Category: VR and 360 Video

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.