Decoding XR: SURVIVING 9/11, Victor Agulhon, Chloe Rochereuil (Targo)
Last year, one of the Targo productions (a VR documentary production company based in France) was released on Oculus TV. A memorial work on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States. A strong film and an exceptional archive that was drawn from the resources of the web to recompose a lost past. Awarded at Stereopsia 2021, selected at SXSW 2022, back on SURVIVING 9/11 with the two founders of the studio Chloe Rochereuil (director) and Victor Agulhon (producer).
Victor Agulhon - This is a project about the tragedy of September 11, 2001 that we launched internally at Targo in October 2001. We spontaneously proposed it to Oculus when we decided to focus on the story of Genelle Guzman-McMillan, the last woman to be rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center over 27 hours after the attack. The film will be released in September 2021 on Oculus TV.
Chloé Rochereuil - We wanted to base the film on the story of a survivor, a testimony. Genelle's story is unique because she spent 27 hours under the rubble of the North Tower. This story encompasses all the phases of the attack and the aftermath. She is a survivor who speaks out a lot in the media, to her community, made a book out of it in 2011, "Angel in the Rubble". It was important for her to be comfortable with this topic to be able to talk about it, and convey her story to the public.
SURVIVING 9/11 or the reconstruction of a pre-virtual reality past
C. R. - This is the (iconic) image of the twin towers before the World Trade Center attacks. It is also the starting point of our documentary. While searching the web archives of the early 2000s, we realized that there were already "virtual tours" and 360 photos at that time! We gathered about a hundred 360 panoramas of New-York taken with analog cameras (about thirty were used in the final cut). It was a real work of archeology 2.0 where we had to find the photographers, and, to their surprise, ask them for the rights and the source files of shots taken more than 20 years ago. Fortunately, the vast majority of the negatives still existed. In general, each panorama consisted of about ten panoramas taken with fisheye lenses. All this material convinced us to work on a restoration of each 360° photograph to bring back to life the New-York of before 2001. These photos are a real opportunity to propose such a trip back in time!
V. A. - These photographs were obviously not intended to be viewed in virtual reality. They are based on iPix technology, invented in the 90s for online 360 viewing, which was used to create virtual tours-it was the forerunner of Google Street View. We reuse these formats for today's VR, giving them a second life, it has something magical.
C. R. - It is also an image that corresponds to the first part of the documentary, with the arrival in New York of the heroine of the documentary Genelle Guzman-McMillan, then a recent immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. For her, the World Trade Center represents a symbol of the American dream, of the cultural and economic power of the United States. It is an embodiment of her dream to immigrate to this country. We stroll with her in this New York of the late 1990s until we arrive in front of the twin towers.
V. A. - One of the challenges of the documentary was not only to present images of New York in the 90s, but especially to show them at a quality that meets the requirements of VR headsets of 2021/22. It was a huge job for us to index all these photos (170 in total). We retained about 20 of them in the film - those for which we had the negatives and which were of better quality. We then did a long R&D job to restore them in virtual reality. Once scanned, we removed all the imperfections from the images, reconstructed the missing parts when the panoramas were not complete. Finally, the most tedious part was the conversion of the whole thing into 3D, with an extremely painstaking process of cropping all the individual elements in the photos to spatialize them and get real VR content - in stereoscopic 8K - and finally animated with archival video from the time.
V. A. - The challenge for us was to create cinemagraphs, images with small movements to give an impression of suspended time. Typically, in this photo it's the fountain near the World Trade Center, animated thanks to a video filmed on the spot: the panels float in the wind, the trees and clouds move. It's a real work of animation, which consists in giving life to the environment.
Recreate memories in 3D
C. R. - On September 11, 2001, Genelle arrived at her office on the 64th floor of the North Tower and sat down at her desk, as she had done every day since she got the job at the Port Authority of New York a few weeks earlier. The computer turns on and a loud bang sounds. This image is the moment when Genelle sees papers falling through the windows and begins to realize that something is wrong. In this sequence, we really immerse ourselves in her memories during the 9/11 attack. We put a lot of thought into how to portray these very special moments. We wondered about certain sequences in animation, but we wanted to remain in the realistic DNA of the rest of the documentary. Based on his testimony and thousands of archives, we reconstructed the places to create these images in 3D pre-rendering. They are displayed at 180° in front of the viewer, with a blurred halo on the edges to represent the theme of memory and limit immersion.
V. A. - When we talk about 9/11 in virtual reality, there is a real stake in not reliving a traumatic event directly. This image represents the idea of putting distance between the story and the viewer. We use a luminous halo to delimit the memory. It is an illustration of what she experienced, while remaining faithful to our desire to stick to reality, to the historical truth.
