Welcome to the Wild Wild West. Virtual Reality is the playground where filmmakers, gamers, visual FX and tech geeks collide. It’s brand new, unruly and exhilarating to shoot.
I was the Director of Photography on a Virtual Reality (VR) shoot for G-Technology. Directed by Lexi Alexander and produced by Lucas Wilson from Supersphere Productions. Our main talent were Mixed Martial Arts and Muay Thai champions: Zoila Frausto, Alexis Davis, Gaston Bolanos and Kevin Ross.
If you’re unfamiliar, VR is a 360 degree experience. With traditionally shot films, even those shot in 3D, the director dictates where the audience can look. In Virtual Reality, the director designs the world but the individual viewer can look wherever they desire. Think: “The Matrix”, “Inception” or the holodeck in “Star Trek”.
There are many players in the VR market, designing hardware (headsets/goggles, camera rigs) and software (VR Apps, editing software). VR technology was thrust into the spotlight after Facebook’s acquisition of the headset manufacturer, Oculus VR. Google has created an ultra-affordable VR headset called Google Cardboard. I’m excited to try out the VROne goggles fitted with Zeiss lenses. The number of VR Apps for Android and for iPhones is rapidly expanding.
Using VR content for gaming or amusement parks is a no-brainer, but how can it serve a commercial client? Dipak M. Patel, Executive Producer and VP of Intergalactic Sales & Business Development for G-Tech explained, “We wanted to showcase how this new medium of storytelling can help both small and large businesses, like Combat Sports Academy (CSA) and Reebok, engage with their communities in new and innovative ways. It provides an immersive and transportive experience that global audiences will have access to. SNEAK PEEK: We will be debuting this content at the 2015 CrossFit Games in Carson California in the HGST Tech Pavilion. Also, Reebok and CSA will be publishing this content to their custom channels in a new user experience called Zeality. It will allow anyone with a smartphone or tablet to experience the content without the need for VR equipment. It will also allow Reebok, CSA, and any other content creator / producer to share their content via their own channels as well as have audiences / users connect with their communities in new ways.”
Traditionally shot videos of combat sports are already wildly successful. Why bother to shoot it in VR? My producer, Lucas Wilson’s perspective: “Any kind of combat sport is such a visceral, primal human experience. There is nothing quite like being at an MMA or Muay Thai match. VR is the closest we can come to ‘being there’. Immersion matters. And connecting fans and audiences in this way gives them a sense of experience and understanding of those sports that they would have a hard time getting any other way.”
My director, Lexi Alexander, in addition to directing "Punisher: War Zone" and "Green Street Hooligans" is also a former Karate and Kickboxing champion. These are her people. This is her world. What does she think of all the VR hype? I save her thoughts until the end.
I see countless possibilities in VR for different filmmakers. I DP a lot of documentaries abroad. Imagine how powerful our films could be if accompanied with a 5 minute VR clip that immersed the audience in a “foreign” community. I also shoot a lot of stylized narrative films. I’d love to shoot VR for a protagonist’s dream sequence.
While you start percolating on the VR possibilities, here are 5 Tips (from a DP’s perspective):
1. Saturate Yourself in VR Experiences. Just like I highly recommend that you watch a lot of films, pour over photographs or paintings to create the look of your traditionally shot film, spend time watching VR videos. Obviously watch any VR video that your director loves. Lexi was enthralled with an Icelandic VR clip. Now I want to visit Iceland and run with the horses. Perhaps because the technology is so new, it was very difficult to find a VR demo in New York CIty. I was able to watch three clips at the Samsung store and additional clips when I met up with the production team. Watch and ask yourself what makes one VR experience stronger than another? What triggers your emotions? What helps to sell the world? What camera moves or visual FXs surprise you? Incorporate those “take-aways” into how you approach your project.
2. Learn the Rules. I devoured every BTS (“behind the scenes”) video or article I could find. My first stop was Lucas’ presentation on Virtual Reality at NAB. My Gaffer, Eric Blum, and I had a conference call with Stephen Fromkin from 360 Heros (designers of our VR Camera rigs) to suss out the limitations of lighting VR and how to optimize the multiple cameras. This was beneficial in figuring out my final G/E and Expendables package. Once on set, I asked a lot of questions of Mike Kintner (CEO of 360 Heros) and deferred to him for many of my camera placement and setting decisions. We typically shot with two camera rigs, each housing six or seven GoPro cameras and shooting at a high frame rate (while sacrificing resolution). Cameras in our rigs had to be configured in a certain way to get a “clean stitch” (a poor stitch reveals the seam between HD captures and kills the 360 illusion).
