‘Surviving 9/11’ Commemorates 20th Anniversary Through One Woman’s Inspiring Testimony

Oculus Blog
September 7, 2021

As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaches, now is an opportune time to reflect on the lives lost as well as the light that shone through the darkness as New Yorkers and the world came together to heal and rebuild. Today, Emmy-nominated studio TARGO does just that with the release of Surviving 9/11: 27 Hours Under the Rubble, available for free in Oculus TV on the Oculus Quest Platform.

Surviving 9/11 shares the story of Genelle Guzman-McMillan—the last person to be rescued from Ground Zero after spending 27 hours trapped under the rubble. A young Black immigrant woman from Trinidad, Guzman-McMillan came to New York to pursue the American Dream. The 20-minute VR documentary chronicles the defining moments of her life: her first days in New York, her memories of 9/11, and her life today, 20 years later, as she returns to Ground Zero for the first time since 9/11.

TARGO used archival photographs and never-before-seen panoramas to bring the Twin Towers back to life. Thanks to VR, you can walk on the World Trade Center Plaza, reach the observatory deck, and admire the New York City skyline—all as they were before 9/11.

We sat down with TARGO Co-Founders Victor Agulhon and Chloé Rochereuil to learn more.

What was the initial inspiration for Surviving 9/11? How, if at all, did the project change over time.

Victor Agulhon: We knew that VR could bring a new perspective to the memory of 9/11, and we thought that the 20th anniversary this year would be the right occasion.‌ ‌As‌ ‌VR‌ ‌storytellers,‌ ‌we had to figure out how to say something that no other medium could. For us, VR performs better than all other media when it comes to human connections, and we had the intuition that telling the story of a survivor would be really powerful.

Chloé Rochereuil: During our research, we discovered the story of Genelle Guzman-McMillan. After reading the book she wrote, it quickly became clear that her story would make for a powerful VR documentary. Genelle arrived in the US as a young female immigrant in 1998. She survived the collapse of the North Tower and was rescued after 27 hours under the rubble on September 12. Her story felt so miraculous and unique that we knew she was the right person with the right story.

How did you get connected with Genelle Guzman-McMillan? What was it like working with her?

CR: When we contacted Genelle, she was extremely welcoming and warm and very open to talk about 9/11. Her story has become part of her life, and she has made it a mission to share her testimony with others.

When we introduced her to the idea of doing a virtual reality documentary, the technology was very new to her—and it’s also what piqued her interest. It was a new way to tell her story, and she liked our approach.

Working with her was very powerful—it really is humbling to meet and work with a 9/11 survivor. For our team, it felt like we were actively contributing to documenting history. It was very emotional too, for us and for her. You can sense during the interviews that her memories of the attacks are still very vivid, still fresh in her mind.

The most remarkable moment was to be with her for her first return to Ground Zero since the attacks. It felt like a historical moment to us. It’s that feeling of closeness, that sense of connection with Genelle that we wanted to convey in the documentary.

How did you go about creating 3D reconstructions of the World Trade Center?

VA: Talking about the actual attacks in virtual reality was a challenge. Because VR is a visual medium, we had to find a balance between illustrating Genelle’s story while making sure that the viewers don’t feel like they’re actually living through the attacks. Our goal was to offer a glimpse into her memory while keeping some distance from the events.

At TARGO, we’re all about true stories and non-fiction experiences. Our North Star for the 3D reconstruction of the World Trade Center was to make each scene historically correct and true to Genelle’s memory. We recreated the key locations she remembers from that day—from the lobby to the offices to the rubble where she was trapped.

We gathered a large variety of references to leave as little room for interpretation as possible. We started with her own testimony and completed it with office pictures, home videos, news clips, floor plans, and personal photos. We collected virtually every visual available to be as accurate as we could.

The most distinctive feature of Genelle’s story is her survival over 27 hours, trapped under the rubble. To push the historical accuracy of these scenes, we 3D-scanned rubble and steel structures from Ground Zero preserved at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

How were you able to gain access to exclusive and never-before-seen archival footage of the World Trade Center?

CR: It all started when we discovered by chance that photographers got interested in 360° photography in the 1990s. After some research, it became clear that there were panoramic pictures of New York in the 1990s featuring the World Trade Center. Even though the technology they used had become obsolete, we figured that the photographers may still have the negatives and that we could do something about it with today’s technology.

We spent several months locating as many panoramic shots in New York in the 1990s and identifying their photographers. This research was very intense: We browsed the archives of the web, dug into databases looking for filenames that could indicate a panorama in New York, called countless phone numbers trying to contact photographers, and we even sent actual mail to some of them—it really felt like digital archeology.

VA: As we got in touch with the photographers, most of them had forgotten that they had shot these pictures. It was a very exciting moment when we realized that some had preserved their original negatives. We were onto something that had never been done before: We would give new life to these forgotten pictures, more than 20 years after they were shot.

Being able to unearth exclusive and never-before-seen pictures of the World Trade Center was key to depicting Genelle’s experience of New York in the 1990s, and it gives viewers the opportunity to go back in time before 9/11.

