Last week, we raved about The New York Times’ latest 360 video: The Modern Olympic Games, which transported viewers back in time to some of the greatest moments in Olympic history. To learn more about how that wonderfully immersive virtual experience was crafted, we spoke with Graham Roberts.
Graham Roberts is a 5-time Emmy Award nominated Senior Editor at The New York Times, where he produces a wide range of visual journalism projects as part of the NYT Graphics team. In particular, his work focuses on new approaches in video, motion graphics, virtual reality, and immersive visual storytelling. Over the years, his work has won numerous awards; including, most recently, an Edward R. Murrow Award for best “Use of Video.”
Check out the conversation below…
Blake J. Harris: Obviously, as you know from our post, we were big fans of The Modern Games VR film. Can you tell me a bit about how that project came together?
Graham Roberts: Now that we are working with virtual reality projects, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to come up with an interesting concept around the games that we could do in that medium. After tossing some ideas around, the idea of doing a historical time travel story—that would take you to some of the great moments in Olympics past—sounded really fun. And we realized it could take this new and interesting approach to our photo archives. So that’s sort of how it came together.
Blake J. Harris: I mentioned in our piece how starting in present-day Rio, before going back in time, was a great way to make the experience accessible for viewers. Was that always the plan from the start?
Graham Roberts: Originally, I thought we’d just start back in time and then go forward. But as we started putting the project together, I thought it would be more exciting to bookend it with the footage from Rio.
Blake J. Harris: So I assume, even if it wasn’t always certain that’s how the experience would begin, that you had always planned to film those helicopter scenes in Rio?
Graham Roberts: Exactly. Also, the footage we got back from Rio was so great that we wanted some of that right in the beginning so that would be an expectation for the piece.
Blake J. Harris: I’m sure it’s a very complicated process. But can you give me broad-level overview of how you were able to re-create immersive, 360-degree moments based on photographs from your archives?
Graham Roberts: Sure. I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before. We have production power here, but we realized this was going to be on another level. So we partnered with a content and VFX studio called The Mill and worked with them to create these environments. The big challenge was finding a way to turn those flat photos into stereoscopic representations.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah, that doesn’t sound easy.
Graham Roberts: After selecting the moments we wanted to recreate, we went through the archives. We collected hundreds of photos for each stadium (and what was going on around the stadium) and then we would map out a birds eye view of it. While doing this, we’d constantly need to be asking ourselves: Where do we have holes? Where do we have coverage? And then the process for The Mill was a combination of projection-mapping (where you’re sort of projecting photography into geometry that’s been built) and then doing something called a “3D Roto.” Creating, sort of, a geometry structure below that would allow it to work stereoscopically.
Blake J. Harris: In terms of the moments themselves, how did you select those?
Graham Roberts: We did a lot of research to look for stadiums that would be interesting to be inside of, and also searched for a diverse selection of “hero moments.” We wanted to represent a variety of aspects and issues of the Games. Also, we knew from the beginning that this piece would be under ten minutes. That’s about how long people are really comfortable watching something on Cardboard (which is probably how the majority of our content is consumed at this point). So, with that time, we wanted to have a nice pacing to the years; we didn’t want you to feel too unevenly jumping for time.
Blake J. Harris: Were there any moments that you strongly considered but ultimately didn’t make the final cut?
Graham Roberts: There was one that I would have loved to do, but we just didn’t have the references to support it. It would have taken way too long, but I would have loved to go to Berlin and put you right next to Hitler in his box.
Blake J. Harris: Oh wow.
Graham Roberts: That would have been incredible. But the photo reference didn’t really support that and we only had a limited time (about two months) to put this project together. The other thing too was that we knew we wanted to have 1932 Babe Didrikson; so to do ’32 and then ’36 would have sort of violated the pacing and time parameters that we wanted to follow.
Blake J. Harris: One last question for you. The piece was well-received—there’s a lot to admire—but do you personally have a favorite moment from the experience?
Graham Roberts: I think there’s just something revelatory about leaving 2008 and then being up in the helicopter. Over that beautiful shot of Rio. That connection—coming to the present, now that you’ve experienced the past—I just felt it embodied the hopeful spirit of the Olympics. There’s something about that moment that always gets me.