Creating Live Action Drama in 360

IMG_2063The Echo Chamber – Notes 08

When we first embarked on the live action 360 drama journey, some we spoke to suggested that we were crazy to consider it. It seems that filming drama in 360 is known to be notoriously difficult, with the formal constraints of having to use cameras that can only really capture the action in mid-shot, and the renegade behavior of viewers who might just look the ‘wrong way’. In approaching the production we also wanted to explore what it would be like to create a live action drama on a tight budget, delivered to Google cardboard, therefore maximizing access to the film. We were stacking up a range of challenges to overcome, or at least in a research and development context to tackle and learn from.

We believe that a lot of innovation happens at the edges of things, where creative opportunity meets constraint, and in this case we were limited by the vision that we’d be able to capture, as well as the constraints of the sound design. We’d originally hoped to use binaural sound to push and pull audience attention, but our chosen platform meant a stereo mix at best, so we were also limited to some extent with what we could do with sound.

Directing the actors brought another series of challenges which we’ll cover in another post, but clearly with a camera rig shooting in 360 degrees, the physical space of the set has to be cleared of any crew, and the director who would ordinarily be present on the other side of the cameras also has to be absent. This led to a very different way of working across the production, and was characterised by a certain calmness and trust between crew and actors which was separately commented upon by many of those involved. This relationship was very much down to the professionalism of the actors and the director, and relied on very clear communication and a preparedness to try and re-try different approaches.

With no live view of what we were shooting we had to work against the script and the constraints of the technology and the sets to ensure that we were getting what we needed for the edit, as well as shots which wouldn’t be so distorted that we would need weeks of post-production to fix them. We found that the handy little Ricoh Theta S camera could be placed into the scene to provide a live view via their app, of the shots that we were likely to get. The Theta also proved useful as we tried out various camera rigs and set ups for the in-car shots – yes, we have shot 360 inside a car, which is also according to current thinking a bit bonkers.

All these uncertainties combined with absence of a huge fix budget to throw at problems, could have resulted in much stress, and although there have been moments, in general the process of producing a live action drama in 360 has been highly creative and innovative. The proof of course will be in the final film, but with the picture lock now with the sound designer, and the online edit booked we are on track to offer a film experience we hope you’ll find thoughtful and moving.

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The Theatre of VR

The Echo Chamber – Notes 07

Producing 360/VR films is predictably very different to creating traditional linear films or TV. The cameras that we’re using to create the drama formally restrict the types of shot that it’s possible for us to get. We’re making a drama with essentially two characters, so the subtle interplay between our actors and the ways that they respond to one another and their environment is particularly important. But VR means no close ups, and no longs shots because the closer you are the more the image distorts and the further way you are the less you’re going to see. Mid shots work best, so we’re making those work as hard as we can.

Glen Travis
Director Glen Travis

Similarly the much discussed, ‘what happens if they look the wrong way’ comes into play as well. We can only effectively guarantee where the viewer will be looking once per ‘act’. When a new ‘scene’ or shot comes in we can fix the viewer attention on an object, effectively filling their field of view, before giving them the facility to look, left, right, up, down etc. Audio cues are going to work to drag attention to where we want it, but our director is doing a lot of thinking about how we make these junctions work as hard as possible for the story.

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty

Interestingly we’ve been referencing theatre production almost more than film and TV in putting this project together. I recently took my daughter to see the really amazing Sleeping Beauty production at Sadlers Wells. In the production the baby and toddler Aurora is brought to life by three black clad puppeteers. The willing suspension of disbelief in the audience is total and we sat there really wanting to believe in what we were seeing. This effect was enhanced when with a classic bit of misdirection the puppet Aurora changed in front of our eyes (expect we were looking the other way) into the real dancer. These totally compelling tricks and techniques drove the story along, charmer the audience and drew real gasps and chuckles.

We’ve been pondering the impact of some of these techniques on our own production. What would it be like is Erin’s neurological decline was represented by figures (invisible to her) hiding objects and adjusting her environment as she tries to navigate a changing reality? We’ve even been thinking about a highly stylised performance style; an almost kabuki like series of actions to represent repetition, habit, practice and then the corresponding disruption and loss of those elements in someone with dementia.

What we opt for will remain a bit of a mystery for now, but it’s interesting that in making this experimental ‘film’ we’re being inspired by and drawn back to the staging and formal techniques and skills of the theatre world.


