Disfellowshipped is an interactive 360-degree video experience. It can be viewed with the Oculus Rift and modern smartphones using Google Cardboard viewers. To enter virtual reality mode, click on the headset icon in the lower-right corner.
Disfellowshipped also works on desktop computers with the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox; you can look around by clicking and dragging. To get started, position the red dot at the center of the screen over your selection.
On mobile devices, Disfellowshipped will work best on modern smartphones running Firefox on iOS and Android. We recommend higher-end smartphones within the last two generations (e.g., iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6 and higher). We don’t guarantee support on tablets.
We recommend listening with headphones.
More on how we built this.
Our first virtual reality production, Disfellowshipped, is an attempt to help push forward the possibilities of immersive storytelling in journalism – to tell a narrative, character-rich, investigative story in VR.
Media outlets around the world are getting their feet wet in the VR world, and some astonishing work has been done. But so far, VR largely has been used to provide visual context to stories, while the heavy lifting of storytelling is still left to text or video.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Disfellowshipped was born in May 2015. A group from Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting went to Berlin to host TechRaking, a gathering of journalists and technologists, supported by the Google News Lab. That’s where we met Stephan Gensch and Linda Rath-Wiggins, founders of a Berlin-based VR start-up called Vragments. Their idea was to build a tool called Fader that would allow journalists to quickly and easily turn their reporting into VR experiences.
To design the tool, they needed a reporter and a story. I was in the middle of a prolonged investigation into Jehovah’s Witnesses and child sexual abuse. We decided to focus our work on one of my sources, Debbie McDaniel, a woman with an extraordinary past.
So, what’s the point of telling this story in VR?
The answer is to give the viewer a more intimate understanding of a character and her experience. The technology allows us to put you in the reporter’s shoes, to feel what it’s like to sit with people as they look you in the eye and tell you their story, to visit their towns and the places that affected their lives. In some instances, it becomes a window into a person’s emotional memory.
I went to Berlin and wrote a shooting script for three VR segments that would tell McDaniel’s story. I worked with Vragments to make sure the script would work in VR. Then I went to Oklahoma with some sound equipment and a small, inexpensive 360-degree video camera. I shot and recorded the main elements that would drive the story: McDaniel and her hometown of McAlester.
We incorporated still images to show the people who refused to speak with us. And we created simple animated sequences to demonstrate past events that we weren’t around to capture when they actually happened.
Post-production was a monthslong trans-Atlantic endeavor. I worked with Reveal senior supervising editor David Ritsher to refine and edit the segments. Then we sent our work to Berlin, where the Vragments team integrated the elements – video, photos, animation, dialogue, ambient sound and music – and turned them into VR.
The result is an experience we hope helps open up the possibilities of VR storytelling and gives our audience a more powerful understanding of a tragic issue that affects thousands of people around the world.