By Nic Finlayson, Director at FINCH.
360/VR is by no means a traditional film medium, but too often it is used as one. This has created a great many average experiences, dulling the audience’s opinion of what it can b e. I believe it can be truly exploratory and experiential. VR is truly post-modern in the sense that each user is writing their own experience each time they put a headset on. That is the same for great, engaging 360. Each one of us is individually interested in different aspects of the image, or the sound, or a particular character. Lingering on a part of a scene longer might give you a different feel to a story than someone who looked elsewhere. I think that is pretty special.
There are so many ways of taking this medium but we are all guilty of using it in a first thought sense. We rely way too much on it as a bit of tech rather than as a tool to express an idea. The environment is flooded with pro-sumer 360 videos and, because of that, I was guilty of being cynical at first. I’d ask, how immersive is it really? Does it really get you closer? In fact I hated the camera gear we were using. I found the post backend restrictive in terms of quality control, replay options, and forget about live viewing…It was tough to make it good.
But by crikey hasn’t that changed in the three years we’ve been involved in 360/VR. New gear has meant we could spend less time on the technology and more time on ideas, story and craft. As an example, even just a year ago we were shooting with multiple array, independent cameras attached to bespoke housings. We’d mess around for hours on the gear. We’d make backups for the backups. We’d have complex logging systems for cards, downloading in the field and doing rough stitching so we could move on from scenes. But this took a long time and required huge trust from clients. Now, we use real time playback where directors and clients can get an accurate understanding of what is being shot and how. There are massive developments in cameras too where single housing 360 cameras are now producing single video layers of 360 video. All of this leads us to the important bit; it’s back to idea and story creation, just like any medium.
This new gear is a game changer. Like the very first audio blimp on a film camera, all of a sudden we are not considering what we cannot do, and we think about what we can do. It’s so smooth on set now. Viewing live feeds and rock solid, pre-stitched images. It’s given us the one thing we want when directing in this medium; ease of use to focus on ideas and story. Because like anything, 360 needs to be engaging, meaningful, entertaining and potentially a mixture of all the above.
Evelyn’s story is a great example of the tool being used simply to great documentary effect. For me, this all comes down to story. I think there is a great match between this particular story with its open scenery, slow pace, sadness, and the very simple use of the static 360 camera. Shots linger as we watch Evelyn on her journeys. The aside, when a character addresses the camera directly, seems very powerful in this medium.
However, Evelyn’s story is very much in the linear, video form. This is because she is on one journey and the user stays with her. You do not look around as much as you might had there been multiple story strands or multiple points of interest. That is what 360/VR can and should offer.
Below is a simple ‘watch out guide’ i’ve noted during my time in the trenches with this fast evolving and tricky medium.
Timing and Options within the experiences.
How long is long enough in 360/VR? It’s all to do with the strength of the idea. We find that no matter how great a 360/VR experience is, a user’s interest will dwindle after a couple of minutes.They stop searching out new material. They start to use it mainly as a front facing camera. Who knows why, but it happens. So keep your stuff short.
Interactivity should be a key part of 360/VR. Not only in character’s performance to camera (look there, see that, awareness of the present location and scene), but it can also be built into the user interface in the headset. Think hotspots taking you to a different scene, chosen by the user. It gives the user agency to look around and feel connected with the experience. By giving choices, and having heaps to look at, we’ll keep them engaged throughout.
The power of sound.
Sound is a massive tool in 360/VR, helping keep a user’s engagement and introducing moments or characters that might be out of view along the way. Like any medium, sound is not just about information. Sound in 360/VR helps us know where to look. It fills in details we do not see on screen. Once we fully engage in a bi-aural experience, sound can transform these experiences.
The ongoing challenge with 360/VR is how to cut between shots. Longer takes let an audience fully engage in each moment, watch and listen, and take in all that each experience offers. My preference is to shoot the scenes as master shots and not edit within them. The very nature of the 360 view tends to act like a master shot wherever you put it. Also, cutting in 360/VR can be disruptive for an audience and the handling of the view, how much action is going on in each scene, and how stable the camera is are essential considerations in terms of the users quality of experience. You can imagine how nauseating or
confusing the experience would be if the camera was shaking a lot or it was cut like a normal 2D film. I think the Oxfam work is an excellent example of how cuts can work in the medium as long as a central character, or point of interest, stays central or consistent. But that is slightly counter-intuitive to the potential of the medium. We want each user to engage in the whole 360 image.
Nic shooting the 2D cinema elements of the Australian Tourism campaign ‘There’s Nothing Like Australia’
More than any other medium, we rely on natural light – or found light – in 360/VR. It’s because we simply cannot light a scene without seeing the lights. We see everything. One way to handle it is to remove, in post, any artificial or film lighting, shoot multiple plates, remove and replace skies etc; which obviously equates to more post time and money. But, my preference is always to use great natural light as a starting point. Outdoor locations, with good natural light, is really suited to 360/VR even though we end up shooting into the sun a lot. Light haze can really help the softer overall look when outdoors. Then, choose interiors and the placement of the camera based on the quality of the interior found, artificial lighting.
Framing is a different consideration. It’s not so much about a lens size and more about proximity to subject and where we place the 360/VR rig. If we think about it as a bubble of lenses moving through the middle of a scene, the field of view (what we see, what angle we see it) is very similar to the angle of view our own eyes see the world in. Roughly 28mm in 2D terms.
It’s important to remember that a 360/VR camera is not really a POV camera. I’ve always found it weird watching 360/VR, tilting down and not seeing my body, or worse, looking down into some human shaped void where my chest cavity should be. Add to this a bad stitch, and the low craft of the image breaks any suspension of disbelief.
As an example, although the idea of putting the camera on the inside of a helicopter, next to the pilot, seems like a good use of the medium, it’s actually way more tricky than that. In POV, you’d expect to look down and see your body or your hands, but in VR there is no body. Just space. In this situation, the user looks around and all they see is the back of a chair or the roof and floor of the helicopter. Dull. Sure they can look out the window and at the pilot, but this does not fully embrace the medium. It actually restricts the viewer’s experience. I like to move the camera away from these ‘dead’ areas, keep it independent of a scene, making use of the angle to take a user on a non restricted journey within an environment.
Wherever possible, move the camera; a track, drone, or a wire rig, separate and not rigged to the structures in the shot. A user will lose interest pretty quickly if there is not some visual dynamic like this. We see a lot of static 360 camera angles in the pro-sumer world of 360. They tend to be at eye height too.
Although we do look around in 360/VR, the forward facing cameras are still the predominant view. A user will tend to return to centre after looking around. It’s also true that although we build a top and bottom, it’s rare for a viewer to dwell looking up or down, unless they have been directed there and there is something awesome to look at (e.g. a giant avalanche or meteor shower). In fact, we have to watch out how much we ask of a viewer in terms of panning and tilting and looking down. Otherwise we can run the risk of disorientation and vertigo.
So, play with your angles and see what it’s like to be below eye height or way above. Once this camera movement is coordinated with good scene choreography, you can get pretty close to the sweet spot of what 360/VR shooting can provide.
360 has had its run on the el-cheapo ranch and now we need to see more story, ideas, and elegance in it its execution.