Last year, The Washington Post set out to do something unprecedented and risky: tell the story of a school shooting through an animated virtual reality film.
“12 seconds of gunfire: The true story of a school shooting,” follows a first-grader’s trauma and loss after a teenager opens fire on her elementary school playground in 2016. The eight-minute film is based on reporting by John Woodrow Cox, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and illustrated by award-winning animator Wesley Allsbrook.
The film takes viewers into the world of 7-year-old Ava Olsen from the moment she arrives at Townville Elementary School on the day of the shooting to the moment she writes President Donald Trump a letter, pleading with him to keep children safe from guns.
Only one child, 6-year-old Jacob Hall, died at Townville Elementary in South Carolina, but he meant everything to Ava. Animation — a form long associated with children — is a haunting way to deliver the fallout of that day through the eyes of a little girl. Throughout the film, viewers are guided through Ava’s rural South Carolina community with visual cues and audio narration.
Every detail of the film is based on Cox’s remarkable reporting. The 911 call heard during the shooting is real. So are the words Ava wrote in her journal and to President Trump, and the letter the White House sent her in return. Even the depiction of Jacob’s funeral is accurate down to the inscription on his small casket.
The Post had permission from Ava’s parents — and Jacob’s grandparents — to tell the story this way, and they found it just as moving as the audiences who have seen it.
This immersive experience debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and was shown at the Marché du Film Cannes XR. In coming weeks, it will be presented at the Vienna Shorts Film Festival, the Nantucket Film Festival and other venues. The film is available to those with headsets through Oculus Rift, Oculus Go, Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive. A theatrical cut of the film was featured on Apple News and on every platform The Post commands, including its homepage and Snapchat.
It was a technologically challenging film for The Post to make because its directors, Seth Blanchard and Suzette Moyer, had never produced an animated VR before. The project took months to finish, but the results were worth the effort.