I thought it was really, really effective. Maybe just to take a step back. So the pandemic was happening in April of 2020, you shot all the stuff, you're producing those. And then in September of 2021 was the 20 year anniversary for 9-11. And so how did this project of surviving 9-11 come about? When did you start to pitch it? Or was it something that Oculus came to you about?
[00:17:49.153] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah, so I think what got us started on that is really this incredible archive picture that we discovered. We wanted to talk about this topic because we thought that VR really could bring something new to the conversation. I was doing research on WebArchive and when we found out that many of them, we had to do a piece on that. And I've never seen the towers before, and being able to be on the Water and Central Plaza again was just really striking. And we thought that we should use this picture to tell a powerful story about 9-11. And then we ran into General Story, General Guzman-McMillan Story, who is the person that we interview in the documentary. It's about her story. Her story really is incredible. She's the last survivor who was pulled out from the rubble. She spent 27 hours under the rubble. She was in one of the towers when it collapsed. And it's also about her story of immigrating to the U.S. as an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. And for her, the tower is really well, you know, the symbol of American dream and just like the power of the U.S. and what got us to the U.S., this attraction to the country. And we thought that these images of the World Trade Center would be key to telling her story. So the documentary is really like a three-part documentary. Like the first one is being back in New York in the 2000s, being on the World Trade Center Plaza, seeing the towers, seeing what they were representing for the city at the time. And where you have like general testimony of like immigrating to this crazy city in the 2000s. And then she starts working in the towers for a company. And she recalls, like the second part of the documentary is about her recalling the events. Here it was like the key question for us was really putting enough distance from what's actually happening. So you're not reliving the attacks, it's about diving into her memories. So we had a lot of creative conversation on that to make sure that the testimony she was sharing could be like seen in this CG reconstruction of what happened. And the third part is a 360 video about her life 20 years later. She also returns to Ground Zero for the first time, so it was a really moving sequence. And yeah, we thought that her story would be incredibly amazing to tell in VR. So we had this idea, we pitched it to Oculus, and of course being able to broadcast it for the 20th anniversary was also a goal for us. And I think VR definitely brings something new to the topic here. And we had some great feedback on it. It's been available on Oculus TV since September 11, 2021. And yeah, it's been a great journey, really, this documentary. And being able to present it today at South By is really something, too.
[00:20:25.855] Kent Bye: And so when did you pitch it then? Was it before the pandemic?
[00:20:29.118] Victor Agulhon: It's tough to say when the pandemic ends, but by the end of 2020. So if we just take a step back, all the things that we're trying to do relate to historical events. I think today VR is still a very small audience and we want to be able to find topics that are going to be, everyone's going to be able to relate to in some way. So Notre Dame was a good example. The pandemic also very, you know, we wanted to release it on the spot when people were going through it. Because, you know, it's the moment when people think about these things. So we want to be able to bring something to that conversation. So for us, being able to tie what we do to historical moments, events, anniversaries is very important because we just want to contribute to the conversation of the memories of these events or just like what we're going through and just being part of like this moment, this now, you know, I think. All these topics are part of cultural relevancy. We're just trying to find what are people thinking about now? How can we make VR contribute to it? So, Notre Dame, when we stayed home, and this piece Surviving 9-11, the 20th anniversary was the moment to talk about this because we think the technology is mature enough for something that's going to bring something new. The experience of going back in New York before the attacks, seeing the Twin Towers just as they were pre-2001. And so we wanted to bring something in. So we had this idea, I think it was in September or October of 2020. And it took a lot of time of research, finding the right people, finding the 360 footage. It was literally archaeology on the web. To find the people, scan the negatives, get the negatives to us. It was a long process. I think we managed to do it pretty quickly. You know, it was like a nine month production, so it was pretty quick for us just to be able to do this. But it was important to like tie it to the 20th anniversary just because this is the moment when people think about it, when people talk about it. So it was important that we were able to share Juno's story at this moment, you know, and that just relates to everything that we're trying to do is bringing more of our real world and what's happening outside of the VR headset, also inside the VR headset. And I think this piece on the 20th anniversary made sense.
