Insights EDU

Directing 360 VR Films – Why Look Through the Window When you Can be in the Room?

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Mary Matheson | Founder | Macondo Films

26 Jan 2019 | 7 min read

“Why shoot in 360?” – this is a question I am constantly asked, usually accompanied with, at best, a perplexed or, at worst, a sceptical look. Lack of directorial control, cost and data-heavy mean 360 is often dismissed by 2D filmmakers as a frustrating and labour-intensive way of making films. My answer is simple: why wouldn’t you shoot in 360? Why limit yourself to peering through a window, when you can walk through the door and be present in the room?

The Benefits of 360 VR Filmmaking Over 2D Filmmaking:

Presence is the Holy Grail of VR filmmaking – the ultimate suspension of belief that you are actually in the virtual world you are experiencing, rather than sitting in your living room with a headset on. Watching someone’s face as they take off a headset when they have felt present in a virtual reality experience is a magical sight. Of course, 2D films can create emotional connections, but VR films can take you there, and frankly, there’s nothing quite like it in the 2D world.

I have been working as a foreign correspondent and filmmaker overseas for 20 years. I have always felt like an intermediary, communicating stories from people in other countries back to UK or US audiences. As much as possible, my aim has been for Western audiences to hear from people directly, rather than me interpreting their stories. 360 has revolutionised this for me – I can now take you to the country and stand you next to a person who can talk to you directly.

Developing the Language of 360 Filming:

Sure, there are many differences between regular 2D filmmaking and 360 directing: traditional techniques like sequencing, framing or using a variety of lenses are out of the question. Jumping from a wide shot of a person drinking coke, to a close up as we would traditionally see would feel uncomfortable in VR. And much has been said about directorial control – principally that you have to relinquish control of what your viewer sees in VR. Once someone puts a headset on, they can look anywhere.

This is strictly true. A 2D photographer friend recently said she was put off watching VR because she was worried she was missing out on some action behind her, so she found herself frantically looking around the full 360 space as much as she could at all times!

The language of 360 filming is still developing, which can be frustrating, but we do already have a framework, allowing us to direct our viewers to points of interest on the screen should we want to. This latter point is important because for some directors the fact that the audience can look around IS the point – take a look at Jessica Brillhart’s Navajo Nation.

photos from set

Setting up a shot for Mamie’s Dream

Choosing Who your Viewer Is and Methods of Directing the User’s Field of View in 360 VR Film:

Let’s assume you, as the director, do want to control where the viewer looks – what can you do to direct your viewer?

First, you need to decide who is the camera/viewer? In 2D filmmaking, we are generally passive observers in a scene.  Sometimes we might film from someone’s point of view, but it’s rarely our own point of view. In 360 filming you can choose who your viewer is: a passive observer (the ultimate fly on the wall), a “buddy” or embodied POV.

Passive Observer:

Fly on the wall, where you are simply watching a scene and not participating, can feel a bit odd in VR, almost as if you are a ghost. In my first 360 film, Mamie’s Dream, we shot in this style throughout the six-minute film, in which Mamie recounts her story of fighting against FGM in Sierra Leone. Afterwards, the audience said they wished she had turned to talk to them directly at some point in the film. What is interesting is that they felt present enough to find it strange that she didn’t acknowledge their existence.          

Mamie's dream

Shots from Mamie’s Dream

POV Filming:

Embodiment or POV filming is still quite difficult to achieve in VR without CGI or an avatar. The best example of POV in 360 is “In My Shoes”, directed by Jane Gauntlett, where we hear the inner thoughts of the main protagonist before and after she has an epileptic seizure.

“Buddy” Filming:

I’ve found “buddy” filming to be the most effective – where the actor or character talks to the camera like a friend or sidekick. For this to work you have to get the height of the camera right. In The Female Planet, a series I directed for Google Daydream, we filmed the characters talking directly to camera and speaking to us as if we are a friend or younger sister. Shooting at the same height as our character gives a sense of immediacy and allows the viewer in a headset to believe she is talking directly to them. In Charlotte Mikkelborg’s The Journey she deliberately films at the height of the children featured, which makes us immediately see the world from that child’s point of view.

Your Toolbox of 360 Filming Techniques:

I have experimented a bit with camera height…and failed! Generally, shooting works best at human height, either sitting or standing, and depending on whose POV we are seeing. But I tried a close up of feet in a shoot about a US Olympic fencer whose footwork when sparring was incredible. But to jump from her full body fighting to a shot of her feet on the ground was a really strange experience as a viewer. In 2D this would be a normal shot sequence but in VR it was jarring, rather than helping to create a feeling of presence, it broke the viewer’s sense of immersion entirely.

As a 360 director my toolbox is actually pretty full of different techniques other than camera point of view. Generally shots are longer – at least 20 seconds so that the viewer has time to look around and soak up where they are or what is happening. But gone are the days of a static series of unconnected shots. Technology in the last two years has raced ahead so I always incorporate a degree of movement in my films, using tracks, zip lines, drones and gimbals. It adds action to the scene, but also movement can direct the viewer’s eye.

Light/colour can also direct the eye. In a studio this is easier than an external scene. For a Female Planet film featuring singer Vidya Vox, I shot in a studio in Mumbai with a very minimalist set and bright spotlights directing the viewer to the next piece of action. I also used the actors themselves moving from left to right in a sequence within the same shot so that the viewer’s eye was almost naturally “looking for” the next part of the scene.

Vidya vox

The Vidya Vox Story – The Female Planet. Directed by Mary Matheson

In the edit, I would assume the viewer was looking where I intended at that point of interest, and then make sure the next scene was centred on the next piece of “action” I wanted the viewer to look at. So, there are still some tricks you can use in a 360 edit to direct your viewers to a point on the screen.

Innovating with Binaural Sound:

For me binaural sound has been the most exciting discovery as a VR director. Being able to direct sound within the 360 space, and therefore direct a viewer’s point of interest is an area I keep exploring and using. My favourite example of this is one of the first VR films created by Within, Catatonic. The film begins with a fade up from black and the viewer discovers they are in a wheelchair with their arms tied to the sides. Someone talks to us from behind and slightly above us, making us turn around and see the psychiatric nurse and we realise we are in an asylum.

Looking to the Future of 360 Film:

The language of 360 filmmaking is still evolving but, far from being empty, it’s a Pandora’s box of tools and techniques that we are discovering every day. As a director it can sometimes be frustrating – shots can take hours to set up, cameras inexplicably stop, someone is always getting in the shot – but it’s also liberating to be innovating, pushing the boundaries, thinking outside the box and sometimes being the first to try a technique.

Interactivity is definitely the way ahead, with branching narratives where the viewer has agency to choose the next stage of the story. Already established in VR with graphics and gaming, interactivity in 360 film is still nascent. But with development of 6 Degrees of Freedom and volumetric capture we are able to allow viewers to move around what looks like a live-action scene. Does this give the viewer or the director more control? I’ll let you decide.

About the author:

Mary Matheson is the founder of Macondo Films, a film company that specialises in VR film with a focus on stories from remote parts of the world. Previously, Mary has created award-winning films for international charities Save the Children, Plan International and Christian Aid. More recently, she has directed a 5-part GoogleVR series entitled The Female Planet and has begun mentoring at the Youtube Creator Lab in London.

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