How The New York Times used its archives to make the past a (virtual) reality
Almost every newspaper has a morgue, the occasionally subterranean (and sometimes water-damaged) final resting place for old photos, clippings and other records collected by the newsroom.
Sometimes, a picture is exhumed for historical purposes, or a clipping is resurrected to help a reporter pick up the threads of an old story. For the most part, though, the records are undisturbed.
But for the last week, archived photos at The New York Times have been the unlikely stars of a virtual reality production for the biggest story around: the Olympic Games.
"The Modern Games," a movie released by The New York Times last Friday, takes viewers through more than 100 years of Olympics history using archived photos of competitors and stadiums from years gone by, putting viewers at the scene of the 1896 Olympics revival and the pathbreaking track and field victories of Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1932.
The movie, which runs for more than eight minutes, has its roots in a decision by The New York Times to cover this year's Summer Games from a historical vantage point, said Graham Roberts, senior graphics editor at The New York Times, who directed the movie. Originally, "The Modern Games" was merely going to put viewers in stadiums of yore, but that concept shifted as editors realized it needed a little something extra.
"A lot of what we've been doing with the Olympics has been putting what's happening in the current games in the context of Olympics past. And now we have this amazing tool, VR, where we can put you in these places and have you experience them in this new way. So that seemed to be a unique opportunity to do something that would be different from the way we've covered and previewed the Olympics in the past," Roberts said.
After taking viewers to the first modern Olympics, the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 and the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, the movie transports viewers to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where they see a familiar face: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt overtaking competitor Richard Thompson of Trinidad & Tobago.
Then comes a live-action portion, where viewers can watch from a helicopter as cinematographer Evan Grothjan films the airspace overlooking Rio de Janeiro. One scene puts the viewer in the middle of Brazilian fight dancing, another on a beach, another in the middle of a bustling street.
"Not everyone can go to Rio, so we're taking you there," Roberts said. "To take you back in time, through the Olympics and place you there — that, right there, interested me about this."
This is the first full live-action 360-stereoscopic virtual reality movie from The New York Times, which means viewers can see two separate images — one for each eye — while watching the film. The stereoscopic effect was accomplished with Google Jump, a 16-camera array that works in concert with an algorithm that stitches the images together.
Roberts says he was so impressed by the technology that he hugged one of Google's engineers when he realized what it was capable of.
"Your left eye and your right eye should be seeing different things, like you do in the real world," Roberts said. "You're not just seeing one flat sphere of video, which is mostly what we've been able to do until now."
The movie was produced in partnership with The Mill, a visual effects and content creation studio, which helped transform the Times' archival images into three-dimensional landscapes.
In the months since The New York Times launched its first full-length virtual reality film, "The Displaced," the newspaper has been experimenting with films that used the medium in new ways. "Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart," which launched in May, used computer graphics and narration to transport viewers to the edge of the solar system. "The Fight for Fallujah," a live-action virtual reality movie, took viewers to the front lines of a terrestrial conflict with whizzing bullets and armored cars.
So far, the NYT VR app has been downloaded more than 900,000 times, and CEO Mark Thompson has hailed virtual reality as part of the company's visual future. The Times is now producing an average of one VR film per month, Roberts says, and plans to maintain that pace.
"It changes constantly," he said. "We learn something new every time we make a film."
Correction: A previous version of this story said "The Modern Games" was the first stereoscopic virtual reality film from The New York Times. In fact, it is the first full live-action 360-stereoscopic virtual reality film the newspaper has released. The previous version of this story also omitted Babe Didrikson Zaharias' full name.