[00:22:23.490] Kent Bye: So how did the piece end up at South by Southwest? Did you submit it, or was it something that Blake reached out to you? Because it had been released, and I know that at South by Southwest, because of the pandemic, I talked to Blake, and he said that there was a lot of pieces that were supposed to show here in 2020, that because the festival got canceled, then there was a lot of pieces that never really had their festival run, and so he wanted to do like a retrospective in terms of just over the past three years some of the experiences that were maybe out there and had their world premiere and that all the world premiere pieces appeared in the competition and then all the stuff that had already been out there was not in competition so there was about 35 experiences all together 12 of them were in competition so and one of your pieces Surviving 9-11 was featured here and so is that something that you had submitted or is that something that he reached out to you or how did it end up here?
[00:23:11.702] Victor Agulhon: No, so we submitted the piece here and I think it's important for VR to have these kind of events that are also very open and not having only pieces that do like the premieres because when you see the amount of people that came to the floor I think it's important that they have a good look at what everything that's happening in VR so the film was released on September 2021 so it was already out there it's already been seen by a fair amount of people So for us, it was more about meeting in person, getting real feedback from the people who just watch it and being able to have the conversation around VR. There's plenty of interesting conversations that we've had here, so it was a very interesting event. I think for us, the festivals always tend to be a bit exclusive, and what I loved about Sotheby's this year was that it was everything but exclusive. all the pieces exactly what you said it was everyone from the industry like from the past three years that had made like a significant piece that we're here it was good for all the visitors who were able to get an amazing sample of what's being done in VR today and making the pieces that we're premiering here participating to the competition makes sense and having all the other ones more like as a sort of like the ambient you know VR industry just showcase I think is exactly what we need right now to have a sort of broader scope of everything that's being done and that's meaningful in terms of storytelling.
[00:24:22.324] Kent Bye: OK, well, I think that helps paint a lot of the context for what happened yesterday at the end of the day, which we're here at South by Southwest, and there's 33 different XR experiences that were part of the selection selected by Blink Kamadiner here, the programmer. And someone took a photo of your booth that had Surviving 9-11, 27 hours under the rubble. There was a logo of Metaquest at the bottom of the poster, and so people saw that. And a lot of people, I think, probably assumed that it was a video game. And because it was a piece that was already out, maybe people didn't realize that it was out and that it was also a part of the context of this exhibition that was along with other narrative pieces that when you watch it, it's clear what the full context is. But I could see that if people were just looking at that, what the wrong impressions might be for someone like a company like Meta using this event. in a way that was exploiting this topic. Like, so I could see how not knowing the full context, you could see how that would be really problematic. And so maybe you could, from your side of the story, how this kind of blew up yesterday and some of these misunderstandings over what the full context was.
