Since the Occulus Rift debuted in May 2015, Virtual Reality has kickstarted a new era of experimentation and interactive storytelling. Production companies all over the world are investing millions into developing higher quality VR and 360-degree filmmaking technology, while film festivals, like Sundance, have created Virtual Reality screenings to embrace the new medium.
The bad news is that these innovative feats of storytelling premiering at festivals are all highly expensive productions, so we won’t see independent filmmakers winning these awards any time soon. But the good news is that 360 VR is becoming a more accessible medium: the average viewer can watch 360-videos right on their laptop, without a heavy and expensive Occulus headset. Additionally, a selection of user-friendly, affordable 360-cameras have hit the market, making it that much easier for anyone to get started in VR.
So, for filmmakers looking to throw their hats in the Virtual ring, here are a few tips to get you started.
What to film?
One of the big challenges of 360-filming is not the actual production itself, but first deciding what to create. Setting is key, so you have to find a location that is either visually stunning or bustling with activity. This is why the tourist industry has latched onto this new marketing tool: the combination of beautiful destinations and short-form content align perfectly with VR’s strengths. However, an environment doesn’t create a story.
Chase Finn, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles at Making360, a studio that creates their own 360-videos, and teaches content creation, spoke with Gadgets via email about the trials of working in this new visual medium.“The challenge, in respect to filmmaking and storytelling,” he says, “is really identifying how VR brings value to your story or work other than being a fancy tool [ . . . ] As a storyteller, how do we use and position the audience POV in a way that helps drive the storyline and create an enhanced user experience?”
Some directors are also experimenting with the use of 360-degree technology in the horror genre. The paranoia of ”is the murderer behind you?” only increases when watching in 360 degrees, when there could plausibly be a shadowy figure lurking in your periphery. Most of the content available is, in a word, terrible, but at least horror provides a starting point for VR storytelling, especially on a low budget. Regardless of genre, the 360-experience should be a crucial component of the narrative, not just a gimmick, which is a trap that new filmmakers can fall into.
Nowhere to hide, too much to see
In traditional movies, directors frame their shots to conveniently omit the chaos of a typical set: the boom mic hanging above the actors, taped marks on the floor, lights, wires, and miscellaneous crew members. All of these elements are stationed inches away from dipping into the camera’s view, and then there’s the camera operator, producer, and director calling “action!” from behind the fourth wall.
When working with a 360-camera, there is literally nowhere to hide, but you still need that full crew. You, as a director, have to think creatively about where to hide equipment and how to disguise your team as part of the scenery.
Next, consider camera placement: where will the camera be positioned in relation to all the action and at what height? Are the viewers participating in the scene—in which case the camera should stand about six feet above the ground—or are they just passive observers, watching from a high angle above the action?
Finally, any moving shots have to be planned carefully: 1) too much movement can cause motion sickness, and 2) whatever mount or drone holding the camera will have to be edited out in post-production—a tiring process.
Aside from logistical complications that come with the technology, the most frustrating aspect of360-storytelling is that, for once, the viewers are in control. VR creates a whole world they can explore freely, so how you direct their attention in a natural, seamless way?
On an episode of the No Film School Podcast, host Liz Nord explores this question with seasoned veterans in the Virtual Reality medium: among them, Cara Borras, director of Digital Video at PBS’s docu-series, Frontline, who stresses the importance of audio cues.
“Great audio can completely transform the story you’re telling,” she says. “Because in the real world, it is literally how we experience our own individual stories and what’s happening around us: audio cues that make us curious to turn behind us and see what’s happening.”
Directors can’t predict where their audience will be looking at any given time, but there are sneaky ways to guide their attention. Simple actions, like a flash of movement around the environment, or having multiple characters look off in a specific direction, show viewers where to turn without being painfully obvious. It also creates a natural, immersive
experience, because in real life, these are the same cues we respond to. “You can’t control where [viewers] are going to face their eyes,” says Ben Solomon, a VR-documentarian who also spoke on the No Film School podcast. “But you can use the techniques of blocking and the techniques of sound and movement to implicitly guide where people are going to look.”
Starting with the obvious, pack extra batteries, and double check the camera’s settings before shooting. When working with such a complicated and finicky piece of equipment, it’s best to remind yourself to stay organized, or else you can screw yourself over in post-production. All VR veterans have horror stories where cameras turn off mid-shoot or have a speck of dust on the lens, resulting in distorted footage in the editing room.
Second, working with VR technology for the first time is almost like driving a car on the left side of the road—similar enough, but tiny differences will throw off your natural flow. Try not to fall into old habits, because many of the conventions used in 2-D film won’t translate well in 360. For instance, you can’t cut between scenes too quickly, because viewers need enough time to fully explore an environment before jumping to the next one. Fast cuts normally add excitement to a traditional film, but can become disorienting in VR. The same goes for camera movements, which, in excess, can leave viewers with their heads spinning.
Finally, while many filmmakers love to showcase the highest quality visuals, shooting in HD is not the best move for VR. These cameras use up a lot of power in general, and can overheat easily, especially consumer-friendly ones like the Samsung Gear 360. Also, clearer resolution means drawing more attention to distortion around the “stitch line”—where the edited
footage connects to form a cohesive 360-degree environment. It is encouraged to record using a higher frames-per-second rate instead, which will result in higher quality stitches.
Experimentation: the new frontier
For those of you who can’t help but feel intimidated by the uncharted Virtual Reality landscape, take comfort in the fact that no one else knows what they’re doing. Since the technology and the art form are both in budding stages of development, there truly isn’t a “right” way to make a 360-degree film.
“VR is in such an experimental state, it’s difficult for me to critique individuals who are developing their first VR projects,” says VR-creator Chase Finn. “To me personally, it sort of feels like the early days of film when artists were experimenting with different types of editing, cinematography and storytelling. It’s pretty exciting honestly!”
“I think that the big VR moment that’s going to happen next, is going to happen with narrative filmmaking,” Ben Solomon says confidently.
Considering the rapidly advancing technology that’s being sold to the general public—and at affordable prices—soon enough, 360-cameras will become about as commonplace as the DSLR. “First, you’re going to see a lot of vacation photos,” Solomon says. “But then some sixteen-year-old kid is going to figure some stuff out and start playing with it, and start doing stuff that makes us all go, ‘damn, I didn’t think of that.’”
Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE September 2017 Issue
Words by Jay Alba