Since I dove into the world of 360 spherical video and VR, I’ve heard a wide range of opinions related to the future of this branch of visual entertainment. “It’s the future!” or “It’s a fad.” Honestly, I really don’t know what the future holds for this space. I just know it’s really cool.
I’ve watched 360 videos where I’m seeing the same thing a skydiver, a scuba diver, a wingsuit diver, and dozens of other videos that adventurers have experienced. I’ve played multiple VR video games where I shoot holograms, drive tanks, and fight zombie skeletons, and of course, I want more.
This space is certainly not for everyone… and not every experience or story should be shared in 360/VR. It’s similar to 3D in that way. I’ve watched 3D features that often left me wondering how the experience was improved by 3D. There’s a certain percentage of the population who cannot view 3D, and there’s a certain percentage of the population who cannot view 360 spherical video or VR. And honestly, right now the majority of people don't own the technology required to view it in its most compelling forms.
I've learned a lot of things while producing 360 videos, most importantly, shooting in 360 takes a lot of planning. Let me share some of the process with you today if you are interested in shooting your own 360 video/VR.
1. It helps to figure out why the story is better told in 360 spherical rather than traditional framed platforms. Often times, a narrative will actually be less interesting in 360, because you lose all of the traditional cinematic techniques. No close ups, no pans, no slow reveals. It’s all just there, and the viewer chooses where they look.
2. There are a couple of different ways to shoot 360 videos. Some prefer to shoot one direction at a time, generally split into quadrants or halves, others prefer to shoot all directions at the same time. There are challenges and benefits to both methods. Shooting one direction at a time allows you to hide equipment and crew behind the camera, but you have to be aware of matching the lighting from one direction to the next. This also limits motion in the scene between cameras but works well for static shots. When shooting all directions at the same time, it’s necessary to hide equipment and crew, but time is generally saved since there is only one setup per shot rather than two or four. Monitoring the captured image is difficult when shooting in all directions, though there are a few solutions that allow you to live stream a preview stitch to your HMDs (head mounted displays).
3. Thoroughly blocking and rehearsing each scene is useful because it helps the actors complete the long takes. Each scene has to be considered much like a play. When action is called, the actors have to be able to run all the way through to the end. Shooting rehearsals helps actors get used to remembering that they are all seen no matter where they are on the set. Even if they have no lines, a viewer could choose to watch them the entire time. Also, shooting rehearsals is great for figuring out problems in the blocking, because as an example, when viewing 360 videos in HMDs, actors close to the cameras often appear much larger than expected. It turns out that the recommended 4-ft distance from the cameras is a good recommendation.
4. Understand that depending on how much "seams" (lines that appear where the edge of one camera image overlaps the edge of it’s neighboring camera image) need to be corrected and how much movement exists, the majority of the schedule and budget may end up allocated to the VFX department. We’re still at the point where you should consider that every frame is a VFX shot. Time to buy lots of thank you cards, bottles of wine and cases of beer and send them to our VFX friends.
5. Know that motion sickness needs to be considered when adding camera movement. Acceleration and deceleration are generally more disorienting than constant speed, due to the disconnect between what your eyes are seeing, and what your inner ear is feeling. When there’s a stationary frame of reference, like the viewer perspective is from the inside of a car, movement seems to be less disorienting. This is known as the cockpit effect. Keeping horizons constant is also important to minimize motion sickness. This can become challenging in cases where you’re shooting on an unstable surface, such as a rocking boat, though the tools to fix this in post are getting better all the time. As the tech gets better, this will be less of a problem, but anytime you have camera movement, a certain percentage of the population will experience motion sickness when wearing an HMD.
6. For the time being, many reasonably priced 360 cameras don’t do well in low light. Outdoor daytime shots look amazing, outdoor night shots not so much. This is especially challenging because generally, all lighting needs to be practical since there is no off camera. In low budget projects, one solution would be to use a single camera that does well in low-light conditions and shoot the scene in quadrants to capture the full 360 environment, though as already mentioned matching the lighting can be tough. And if you're not really utilizing the full 360 degrees, maybe it doesn't really need to be 360 at all.
7. Be prepared to stock up on hard drives. Rather than one memory card of video, there could be anywhere from 4 to 24 memory cards that need to be managed depending on the 360 camera system used for production. Imagine 24 sensors all capturing 2k or 4K video at the high end of the camera packages. And even though current HMD's can't handle video that's more than 4K, you'll probably to do a master stitch at higher if you can to future proof your content.
Right now resolution in the HMD is not great. It's so close to your eyes that on current models you can actually see the physical pixels in the screen if you try. But I’ve noticed that most people who view a 360 video through an HMD for the first time don’t even notice. The experience is entertaining and exciting enough that they forgive the imperfect resolution. I’ve watched a lot of 360 videos and I’m still enthralled with the experience and forgive the imperfect resolution. Of course, I can’t wait until it gets better, and that time is approaching quickly.
8. Getting great audio is also important, perhaps even more so than in traditional video. Videos with directional audio are a noticeably better experience. And directional audio is one of the best ways to coax the viewer into looking at a particular area.
9. The crew on a 360 shoot is very similar to the crew on traditional film and television productions, but due to the unique challenges of shooting spherical video, it’s very beneficial to have a 360/VR consultant on set. Someone who's done it before. Of course, the best way to learn is just to get out and do it, but you don't want to be making mistakes that someone else has already learned the hard way on a contracted project.
One thing to note is that there is a difference between 360 video and VR. 360 video is not interactive (Yet). When you move forward or backward, side to side, the video image doesn’t change in relation to your movement, or your actions. VR is interactive. A virtual world includes the ability to pick up items, move from one spot to another, and shoot hologram ninjas! 360 video is still a more passive experience like traditional film, though with the potential for much more immersion. The line will continue to blur as time goes on, but it's important to keep the distinction in mind today.
The future of 360 spherical video and VR are unknown, because the tech is changing so fast, and the rules for telling a compelling story haven't really been defined yet. But lots of tech and entertainment giants are investing in this arena, and as long as they keep developing more toys for this space, I’m in.
MeeRa Kim is the co-founder of Arbor Entertainment, a 360 video production house based in Los Angeles. Entertainment and tech enthusiast. She began producing feature, short and web content in 2004.
If you enjoyed this blog, check out the Stage 32 Next Level Webinar by Zeke Thomas: How to Shoot in VR/360: From Script to Shooting taking place today at 1pm PST.
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