Media management is crucial when shooting VR. Lucky for me that our client was G-Tech. More from Dipak: "VR is changing the game for content creators. Not only do creators need to consider how to create content, but managing the data becomes extremely challenging. The workflow flow and data requirements are extremely complex. It’s important to have a boat load of capacity in systems that have tremendous performance characteristics to handle the intensity. As you saw in the shoot at CSA, we used the G-DOCK ev and G-DRIVE ev modules for ingest along with the G-SPEED Studio XL for the stitching process. Using these products significantly improved the downtime during the shoot."
The VR industry is evolving rapidly. Technological advances will make a number of these rules obsolete by the time you shoot. Which brings us to …
3. Break the Rules. Remember: this is the Wild Wild West. Learn the limitations and question them. The biggest challenge when lighting VR is the cameras see 360 degrees. Everything is in frame. That’s what we were told. But then we learned there are blind spots and ways to hide your lights in plain site. My gaffer pulled off some lighting tricks that made my year. The other difficulty with shooting VR is there are limits to where talent can stand to get a clean stitch. Three feet from the camera, or less, and the illusion is blown. My director, Lexi, is known for her fight sequences: gritty and nasty or glossy and coordinated. How could I capture that energy if we can’t get in the fighter’s faces? We did several camera placement tests on set and found angles that heighten the intensity. My advice: instead of chewing it in your mind if you can pull off a lighting idea or camera move, just do it. Surround yourself with enthusiastic techno-geeks who love a challenge.
4. Think Like an Art Director. Although the viewer can look anywhere within the 360 world, your director will use action plus lighting and sound cues to draw their attention. Viewers of our content will obviously be focused on the fighters. Foot jabs. Uppercuts. Throws to the mat. But one thing I experienced when consuming lots of VR in prep, was how fun it was to look away from the main action and be dazzled by smaller details.
In addition to lighting the main stage and finding the optimal camera rig placement to capture it, I also lit the rest of the location in a stylized way. Through clever use of placement and duveteen, my professional lights became a part of the set. We dressed up the windows and diffused the available light to add to the gym’s atmosphere.
5. Communication is key. Currently, there’s no way to monitor footage from GoPros. There wasn’t instant playback. Because we were shooting 360 degrees, the crew couldn’t even be on set. Your 1st AD has to allot extra time for you to shoot, ingest and discuss takes with your director. We had our VFX Supervisor, Alex Henning, on set to communicate what he needed and what FX were possible. Much like the old days of shooting film without a video tap, it’s vital that you share pacing needs with your camera operators. Give them personality traits (walk boldly into the location, look around timidly) as guidance.
I always write from a DP’s perspective but know many of my readers are directors. Here’s Lexi’s first impressions of shooting VR:
"No doubt that Virtual Reality can put you right inside another world, more so than a live action movie or documentary can. But in a narrative story, it can also take you out quicker as soon as you spot the crew/lights/camera. You can’t hide in a 360 shot. At first I thought “okay, this is not going to bother anybody who’s watching a documentary or an educational experience, or just somebody who wants to be beamed into an environment they have never been to. Our MMA spot was the perfect example of that. For someone who has never stepped into a gym like that, there couldn’t be a better experience.
But a thought hit me once I got home. I’ve seen plays that have moved me to tears or taken my breath away. The theater is live. There’s no editing of the scenic design changes on stage or hiding the cast walk on/offs. I even remember a play that had a mechanical glitch. Something that was supposed to turn a kitchen set into a bedroom set got stuck. A stage crew member had to step on and help push it. But that didn’t take away from how much I liked the play at all.
So, eventually, I came to the conclusion that VR may be the live theater of the 21 century … but that doesn’t mean we should replace live theater."
Shout outs to my crew: Matt Sheils (Cam Op), Raz Walden (Media Manager), Cliff Henry (Best Boy), and Brook Johnson (Key Grip).
Visuals are getting the majority of attention in VR but you can’t sell the world without convincing audio. Thanks to Sound Dept, Blas Kisic and Sheraton Toyota, for elevating my appreciation for sound.