[00:25:23.541] Victor Agulhon: Absolutely, so I think the baseline to know here is Targo we're like a documentary makers, we're storytellers. So everything we do is about stories and it relates to the way everything's been designed here. There's a lot of experiences that are games and I think there's an expectation when you see people in a VR headset that there's going to be a game. So when people see Surviving 9-11, which is just the title of the piece and they see a VR headset, the kind of thing that you're going to be embodying someone that you're going to be living through the experience. So the first part of this to me is more like a misconception around what VR is because the documentary is everything but this. So that's the first part. So I think that it opens an interesting question about promoting VR as a storytelling platform and making sure that people understand this, you know. So the poster that was shown here is just like the thumbnail of the documentary and the thumbnail shows the logo of META which is the co-producer of this piece and the logo of TARGO on the opposite side so had we put the poster on the other side the logo would have been TARGO's and I don't think the reaction would have been the same because I think what people here are thinking when you see this there's like they think that there's exploitative use of these kind of events which will be absolutely turn-deaf and when you see the piece you realize that this is what it is So I think it's just the visual of the documentary and you know the same way that when you go on Netflix you see the thumbnails of the documentary. This is what it is meant to be. I think in any other kind of media you would not have had this, you know. If you saw someone watching a TV screen next to a poster, like to a thumbnail that says surviving 9-11, the documentary, you would never had this. So I think it just shows, you know, it's interesting to see what the public perception of VR is today and that's I think the key element here. The second element is I think that when there's a VR headset involved we probably need to be more educational. communicating around the content, making sure that there is no misunderstanding or misconception around it. Because, you know, we think that this is an important story to tell. This is the story of one of the survivors. She's written a book about it. She goes to church often to talk about it. You know, it's part of her mission. And the documentary is about her resilience. And in the end, it's more a story of hope and just like how you overcome something like this. So when we see this blowing up on Twitter, you know, we are powerless because, you know, this thing is now out of our hands. And it just shows that there is a lot of work to do, you know, to be able to show that VR is a storytelling platform. And there's so much we can do, you know, when something is framed like this and the misconceptions that go around it. You know, that's why we come to these kind of events. You know, people, they come here, they look at this, they don't necessarily understand and we have to explain them that this is a story. And interestingly, most of the people who were on that floor and who tried the experience didn't know we could do this kind of thing in VR. All of the experience here are, you know, CG animation. And when they see real people in real life around them, you know, when they see Janelle today, you know, in her kitchen with her family, going to church, going to the park, like they just feel like they're sharing her space. So I think what's happened there is just like, misconception and miscommunication around it, different framing of what happens. But when people watch the piece, the reactions have been amazingly positive here. And I think it's an important story to tell. So there's learnings for us in it, in promoting VR as a storytelling platform, making sure it's clear. And we knew going that VR, like talking about 9-11 in virtual reality, was going to be difficult, so we spent a lot of time working through these questions. We had intense conversations on how do we make sure that we get it right. And I think for the people who watched the documentary, we haven't had any negative feedback around it. So I think we've been able to walk that line and provide enough context for people to connect with the story. without making you participating into it and involving you in any of the traumatic events. So it's been interesting to watch, but there's definitely learnings, I think, for us and for the industry more generally.
[00:28:55.237] Kent Bye: What was the experience like for you to go through, and if you have any other thoughts?
[00:28:59.838] Chloe Rochereuil: What was striking for me is that it's the first time we show the piece in the US, in the way we are here and we talk to the people. And of course, as French creators, we relate differently to the 9-11 topic as American people could relate to. It was super interesting to see people coming by and telling us, you know, I was in New York in 2001, I saw the towers. And when they actually see the documentary, they told us it was very well done and very accurate and authentic. So it was great for us to also hear this feedback of people who actually saw these attacks and tell us that the experience is actually very effective in showing what happened there. So yeah, showcasing it in the US was really important for us to just understand what was the thoughts of the American people on that piece too. And I think it worked really well. Yeah, I think it's also really about, because the documentary has been out on September 11 for six months, and we didn't have any issue or anything, like bad feedback, when it was out. And I think it's also because there is this idea of metaverse and this misconception about what is the metaverse and how VR is tied to this metaverse. So I think the conversation has evolved since September 11. And I think when you're inside the VR headset, there is no doubt that it's not a game because it's on Oculus TV and you're watching a video. So within the headset, it wasn't really a problem at all. And being on this exhibition, on this floor, would be a problem because it's actually seen as some kind of immersive show or whatever. So I think within the VR headset, it was very clear that it was a documentary on a specific platform, video, Oculus TV.