TARGO pioneered a remastering pipeline to bring the World Trade Center back to life. What was that process like?

VA: Finding these archival panoramas was just the beginning of our journey. It was wonderful to have them, but they were simply not up to the visual quality required for VR. To make them relevant to a VR audience’s expectations, we needed to turn these old dusty negatives into 8K 360° 3D videos. Remastering footage for VR with that magnitude was uncharted territory.

The first step was quality improvement. For that, we assembled a suite of tools to improve the resolution and the details in each picture. First, we had to rescan the negatives of each picture with a blend of high-resolution and HDR scanning. Then, we stitched them, upscaled and denoised them with AI, and did some manual repainting. We developed dedicated tools to compare pictures in-headset and decide which process worked best.

The second step was the 3D conversion. 3D conversion is about adding depth into the picture. It gives that feeling of presence in the VR environment. That really was the aha moment—we had managed to take these archival pictures up to today’s VR standards.

The final challenge was to instill life into these still pictures. We liked the idea of animating a few elements to create cinemagraphs. Making a few key features move in the frame gives the illusion of movement, of time passing. It contributes to that eerie sensation of being back in time.

What kind of response have you seen while demoing the experience?

CR: The feedback we’ve received so far has been extremely positive. It clearly is our most moving experience to date—people seem to deeply relate to Genelle's story.

It’s very moving for us to see that the people who lived through the events—as a survivor, family or friends of victims, witnesses—appreciate and enjoy the documentary. We have already received so many comments of people spontaneously reaching out, sharing with us the story of what they were doing on that day. It feels like the people who have watched the documentary live it as an uplifting experience, as a story of hope—and nothing could make us happier than this.

If people take one thing away from Surviving 9/11, what do you hope it would be and why?

CR: Beyond 9/11, I think that Genelle’s testimony brings a powerful message of hope that everyone can relate to. She is such a strong woman who has overcome an incredibly hard obstacle. Her story is one of resilience. It’s an inspiration on overcoming hardship and grief, and we can all learn from her.

What lessons learned from your earlier work in VR (like Rebuilding Notre Dame and When We Stayed Home) did you apply to the making of Surviving 9/11?

VA: Surviving 9/11 really combines a lot of the learnings from our previous productions and pushes them further. The most important point is having one character leading the story to create a deep sense of connection. We’ve refined the idea of offering unique access, the quality of the visuals, the pace of the story. VR storytelling is a living matter, and it feels like a constant progression.

For instance, a recurring theme in our documentaries is the idea of blending time and places. We did it with Notre-Dame before and after the fire, with iconic cities before and during the pandemic. With Surviving 9/11, we’re pushing it even further by blending places 20 years apart: New York with and without the Twin Towers.

In what ways is Surviving 9/11 a departure from your previous work in VR?

CR: On the narration side, it’s probably our most intimate story to date. You really get to dive into the psyche of Genelle. You feel like a very privileged counterpart to her story—you’re next to her during her first return to Ground Zero, you meet her family. It’s a very personal story.

VA: In terms of VR technique, it’s the first time that we leverage such a wide variety of materials—from archival photos to 3D reconstructions to live action. It’s really covering the whole scope of immersive content, and I think that it’s the first time any VR production has had such a diverse blend of media.

Why was VR the right medium in which to tell this particular story?

CR: It’s the first question we ask ourselves for every project. And let it be said, when it comes to dealing with 9/11 in virtual reality, there are many ways to go wrong. For us, it all starts and ends with Genelle’s testimony. Our goal was to provide a new storytelling platform for her story.

VR offers a unique connection with Genelle and her story. It allows everyone to have a lifelike encounter with a survivor of 9/11. Hearing Genelle’s testimony one-on-one is a privileged experience for all. You see her face, you hear her voice, you feel like she’s talking to you. It’s that human connection, that sensation of sharing her space that creates that feeling. That’s the power of VR.

VA: VR was also a way to give a new life to all the multimedia archives of the event. Beyond the human connection, being immersed in the buzz of New York in the ’90s feels pretty magical—the energy, the look and feel, the spirit of the time. You can stand on the World Trade Center Plaza and admire the Twin Towers. This is an experience that no other medium can provide.

What role do you believe VR can and should play in the preservation of history for future generations?

VA: To me, virtual reality is a game-changer for history preservation. Because viewers participate in the stories, because everything happens around them, because everything happens in the present, viewers feel connected, they feel involved. When you’re in the headset, it’s not history anymore: It’s the present. VR has the power to create immediate relevance.

Even though the most obvious usage of VR is that you can travel anywhere, I actually believe that the most amazing power of VR is the ability to bring the past back to life and to make it feel present.

What we have done here with the memory of 9/11 can be applied for any historical event. I think VR opens up a whole new way to connect with history—it really is an opportunity to share stories and experiences unlike anything that was possible before.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

CR: We want to thank Genelle for her contribution to this experience. It's really been an honor working with her. And we want to thank the team that worked on making this documentary a meaningful piece—we hope that the viewers will appreciate it!

Surviving 9/11 is available for free in Oculus TV on the Quest Platform.

To hear more from Genelle Guzman-McMillan in her own words, click here.