Designing Magnets – Pushing and Pulling Attention in VR

The Echo Chamber – Notes 06

Eight years ago I was lucky enough to see Elan Lee speak at the ETech conference on the topic of ‘Designing Magnets: Connecting with Audiences in the Wired Age’. Elan focused on the techniques he was experimenting with and applying to attracting and repelling audience attention in the ARG world. I wrote up some notes at the time, as did Cory Doctorow, but essentially Elan’s talk described ways to draw people towards and away from the story elements, real world activities and experiences that you’re designing for them. Elan’s talk was really exciting, stayed with me and we ended up working together on a development project which I commissioned.

360 and VR has the same level of hype and opportunity attached to it as ARG’s did back then. What makes them similar is the offer of both the strength and depth of engagement with audiences/viewers. We recently covered in another post how we’re thinking about this process now as being more about creating and holding attention rather than jumping straight to necessarily generating an empathy response.

In 360/VR the viewer is able to look around and experience the virtual world in a similar way to the way they experience their own real world. This agency is creatively a great opportunity in so many ways as viewers are likely to be more immersed in the story and combined with sound design they experience an intense visual and audio sensation, with a correspondingly intense emotional and engagement response.

There is a great concern in some quarters about what happens if the VR viewer looks the wrong way, and misses a particular nugget of action. Will the story fail? Will it make sense? How do we guarantee that the viewer will be looking where we want them to? The answer is that we can’t guarantee that they might look the ‘wrong’ way.

We know from second screen research that when people say they are watching TV they are in fact doing a whole range of other things at the same time. An awful lot of time and money is being invested in making sure that those valuable eyeballs are swiveled in the right direction when the ads come on.

We believe that the trick is in not thinking of viewer attention as ‘right way or wrong way’. As filmmakers we can only guide them in the same way that Elan talked about designing magnets to push and pull people towards and away from amazing and memorable experiences. Within our ‘Echo Chamber’ drama, all the nuances and subtleties of direction, staging, mise en scène, dialogue, acting, sound and production design should combine into a jigsaw of pieces that can fit together in enough varied ways to give a compelling narrative and theme.

Both narrative and theme will work together to deliver the experience we’re designing, but in fact if viewers miss some or even all of those cues, they will still take away an experience that succeeds to thematically reach them, even if they choose to take another story route than then one we intend.




The Inbetweeners – Liminal Spaces and Transitions in VR/360

The Echo Chamber – Notes 05

One of the most interesting of the formal challenges of creating media for VR/360 appears to be how to make the most of the transitions between shots or scenes.

As a filmmaker in the old media linear world, you have a toolkit of tricks at your disposal when cutting between shots. You can fade between shots (black or white) or simply cut between them. There are plenty of subtleties within the fade or cut including of course how long is the fade, and where in the action do you place the cut to create the desired effects of of pace, atmosphere and energy.

In a VR/360 experience the viewer rather that watching the transition is ‘within’ the transition. They have some presence ‘inside the cut’.

A viewer watching TV or video is essentially watching a moving two dimensional image, with any transition between shots an absence of image, that we all now read and understand as indicating the end of one thing and the start of another.

Hal C. Kern, Supervising Editor of Gone with the Wind 1939

The fade from shot to black to new shot is probably the device that we’re most familiar and arguably comfortable with as it probably most closely represents the transition that we all experience with our own eyes as we blink (blink and see what you think). Filmmakers have other tricks up their sleeves as well including the wipe, where one shot is wiped away by an incoming shot and the iris transition where the action narrows to black, via a shrinking (usually round) window onto the shot.

In a VR/360 experience the viewer rather that watching the transition is ‘within’ the transition. They have some presence ‘inside the cut’. This means that the rarely considered fade has to become something a bit more ‘immersive’ and can become a useful narrative and experiential device.

Expanding this thought a bit and indeed the transition itself, you can begin to imagine how the transition could become an important liminal space within the film. Liminality is the state of ‘in-betweenness’ where one is underway within a ritual or experience, but not yet complete – literally ‘on the threshold’.

We’re still thinking hard about how we make the most of these liminal spaces within our own film. What we’re certain of, is that the visual transition will need to work in concert with the sound design. We’re developing a series of explicit and hidden audio cues that will prepare (and confound) the viewer to expect certain things to happen.

We’ve been discussing what it would be like if the fade dropped down onto us from above like a black blanket, or if the fade mixed up from our feet to our heads. We spent a lovely afternoon this week with our friends at Ardman Animations considering some other approaches as well, including borrowing from the visual iconography of video games – more of that in another post.

What is certain is that the moments that transition between the shots, these liminal spaces, may end up being as important as the shots themselves – they may in effect become micro shots – which then brings us back to the question of what do we put between them?