[00:30:40.735] Kent Bye: All right, well now that we got the larger context of it, I would love to dig into the piece itself because I think it's, when I saw it, I thought it was really effective that combining all these aspects of like being able to take me to a place that I wasn't in New York in the 90s or to take me back into the towers and so there's a lot of different techniques that you're using and to give it a little bit more dynamic motion or something that was a static photo, but to add like a little smoke, or to add like a picture of the CNN, or to change the water, or to have the water fountain move. And so there's a lot of ways that you were trying to take something that otherwise would be clearly a still photo, but to give it some more life. And so I'd love to hear the process of, first of all, the techniques that you're using to even do some of this, but then to also kind of give it more dynamic motion.
[00:31:29.363] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah, I mean like the thing is that we had these still images and the rest of the documentary is video and it's like moving images. So it was important for us to just like have this small animation that bring life to the story and that bring life to New York as it was. It's also like a way to just like have this world on pause in a way like you're back in history but you're not actually living in the moment. So it was a way to have this feeling of being back but being on pose in this world. So we had this small animation and of course for us it wasn't even a possibility to just like add people or anything moving so we thought we could like animate small things to just like give a sense of life and of presence in these images but of course like being able to just like animate the whole frame wouldn't be an option for us because they were like still frame and yeah, it would have been weird to have like the people moving. So yeah, this small animation really brings life to the story and to the moment you're living.
[00:32:28.523] Victor Agulhon: And also on this, I think the core goal for us was to stick to the original media. The goal was just to highlight the frame and just to make sure that you will have enough things to look at when you're there. But in any way, everything that would have been CG would have been totally off for us. It was just about the true media. And sound also played a big role in just specializing the sound. And when you're in the street, making sure that there's a car, when there's a bus, you have the bus noise, you have the fountain, everything. Just making sure that we're able to recreate an immersive environment of New York in the 90s that will be what it was like.
[00:33:01.379] Chloe Rochereuil: And also the footage we had when you're on the water center plaza, the water of the fountain is actually taken from a real video of the fountain of the plaza. So it was a way to integrate also archive video taken in the 2000 in this still picture to bring just more intensity to the frame, I think.
[00:33:21.513] Victor Agulhon: On the technique that was used to go from the moment we found the negatives, so we found negatives, so all of this was not even digital. We scanned the negatives, the people sent us the negatives, the photographers sent us the negatives. We had to stitch them to recreate completely all the parts that were missing from that frame. So sometimes it would be just like the top and the bottom, sometimes it would be probably like 10 or 20 degrees in the back. We had to combine all different sources of media to be able to recreate that with fidelity and with the quality we wanted. Then we went through a whole upscaling process. All of this was very old media, so there was noise, there was scratches sometimes, so we had to really remove all of the single elements there to make it look crisp and compelling enough in VR. At the beginning we had some digital footage but interestingly digital footage was not good quality enough so we had to put aside all the digital content that we had. It was 2k and it was impossible to turn it even to 4k, it was not even satisfying. So we had to put that on the side and we focused on the negatives. We had to upscale and then we did all the process of rotoscoping every single element in there to be able to place it at a different depth to give you the sense of actually being in that space. So when there's a barrier in front of you, a bench, like the bench actually feels there. So that process was pretty long, but that's how we're able to have something that truly feels like it belongs to virtual reality. And that pipeline, and in the end animating it, I think was very new. And that was like the huge amount of work and research for us to be able to do it, find the right partners at the right stages. But it's really one of these examples where technology and tech progress allows you to tell a story that we could not have told before.
[00:34:59.538] Kent Bye: And so when you talk about the rotoscoping, are you actually cutting out these things in a 2D plane, like in Photoshop, and then putting it into Cinema 4D or After Effects or Premiere to give it this stereoscopic view and rendering? How did you actually get it into that spatialized depth with the two different perspectives?
