PERSONAL CONVICTION – Case Study of a truly immersive transmedia experience

After Cinemacity and Type: Rider, ARTE is launching its latest bi-media project on February 10, this time entirely fiction... or almost: the project follows a police investigation on television, and recreates the trial online.

Two points of view, two media, a single story

It all begins with the death of Manon Villers, wife of forensic scientist Paul Villers (played by Phillipe Torreton). After her death is ruled a suicide, the police reopen the case at the request of the victim’s parents, assigning it to Detective Judith Lebrun. The 90-minute made-for-TV movie follows the police investigation, ending with Paul Villers’ arrest. It will be broadcast on ARTE on Friday, February 14, during prime time.

But the experience actually starts a few days before that at In the form of 35 multi-camera webisodes, released on a daily basis over three weeks, viewers can watch the Villers trial unfold in real time.

Audiences will hear the witnesses, examine at the evidence (including excerpts from the movie which are available online during the three weeks of the experience), and view screen capsules from one of six different angles, thanks to the interactive video player specially developed by Supergazol for the occasion.  Between the video capsules, viewers can share their own “personal convictions” and debate with other Internet users until the verdict is rendered.

Screenshot from the website

Binary in appearance, the format is diabolically effective: the web development team at ARTE has been working on it for three years, in collaboration with the ARTE’s Fiction department and Maha Productions. Out of a total budget of 2.4 million euros, nearly 600,000 was allocated to the Web experience, which took shape as the project developed.

The challenge was to “make the screen disappear,” according to Alexander Knetig and Mariane Levy-Leblond, both at ARTE Web. “The interactive experience was designed to keep the viewer within the story. At first, the TV movie was treated as the story’s starting point; ultimately, by choosing to launch the online portion of the project (February 10) first, the movie is now part of the evidence, a flashback to the investigation that took place months previously, while the online trial takes place in the present.”

Screenshot from the website [Text in picture: What is your personal conviction: is Paul Villers guilty or innocent? - GUILTY, UNDECIDED, NOT GUILTY Click to select your decision.]
An unprecedented look at the realities of justice.

For French law, personal conviction is a method of judgement that takes into account the action and person, both to be judged in terms of their subjectivity, considering the words, science and psychological aspects of the evidence. It contrasts starkly with the Anglo-Saxon law’s “reasonable doubt.” Personal Conviction is therefore driven by a distinctive feature of French law, creating a one-of-a-kind apparatus.

In October 2012, the French-German channel issued a call for candidates  in order to recruit the jury to be responsible for rendering a verdict on the transmedia experience. Nine jurors were chosen from a pool of over 200 applicants. In November 2012, they took part in the filming of the trial: they appear on screen throughout the three hours of online footage.

The trial was shot in a real courtroom in a small provincial town over five days—the average duration of a criminal trial. The judge and lawyers in the experience play those roles in real life. The lawyer for the accused, Ms. Cotta, is a member of the Paris Bar, while the presiding judge is a retired magistrate (the code of ethics forbids working judges from playing such roles).

The film’s actors will be called to the stand as witnesses, plaintiffs and suspects. Captain Judith Lebrun, who plays a pivotal role in the film, only appears to testify and is relegated to spectator status the rest of the time.

Six cameras filmed continuously throughout the trial, which left room for improvisation guided by the "minutes" that director Rémy Burkel sent to all participants, actors and professionals alike. This echoes reality, in which the police investigation and trials are separated by a pre-trial investigation led by the examining magistrate.

Everyone —actors, civilians and legal professionals—improvised the entire trial, with the “suspect” Philippe Torreton experiencing the stress and surprise of the unknown; “witnesses” felt similar emotions, as they could be called to the stand at any moment.

After five days of trial, more than 27 hours of rushes were dissected on the cutting table, producing the three hours of footage that can be viewed online.

When fiction goes beyond reality

To heighten the sense of immersion, after the three weeks of the experience, Internet users will have access to the jury’s final verdict, as they cast off their silence and finally speak. This sequence is all the more fascinating, as cameras are usually barred from these closed deliberations. Well-acquainted with the courtroom, director Rémy Burkel and producer Denis Poncet (who also produced Murder on a Sunday Morning, winner of the 2002 Oscar for Best Documentary) claim they are “obsessed with the issue of the search for truth in justice.”

They see this first transmedia production as an opportunity to show how the French justice system works from the inside; it is an opportunity to address a “civilian curiosity” which contrasts with the scientific view of police investigations, as expressed by shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” No irrefutable proof is found here: instead, the justice system’s subjectivity is given its place.

Guilty or no, at the end of the day, the “official” verdict doesn’t matter: more than anything, each viewer’s personal convictions will be forged by this unparallelled transmedia experience.

Oriane Hurard
Oriane Hurard is a producer with Les Produits Frais as well as a festival programmer for new storytelling formats (transmedia, webseries, VR) and a new media and community management instructor.
Read Bio