Dan Archer is a graphic journalist and current Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow who reports the news using comics and designs interactive pieces based on real-life events. He created Fusion's virtual reality experience of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Here's how he did it.
The comics in this story are based on the accounts given to media outlets such as CNN and NBC by eight people who witnessed Michael Brown’s death. Some of the eyewitnesses chose to remain anonymous, hence their depiction in the comics as silhouettes. The eight accounts included here were given in the immediate aftermath of the shooting—and before a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson.
Scenes from "Josie's" point-of-view.
The drawings reflect my interpretations of the events described by witnesses. They are based on recorded witness accounts, but the visual interpretations of the recordings involved some artistic license. The specific locations of the eyewitnesses were generated based on first-hand visits to the scene, cross-referenced with footage that some of those witnesses made publicly available. Michael Brady, for example, released smartphone video footage showing the altercation between Brown and Wilson facing west towards Florissant Avenue on Canfield Court. This was recorded immediately after he left his apartment, having witnessed the start of the incident unfold from inside. As a result, I assumed his apartment was the closest one to the vantage point that the video was shot from.
Scenes from "Tiffany's" point-of-view.
Tiffany Mitchell’s account said that she was “coming around the corner,” but that she also saw Wilson and Brown “tussling through the window,” which I took to mean that she was on the same side of the street as they were (otherwise, her view would have been blocked by the police car). I also assumed she was on the east side of the apartment building as otherwise that would have meant Brown would have run towards her and been approximately a dozen feet away from her when he was fatally shot, which is a detail that I thought Mitchell would have emphasized had it been the case.
The final drawings have not been reviewed by the witnesses for accuracy. None of the witnesses returned inquiries about the project.
The virtual reality environment in the game was informed by photos taken in Ferguson at the Canfield Green apartments complex, where Brown was shot. The “beacons” in the game—which represent the locations of eyewitnesses—were placed by cross-referencing witness statements with published videos or photos, among other techniques.
In terms of pipeline, I first went to the scene to take picture references (but was unable to contact the eyewitnesses in person), then mapped out the environment using Google SketchUp. Then I produced basic building/car/tree/street outlines on top of Google Earth satellite imagery and sent those to a team of 3D artists, who rendered the outlines into high-resolution 3D assets using 3DS Studio Max. Those were then assembled and the interactivity programmed inside the Unity game engine. In parallel to the 3D assets being created, I transcribed interviews given by the eyewitnesses from publicly available sources before drawing them inside the digital graphics program Manga Studio.
The project is based on the eyewitness accounts of the following people:
Dorian Johnson, who accompanied Michael Brown from the robbery of the Ferguson Market through to Brown’s fatal shooting. Johnson’s account was transcribed from this NBC video:
Piaget Crenshaw, who witnessed the shooting from her bedroom window, then came out onto her balcony to record the aftermath of Wilson standing over Brown’s body. Her account was taken from this CNN video:
“Josie,” a supposed friend of Darren Wilson’s who told his alleged side of the story on FM Newstalk 97.1 KTFK Radio, which is where the audio was transcribed from.
Tiffany Mitchell who was en route to Piaget Crenshaw’s apartment to pick her up for work that day. Her account was taken from a video interview with this CBS affiliate KMOV News 4:
Michael Brady, a local resident at the Canfield Green apartment complex, who first saw the incident through his bedroom window, then ran outside to record video. His account was transcribed from an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN:
Construction workers: two men who chose to remain anonymous whose reactions to the shooting were somehow recorded by a third party immediately after the incident took place. The video was released on CNN.
Glide video chat user, who unintentionally recorded the shots fired by Darren Wilson as he recorded a video message to his girlfriend using the chat service for smartphones. The audio was released by Glide and broadcast across multiple news channels. This source is from NBC.
“BlackCanseco,” a YouTube user, who posted video recorded on his smartphone as he walked south on Copper Creek Court immediately after the shooting towards the scene. The graphic video shows Brown’s body lying in the street and was posted publicly on Youtube before being picked up by multiple news channels:
Darren Wilson's account of the shooting, told to the grand jury, was released after the decision not to indict. It can be read here.
For more on the making of this project, watch the video below.