[00:35:18.008] Victor Agulhon: So that's one of the options we tried at the beginning. We were just like really trying to rotoscope every single element and place it in a 3D software. And we could have done like six off with this, you know, because it was just like planes. But then we realized that several elements didn't look as good as we wanted. So the end goal was just we worked with a 3D conversion studio, the kind of studio that usually work on feature films to convert, you know, like rectilinear 2D images into rectilinear 3D. So what they do is they just like cut out every single shape and they create the stereoscopy and the parallax that's desired. at first we work on getting the scale right and then everything behind is being repainted. So you know when you create parallax there is of course like a small area that you need to refill to just have like information that was there and that's how we recreated all of these pictures. So it was a pretty involved process to do this and just I think there was like two or three weeks of work per single picture just on this and making sure that you know, even within the shapes, you have the right shape, you know, that, you know, the bodies are not just one plain paper cut, but they have like some, you know, volume in it to make it feel real.
[00:36:18.857] Kent Bye: Yeah, I thought it was really effective and worked quite well. And it was kind of striking that, you know, that there was, because as I was watching it, I was like, okay, I know when VR came about, but these are really old photos. So it was really just the panoramic shots. And were you using any photogrammetry techniques at all to be able to help do that?
[00:36:35.825] Chloe Rochereuil: Not the done part, but so the second part is like CG reconstruction of the World Trade Center to just be able to dive into General's memory. And so for this one, like we actually went to the 9-11 memorial and scanned those like large artifacts to be able to have like the right texture, the right shape when we're reconstructing like the scene of the rebel. So these are like artifacts we scanned at the memorial. And for the part like inside the towers, we had like tons of materials of like archive photo, video, floor plan, testimonies of what it looked like. And every single texture and object was really part of the water center at the time. So we had to do this great work of research and talking to historians, to experts, what was the right phone, what was the monitor used, what was the carpet, what was the light. So we really had this tremendous amount of information to just be able to reconstruct this scene. And also, of course, general testimony of how the office looked like. So it was really like a dive into what an office looked like in the 2000s. And yeah, we really had these photos. We took the texture of the wall, of the carpet, and just integrated it back into 3D to be able to be the most accurate and just have these really high-fidelity sequences of the water center.
[00:37:54.771] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think the scene where you're in the office in the conference room with CNN on the TV and then you see all these papers floating outside, I thought that was a really, really quite haunting moment in the piece because it's like, it's really surreal, like, never seen something like that. And it was like, recreating that was really powerful to kind of take you to that moment. And Yeah, just the other ways that you're using the medium of VR to tell like as you go down the stairs and the collapse and being in the rubble and coming out of the rubble and showing the rubble for the first time after she's out. And so I thought just the way that all that was put together and take you to that place. I feel like there's, I don't know, like how you think about what the spatial medium adds to the story and how you think about that in terms of what that's able to do to give the sense of embodiment, but also emotional presence. But it feels different than if it would have been a 2D, but I don't always know exactly how to say what's different.
[00:38:51.032] Victor Agulhon: Yeah, I think it's a very good way to put it. For us, the goal was focusing on Janelle's testimony. So I think the story is more about connecting with her. During the documentary, if you notice, you become closer and closer with her. You know, at the beginning, you're really only in the interview set up, you know, with her in a dark studio. And the more it goes, you know, in the end, you're like in her home, in the interview, and you feel like you're connecting more and more with her. So that's the thread through the documentary is Janelle's testimony and just being able to connect with her. The spatialization in VR just allows us to understand what she's talking about. And the fact that we used three technologies, you know, 360 pictures for before the attacks, CG reconstruction to do all the remote illustration of the attacks and live action. Today, all of this also speaks to like, how do you connect with her? The 360 pictures was just about giving the vibe of it, giving the vibe of New York, her dreams and all of it. So there we have to stick to the medium to be able to understand fully what it was like, what was the atmosphere. So here it's belonging in New York that's important and that's what we tried to highlight with the use of 360 pictures. The second part of the documentary, which is much more evocative and much more about suggesting her memories and focusing on a small field of view in front of you, not sharing that space, was about illustrating her memories, but just giving you enough context for you to understand and translate what she's writing in that book, but not going beyond that. So the second part is just about being able to just show enough for you to understand but not too much for you to feel like you're participating or reliving any kind of attack or like any trauma. That was really the line we were walking here. And the final part of the documentary is more about sharing her space, being with her, building that connection and leveraging 360 video here just allows you to feel like you're in her daily life and this kind of pretty much random moments, you know, you're in the kitchen with her, but you just like share the space, feel the connection and you build that connection with her. So it's in general, I think everything relates to how do you understand Janelle's testimony better, which is what she's doing, you know, with her book and with her life today and trying to find ways for different moments, just using the right technology that allows us to do it in a way that feels right for the viewers.