V. A. - Here too, there is a huge amount of research in the archives and the media regarding Genelle's location, his tower, his floor. We used the plans of the New York Port Authority (i.e. his employer at the time) so that everything was the right size! It's a 3D reconstruction, always on this idea of cinemagraphs by animating a part of the decor, but not the characters. These flying papers are a real visual asset but above all a very vivid memory for Genelle - an iconoclastic detail of this tragedy.
C. R. - The papers floating in the air is an image that everyone has seen from the outside. We wanted to show it from the inside to make Genelle's testimony concrete. This is the image that the public often talks about after seeing the film, and they all agree that the documentary speaks about the subject in an accurate way. The challenge for us was to find the balance between documenting and respecting the subject.
In the rubble of 9/11
C. R. - When the tower collapses, Genelle is on the stairs of the North Tower as she tries to escape and then gets trapped under the rubble. It's a complicated moment to capture because there's not really any footage from under the rubble at Ground Zero. We had to rely mainly on Genelle's memories of materials, smells and sensations that suggested a certain configuration of the space in which she found herself trapped. It is perhaps the visual that is the most interpreted in the documentary, even if we tried to stick to reality as much as possible by scanning in 3D the artifacts (beams, materials, pieces of concrete, glass...) of Ground Zero exposed at the Memorial in New York.
C. R. - The challenge was to propose a 3D reconstruction that simply explains the context. We see a ray of sunlight piercing through meters and meters of debris to evoke the surface of Ground Zero and the moment when Genelle was found by a dog and extracted from the rubble by rescuers 27 hours after the collapse of her tower.
V. A. - An important documentary aspect here is that the film is divided into three parts Before / During / After, and each moment is illustrated by a different technology. Before the attacks, we capture the energy of the city, we stay true to the archival footage. On the memory of the attacks, it is a subject that was much more sensitive, on which we needed total creative and visual control. We wanted a content, if not pleasant, at least respectful of what happened. The only way to really achieve this was to do 3D reconstruction - without using photographs of those moments. Finally, in the third part, we follow Genelle as she returns to the scene at Ground Zero, and the connection with her is much stronger. We really stand next to her, in classic 360 video.
Ground Zero VR
V. A. - This 360 picture is based on all the principles of what we said before (see picture 1). Except that obviously, on Ground Zero, we had found 360 photos, but taken from a distance and did not reflect the scale of the tragedy. This precise photo is therefore a creation from 300 images of the place, taken by traditional photographers of FEMA - Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States, which intervenes on ecological and humanitarian disasters. This agency has strongly documented 9/11 with thousands of shots. We selected the photos that had the widest angle to reconstruct this perspective end to end. This is a very important point of view in the story, for the viewer and for Genelle, to put into perspective the magnitude of the tragedy but also the miracle of this woman's rescue.
Post-September 11: a survival
C. R. - The third part of the documentary is entirely live action. We find Genelle 20 years later in her life, in 2021. We follow him through his life to understand his daily life and his trauma but also during his first return to the Ground Zero memorial. It's an emotional sequence, where we really connect with the character. In this image, Genelle faces the pool that symbolizes the marking of her tower, she looks at the names of her lost colleagues.
V. A. - Shooting in virtual reality, live, is also imposing limits. We don't know how it will react. Moreover, it is an environment where it was difficult to hide the team, to organize the production accordingly. We hid in the crowd! There is a balance to be found between these imperatives and the freedom to impose on Genelle. At the end of the film, we have to stay focused on her.
C. R. - I think that paradoxically, the VR camera is both a problem and a huge advantage because we are not with a big TV crew with lights, a soundman, a boom operator, a camera on a tripod, etc. We keep a form of simplicity, intimacy with our main protagonist. We keep a form of simplicity, of intimacy with our main protagonist.
SURVIVING 9/11 streaming
V. A. - The feedback from viewers is excellent; we also benefit from a strong subject, with an impact, with an essentially American public that lived this drama up close (and for some in New York in 2001). On another aspect, many in the immersive industry consider that VR must necessarily be interactive, gamified. For us, there is a real place for linear documentaries, narration and journalists' work. There is still a lot of education to be done on this point, especially when broadcasting on platforms. SURVIVING 9/11 has been viewed 1.5 million times in six months, with average view durations much higher than on other platforms (social networks, Youtube...). The quality of the images is also improving every year, and Meta is aware of this to improve the encoding and distribution of content. SURVIVING 9/11 is the maximum of what we can offer today, but we will be able to deliver the film in a higher quality if the material improves. This allows the viewer to focus on the content, not the technology.