Guest author Emily Atwater works in content strategy at digital agency Huge. She wrote this piece with her colleague Gina Pensiero, who works in content strategy at SoundCloud.
Today’s virtual reality (VR) movement is only just finding its place in filmmaking. Here, VR filmmakers Felix & Paul discuss the nature of production using this immersive, 360-degree medium.
This interview is a continuation from Part 1, available here.
Emily Atwater: Let’s talk about production logistics. How big is the team you work with?
Felix & Paul: As an example, we just came back from Borneo where we did a VR project with documentary-like themes, and we worked with 8 people, which is as small as we can be with the handling of the equipment and data. If we did a fiction project, we could work with even fewer than 8. Right now it’s a little heavier lift than the traditional filmmaking we did before.
Meanwhile we have a team at the studio of about 20 people, working on software, hardware, image manipulation, etc. We try to ensure we have enough people to keep up a reasonable pace so we don’t have to wait too long for a project to come out.
EA: Speaking of time, what is the typical production timeline for something like an 8-minute piece?
F&P: It varies wildly, but the shooting process itself doesn’t take long because we don’t shoot multiple angles of the same scene, but instead pick up one shot per location. The rhythm of a project is about sinking into the moment and the space, and we don’t want to interrupt that moment so we take longer shots. So filming isn’t a long part of the process, but post-production is a bit longer. For an 8-minute piece it might be a month and a half.
EA: Can you talk more about the camera and technology? It sounds like a lot of what you use didn’t exist before and you’ve had to do it yourselves.
We designed a camera technology for our needs, meaning we knew we would be dealing with human proximity, filming people up close because that’s what was so attractive to us in the first place – the human connection through VR. So we created a camera system that replicates how we perceive scale and space in physical reality.
We worked and iterated a lot on the camera technology to get as close as we could to that reality. The camera itself is about the same dimensions as a person sitting in a chair, which is convenient since we shoot a lot in seated positions.
In terms of how it all came to be, we had to develop a lot of the technology ourselves because we didn’t have the hardware and software to do what we wanted to do. We started building our own prototypes, surrounding ourselves with a team of engineers and software designers. We’re starting on the fourth generation of our camera right now. Initially we would assemble things with off the shelf equipment, but now we’re building the hardware almost from scratch.
We’re not designing sensors, but we’re assembling the components of the cameras ourselves. Every time we shoot a project, we learn what works and what doesn’t and get ideas on how to expand on the possibilities of what can be done with live action virtual reality.
EA: Are there any VR cameras available commercially?
F&P: Not really. Google has announced a platform for content creators involving GoPro and 3D camera rigs, and might be the first company to offer that kind of tool to content creators, which is great. Another problem is that there are no standards for quality right now, so you can create a makeshift camera system for VR that could do a decent job, but eventually there might be a change in quality standards that influences production and access to cameras.
EA: What is planning like and thought process for an individual production?
F&P: We mentioned that we’re doing some serial content, and right now we’re doing a series called Nomads. “Herders” was the first episode, set in Mongolia. Now we’ve traveled to Kenya and Borneo and met with other tribes and nomadic cultures. Our priority for the project is enabling an experience of those cultures and lifestyles, so different from our own, and doing it without commentary or narrative—to just take it in.
Before we do a project like that, we try to define what would be evocative enough without a narrative. We talk with anthropologists, do research, and try to define the types of experiences that would speak for themselves and communicate a sense of how those people live their lives. We want to be observers and participants in a way that is authentic and un-intrusive, and not manipulate reality.
We spend about a week just being with the people, ensuring that the plan we made is good enough to move forward and achieve the emotional connection between the viewer and the subject.
EA: What is the relationship like with other VR filmmakers today?
F&P: There are not many people doing it right now. Chris Milk & Vrse makes interesting content, primarily live action. Oculus Story Studio is a branch of content creation out of Oculus that does computer-generated content with many former Pixar employees that bring a different perspective to VR. We have a lot of creative exchanges with these people, because ultimately we’re all explorers. No one is an expert here. Everyone is exploring with a point of view and a process, but there is no roadmap for the future. Gradually we’re figuring out the territory.
VR filmmaking is in its infancy, and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the next several years. Regardless, it’s an exciting time to be creating content that puts the user squarely inside the experience and tell a story that literally revolves around them.
We can learn from these experimentations as content creators in the digital space when we think about how to contextualize our content for the user and orient them in whatever digital experience we are building. Where does the user fit within the experience? Is it purely experiential or interactive? Will the user connect emotionally with the content?
It’s no surprise that viewer-first filmmaking and user-first design would have some similarities, but in our everyday lives user-first design is still only as immersive as the screen allows it to be. With new opportunities and implications for VR, and an audience at once isolated and singularly focused on their devices, but hungry for personal connection, it’s a brave new world for content creators willing to push the bounds of storytelling.
Photo courtesy of Jaunt