[00:41:01.800] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah I agree and also like the second part was really about diving into our memories and we had to find a way to just like picture distance of like it's a memory, it's a bit blurry, so we imagined this halo around the images and it really gives you the feeling to you know be back inside the memory and not be back in the actual sequence and these are like Of course, it's an interpretation of what happened there. It's describing what she's saying in her book and what she experienced. But it's also about what people imagine when they think about what happened there. And these papers, it's almost like there is some kind of poetry in that. And it's also just a way to be able to imagine what happened without the traumatic part and the graphic part. So it's really about understanding the space. And there is a few pictures, and you can't really understand how it was to be in the office. and just being able to understand what was the space like, what was the height of the window, what was the configuration. You really understand how to connect with Jeanelle's story and understand what she's been through. It makes her testimony stronger, I think, and it's something that's a 2D documentary wouldn't really show or would show like differently. And I think like one of the striking images of the documentary is when you like in front of Ground Zero, you know, after the tower collapsed. When you see like 2D images of Ground Zero, it's awake like a small part of the space and be able to see it in 360 really gives you a sense of the gigantism of the scene and of the catastrophe here. So I think space here was really important to just like understand what was the scope of what happened, you know.
[00:42:37.335] Kent Bye: And just a final quick thought on the piece I thought the way that you're blending all these different techniques together to tell the story and to have an oral history and then to augment that oral history with visuals that can go into different aesthetics and techniques to give the vibe and to recreate those memories like you said narrowing the field of view and hazing it out a little bit and just Even as the stairs were collapsing, there's all black around there. So it's just like kind of like our memories feel like a little bit more fragmented in ways that you're kind of piecing these puzzle pieces together, but getting still the essence of these experiences. So I thought that was really using the medium in a really innovative and effective and useful way. And yeah, and just finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:43:22.217] Victor Agulhon: Yeah, so I think it's very interesting. I mean, that's the big question we're all trying to answer. For us, I think our mission is just making the metaverse more human in some way. Just being able to share, you know, the real world and bringing it into the metaverse through stories. So we're trying to do this today with formats like VR documentaries that last, you know, 20 minutes to 25 minutes. We want to keep on building on that, you know, human connection that we're able to create. We've found a way to make people connect with stories and that's what we want to build upon. Today I think the format we're using here which is 20 minutes documentary is a proven format. People watch it, people enjoy this format and now our goal is finding you know what comes next. What's the next volumetric spatial experience where we can have people together, you know, connecting around some content. So I think the next steps for us are going to be, you know, shortening the content, making sure that people will be able to be interacting with the content or together in the content, but just to be able to kind of like blend it more within the usage of virtual reality today. Because not everything is going to be a game here. There's a very high potential for just telling stories that we've leveraged. Right now we're just finding ways to blend content more into the way that people can use this device. And that's what we're figuring out because the more people you're using the device, the more there are opportunities to find and to tell stories and new ways to distribute them. So that's what we're working on, bringing more true stories in it, making sure that there's no believe that virtual reality is this sort of like weird world where only weird things happen and like only fiction like this is just a way to connect more with the things that you know happen in the reality and that's how we're using this tech so we are pushing for that and we'll keep on pushing for this because you know that's what we've been doing since day one and that's what we'll just keep doing that's what we love and that's what when we see the reactions here and how it seems to hit people differently than the other experiences that's what we want to do and we'll keep on defending that.
