The reality of VR has rarely lived up to its promise, but The Drum’s head of TV Dave Birss predicts the technology’s time is finally upon us. Here he explains how to get the most from it.
There aren’t many certainties in this industry, but if you gave me a hundred quid and told me to pop down to Ladbrokes and put it on a sure thing I’d put it on the ad industry producing a bucket-load of virtual reality films over the next year. Easy money.
I’ve been lucky enough to get the opportunity to play with virtual reality (VR) a couple of times this year. You may have seen the VR tour of Maurice Levy’s office that The Drum created with Unit9 for Cannes this year. And now we’re in the process of releasing Secret Spaces, an experimental documentary about St Paul’s Cathedral that we created in partnership with Visualise. This is a pretty ambitious project. And, at the time of filming, a world first.
However VR was an unexpected learning curve for me. You have to consider a lot mor e factors than you do for a normal piece of film. Everything is affected – sound, lighting, composition, performance, editing, exporting, distribution – and if you don’t know wha t you’re doing, you can easily end up with a 360° turd.
So – as someone who’s now produced, directed, written and presented VR – here are my top 10 tips to help get your he ad around the medium.
1. HAVE A REASON
VR is great if you want to give people the opportunity to explore an environment or to immerse them in the middle of a story. But make sure there’s a reason for using VR rather than just regular film. If a VR approach doesn’t add anything, don’t waste your (and the viewer’s) time.
Also remember that VR viewing is generally a solo activity, so make it personal. And most importantly, make them feel something.
2. IT’S A STITCH UP
You currently can’t capture 360° video with a single camera. Most VR films you see use five or six GoPros in a 3D printed mount. The footage from each of these has to be stitched together into a single piece of film.
Because your image is spherical, each shot requires a fair amount of stretching and distortion – like a flat map of the world stretches the poles out and compresses the equator. Visual glitches can therefore become an issue.
Especially if something closer to your VR rig crosses from one camera viewpoint to another. You want to avoid these distracting anomalies if you can. So when you’re filming, work out where the stitching points are in the scene and try to capture your main action on just the one camera. Being aware of things like this when you’re filming will save a lot of hassle in the edit and give you a better end product.
3. MIND YOUR MOVEMENTS
You’d think that if you wanted to make the viewer feel like they’re walking through a space you’d simply strap the camera rig to the top of someone’s head. I wouldn’t recommend that. It’s a guaranteed route to queasiness. You see, people don’t move smoothly – they lurch with every step.
You don’t notice it when you’re walking yourself because the movements match your internal accelerometers (or whatever the biological equivalents are). However, subjecting a viewer to those movements when they’re stationary may loosen their lunch.
And no one wants to wipe vomit off an Oculus Rift. You can still move through a space. But you should be aiming for smooth movements with gradual acceleration and deceleration.
4. LISTEN CAREFULLY
It’s not just your vision that should be 3D – your sound should wrap around the head as well. When you turn your head in the real world, you’re moving through an audio space as well as a visual space. Sounds move from ear to ear accordingly.
Replicating this effect in virtual reality takes a bit of effort. You may want to record a bed of 360° ambient sound. However, specific sounds should probably be recorded separately and placed into this 3D soundscape afterwards. That gives you control of different levels and helps you craft the soundtrack for the best experience.
5. GIVE ME A LIGHT
Lighting can be a real issue with VR filming. GoPros aren’t that great in low light. And all the gubbins normally hidden behind camera has no place to hide when you’re filming the 360° environment. So try to use natural light wherever possible. Or hide small lights behind objects in the scene. If you’re in a light-controlled environment, you can maybe hide a rig in full view. You see, there will probably be parts of the scene that nothing will be happening in.
You can shoot a little bit of the room without the lights, then use that footage to patch over the lighting rig when you move it into place. The viewer won’t notice. The whole scene will seem ‘live’ to them. You can do the same thing if you want to be in the room while the filming is happening. Just remember that it will add a bit of effort and time to your edit.
6. DON’T LOOK DOWN
So, if you’ve got your camera rig on a tripod or mounted on a post, how do you get rid of the equipment? What you may notice on some VR films is that they just use a bit of a fudge – they patch over it with a circular badge. Usually with the client’s logo on it. But you can do better than that (in most situations). If you look at the St Paul’s film we did, you don’t see the tripod (although, if you look carefully, you can see its shadow from time to time).
That’s because when we took the rig down, we took a photo of what was underneath it and used that to patch over where the tripod would be. It gives you the effect of floating in space, which is better than the effect of feeling like your head has been mounted on to a piece of photographic equipment.
8. EH, WHAT DID I JUST MISS?
Consider the pace of the edit. Viewers like to look around and explore a new environment. If you jolt them out of that before they’ve had a good gawk, they’ll feel frustrated and worry that they may have missed something. So think twice about quick cuts. Most headsets don’t let you rewind or jump around the film – once it’s started, you’re strapped in until the end.
9. GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE
The editing transitions you’re comfortable using in normal films don’t work in quite the same way in VR. A crossfade can make it seem as if you’re gradually teleporting from one place to another. A hard cut can feel like an uncomfortable jolt Fading through black works pretty well. As does emulating blinking eyelids with black panels lifting from the bottom and dropping from the top simultaneously. You just need to experiment and try everything out with a headset to see how it feels. This is still the wild west and filmmakers are only starting to develop the visual language of the medium.
10. MULTIPLE PLATFORMS
Now that you’ve created your VR masterpiece, there are several ways for people to experience it. Headsets are obviously the best experience, but it’s going to be a while before Oculus Rifts are commonplace. Google Cardboard is the next best option here. Especially as it now works with iPhones. Next up you’ve got the option of waving your phone or tablet about in the air to explore an environment. That’s not bad. And finally you’ve got the option to play the film on your computer while you navigate with mouse or keys. If you want the tippest toppest quality output for your film, you’ll probably want to use dedicated platforms for each of these options, but the great news is that you can cover most of it off with YouTube.
NOW GO DO SOMETHING AMAZING
If you’ve read this far you’ve already got a far better start than I did. However, if you’re planning to pick up a shiny award by simply creating a piece of VR, think again. Next year’s film festivals and advertising awards are going to be filled with VR and most of it is going to suck.
If you want to get noticed, you’ll need to take it further. Like using haptic technology to make the experience even more real. Or using the technology for some great social purpose. Or simply having a really amazing narrative.
Whatever it is, I look forward to seeing what you do. In jaw-dropping, high resolution, immersive 360°, of course.
This feature was first published in the 16 September issue of The Drum.