Oiling the Empathy Machine

The Echo Chamber – Notes 04

We’re well underway with making our VR drama Echo Chamber for the BBC. One of the words that has been coming up a lot during our research and discovery phase and in meetings is EMPATHY. VR has famously been described by Chris Milk in his TED talk as an empathy machine. It’s a nice, pithy high concept phrase that has in turn been repeated all over the place by journalists and commentators. A more empathetic world is a better world right? I mean, we all want to understand more, to empathise more, because that will mean that we care more. If we care more, we can’t fail to do more – at least that’s how the received wisdom goes. That means that VR is going to make the world a better place. We’re going to be immersed in worlds and introduced to people whose stories we must empathise with.

Chris Milk’s film has reached around 1.25 million views via TED and ‘VR = Empathy’ is a compellingly neat narrative – but with all respect to Chris and all the other creators (myself included) who want you to watch and engage with our media – we would say that wouldn’t we..?

L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat

There’s a famous and almost certainly apocryphal story of how cinema audiences in 1895 fled in terror from the Lumière brothers 50″ film of a train (silently) thundering towards them. Whether or not the story is true, it demonstrates our belief and hope in the visceral power of media to create impact, make us feel and care and in turn act.

It will be entertainment, spectacle, sensation (depressing probably porn too) that power VR to a popular mass market. In our newly drawn media world the power of VR to act as an empathy machine has to be up-sold. Otherwise nobody will see your film. Nobody will empathise. Nobody will care.

Nick Fraser the commissioning editor of Storyville has spoken about ‘Why Documentaries Matter‘ and in a talk to the Frontline Club he outlined his thoughts and has written comprehensibly in a report for the Reuters Institute on the challenges of keeping documentary vital and relevant. Nick once told me that people want to believe that documentary can change the world, but that it doesn’t. People change the world. In the introduction to his paper for the Reuters Institute he quotes Simone Weil.

The most important modern philosophical problem is attention.

Simone Weil

Perhaps if the real problem we’re facing is with attention, then maybe VR has an opportunity, however fleeting to be the thundering train, the talkies, cinemascope, the perecpto of the moment? We’re beginning to think of VR as more of an attention machine that an empathy machine. If that leads audiences to empathy, laughs, tears, fear and all the rest then great.

So… Sure – VR is an empathy machine. Clap on those goggles, oil the empathy machine and get ready to pay attention, empathise, care – and act!









VR Play Day at the Pervasive Media Studio

The Echo Chamber – Notes 03

Sally recently spent an afternoon at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol attending their ‘Virtual Reality Graffiti Jam and Play Day’. The event provided a fantastic opportunity for us to try out a variety of VR platforms and tech and meet some interesting practitioners in the field.

Producing a VR film is a new adventure for Chromatrope and so the event was well timed to fit into the discovery stage of our production. There were some really helpful takeaways from the afternoon which will feed into the early stage of our project planning and have already helped direct us towards deciding on a suitable platform and story. More on that to follow in future posts…


One of the lessons from the day is that when a story is truly engaging, the immersive experience can be surprisingly convincing and emotionally powerful. Even with a fair level of background noise and the knowledge that other people are in close proximity, a good story melts away the self conscious feeling that you might look like a bit of an idiot to other people in the room.

An engaging story can also be more important than the type of headset you watch it on. An oculus headset looks set to be priced at over £400 when it’s released later this year. However, a Google Cardboard viewer can be bought for around £10. When a decent set of headphones is placed over the top of whatever headset you’re wearing, the success of the experience is all down to the story and the sound and not the platform. We want our film to be seen by as wide an audience as possible so for now a low entry point is of great importance for us.

Richards Crandon, director of On Par Productions was at the event with a couple of Samsung Gear set ups which were running some of his company’s recent productions. The Little Arrow and Conductor 360 films were both very engaging. What became clear from both films is that sound is very, very important for the 360 experience. Firstly it provides vital indicators for the viewer to turn, orientate and notice the thing that is happening (or about to happen) behind a current viewpoint. Secondly, it doesn’t pay to be too subtle with these indicators – if you miss the cue, the action moves on and you’ve missed the vital part of the story that just happened behind your back. Background noise can also be a distraction to the viewer and the subtleties of a ‘binaural’ experience can be easily lost below a general hubbub.

As well as helping to clarify some thinking about VR, the afternoon also raised some questions for discussion with the team as we move towards making our film. Where should the viewpoint go and how will it change? Can the viewpoint change within a scene (and if so how do you do it so the viewer won’t feel sick)? Will the user have control over motion and movement? Will there be interaction with the actors or is it purely about observation of events?

We hope to start answering some of these questions soon, but expect also to find lots more questions along the way. By blogging about the project we want to share our experiences with others and also keep a record of the process for ourselves so we’ll be ready for the next VR project when it comes along! Please join in the conversation via Twitter on #echochamberdrama.