[00:45:12.627] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah, I mean, completely agree. I think like Victor said everything. I really like bringing human connection to VR is just so important. And as a storyteller, I think stories, there are like so many incredible stories that we could tell in VR. And I think like surviving 9-11 is also a way to say we can talk about everything in VR and there is a way to talk about these topics with this medium. And I think for like news and journalism it brings something very different of like you're actually like inside the TV and something really powerful about using this empathy to just connect with more topics and the stories of the world. So yeah, really like bring humanity and bring the real world to VR is really like our mission today.
[00:45:55.733] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?
[00:46:00.437] Victor Agulhon: I mean, if you have a VR headset, let's just keep on, you know, pushing for making more stories and just make more stories. Let's consume more stories, watch more stories. I think we need the whole community to kind of figure out what works today in terms of stories distribution. So I think, you know, let's just keep on doing what everyone's been doing, which is like finding new formats, new creative ideas like that's definitely what we want. And we see that this industry is accelerating and it's because of all the people, you know, who listen to your podcast, who listen to I mean who just make things so I will just let you know let's just keep pushing for what we're doing it's been a long time that everyone's been doing this and now we see that it's taking off so I would just say like encouragement to the industry like we finally see this is you know becoming a reality more and more people are using it more and more people are understanding the value of it so we just have to you know keep going
[00:46:47.717] Chloe Rochereuil: Yeah, I mean, it's a great thing to be able to like show our experiences here and the VR community is just like very strong and we have a lot of talented people doing amazing work. So yeah, keep doing on doing that. And I feel like if we work together, we'll be able to like create experiences and create a virtual who is going to be awesome. So let's keep doing on that.
[00:47:09.053] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I really enjoy all the work that you've been doing and it's actually available for folks to watch online on Oculus TV. I'll add some links in the show notes for people to go straight directly to a lot of the different pieces that you produce that they can check out all the different pieces that we talked about today. And I think there's a lot of really innovative work that you're doing and pushing forward and blending together all these techniques in a really effective way. So congratulations on the showing here at South by Southwest and thanks for joining me today.
[00:47:33.344] Victor Agulhon: Thanks, Kent. Thanks a lot.
[00:47:35.595] Kent Bye: So that was Victor Argonneau, and he's the co-founder of Targa Stories and producer of virtual reality documentaries, as well as Chloe Rousselet. She's also a co-founder of Targa Stories and the director of virtual reality documentaries. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, the viral tweet, I think, helped set the larger context to be able to dig in and get a little bit of the oral history of how that all had come about. And I think through that line of questioning, there was some interesting insights in terms of the collaboration with Oculus, but also just the misconception that had happened as a result of that. I don't want to focus too much on that because I think the technical aspects of what they're doing with surviving 9-11 is actually really quite impressive I highly recommend folks check it out just to see the different range of different techniques that are being used to be able to tell the story from Taking these panoramic photos and turns lighting them into 360 photo panoramas that then were converted into this spatialized VR form and and then they have the CGI, and then they have the stereoscopic 3D. Also, I really enjoyed the other pieces of When We Stayed Home, as well as the Maniheim Notre Dame, which I first interviewed Victor back at Laval Virtual in France in 2019. And then, just a few months later, the Notre Dame had burned. down and then they followed up and did a whole rebuilding Notre Dame. So those two pieces are actually really quite interesting to see how VR 360 video as a form of cultural heritage to be able to preserve different aspects of this moment in time and just to document that whole story. So I highly recommend checking out these videos just because I think that there's some also really interesting things that they're doing when we stay at home, which is looking at one moment in time and then kind of doing a fade in and a fade out to be able to see the various different differences between, you know, when there's different spaces that have lots of people and then during the dark on when there is basically no one around. So lots of really well produced pieces and highly recommend checking them out on the Oculus Quest. You can download them for free. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue bringing this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.