California Today: In Virtual Reality, Investigating the Trayvon Martin Case

Today’s introduction comes to us from Adam Popescu, a reporter based in Los Angeles.

In turning the Trayvon Martin tragedy into a virtual reality film, the director Nonny de la Peña combed through public court records and stitched together 911 calls to structure an auditory narrative of the rainy night that ended in the shooting death of the unarmed 17-year-old by George Zimmerman. To get the look of the apartment complex in Sanford, Fla., where the events took place, Ms. de la Peña, a former Newsweek correspondent who runs a virtual reality company in Santa Monica, found architectural drawings of the location online, designs that were then rendered as video game-like C.G.I. models.

The final product, called “One Dark Night,” was recently shown at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum and is now available on Google Play and Steam.

“This is immersive journalism,” she said, intended to drive empathy. But it also raises issues about taste and truth. I caught up with Ms. de la Peña by phone. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

Q. How did this piece come together?

A. “One Dark Night” is sourced entirely from 911 calls, trial testimony and architectural drawings of the condo complex where the shooting took place. I’m still an investigative journalist at heart, and it was very much the kind of story I used to cover as a print reporter. I really wanted to make a piece about the shooting, to be able to cast any kind of additional spotlight on the case using V.R.

Q. Why Trayvon Martin? Why not Freddie Gray or another tragedy?

A. Nothing other than I had the ability and I had the time and I felt I was the person to do it. Something clicked when I began investigating the Trayvon case.

Q. You say it’s meant to draw empathy. Do you acknowledge that videos of shootings can be interpreted in multiple ways, and that this piece is subject to such questions?

A. Definitely. I’ve had a journalist say that they better understood Zimmerman’s position.

We’re always trying to figure out what we can convey to the viewer and what’s appropriate to show. For audiences not reading newspapers or watching broadcast TV, V.R. can reach them where they play. This is how you keep an informed global citizenry and keep democracy robust. What do we decide to shield them from? I think that that question is only going to be more pronounced as this media becomes more mature.

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