While the gear buy-in can be relatively inexpensive, producing engaging content is a bit more challenging. Let’s take a look at gear, production and monetization so you can decide if VR and 360-degree video is a good fit for you.
The myth of VR
The term virtual reality (VR) has come to mean many things to many people. What some refer to as a VR headset can be as simple and inexpensive as Google Cardboard, though there are many higher-end VR units available. But what type of VR content are people watching on Google Cardboard? In actuality, people can’t watch most VR content on Google Cardboard because that style of viewer can only display 360-degree video. Confused? You’re not alone. Most of the clients who ask for VR video are really asking for 360-degree content. The key is understanding the difference between the two so that you can give your client exactly what they want.
The differences between 360-degree video and VR
With 360-degree video you can view up, down, left, right or behind, exploring every inch of the frame. VR allows you to do that, but it also provides you with the ability to interact with and move around that environment with either a controller or sensors strapped to parts of the body. But what is the biggest difference? 360-degree video uses live action video images while VR uses digitally animated 3D environments. If you’ve been producing video for a while, the production of 360-degree content can be relatively easy to learn. Meanwhile, the learning curve for creating VR content is quite steep since you need to be proficient in 3D animation and video game engines for real-time interaction with simulated VR environments. So, if you like to spend everyday staring at a computer monitor, go for VR. If not, read on to learn more about 360-degree video. The content is increasingly in demand, even if your customers call it by the wrong name.
How does 360-degree video work?
360-degree footage is typically produced with a camera that has multiple lenses or with multiple cameras arranged in a special rig to cover a 360-degree image sphere. Some 360-degree camera rigs do not completely cover the spherical area around the camera, but for professional production, coverage should include the entire 360-degree sphere.
Footage is typically recorded internally onto media cards. Once recorded, the footage is then “stitched,” a process where all of the footage is attached together to create that 360-degree view. Some cameras do this internally and some do it with proprietary software once the footage is downloaded. While most cameras now come with stitching software, not all software is equal. With the best cameras and software, the stitch line is barely visible; on the other end of the continuum, sections of the image sphere around the camera can be omitted causing objects to get cut off or disappear from view when passing through these blind spots. Blind spots tend to occur more frequently with footage captured by camera rigs with only two cameras, and the areas most affected are at the tops and bottoms of the image sphere.
360-degree video can be viewed on any screen or using your phone mounted in headsets like Google Cardboard or the Samsung Gear VR. The headset does create a more immersive experience since you can change your field of view with a simple turn or tilt of the head; however, one should always assume that the viewer is not wearing a headset. You may want to make your client aware of this flexibility since a VR headset sounds sexy but it could also be misconstrued as limiting.
Monetizing with 360-degree
The real estate market was one of the first major adopters of this new format. You can see 360-degree video tours of houses for sale or for rent all across the country. But why stop at existing homes? A construction company might benefit from a 360-degree timelapse of a project followed by a 360-degree video tour of the house or building when it’s complete. This idea can be adapted to almost any custom-made or manufactured product. Storefronts and company showrooms might also find this medium appealing. In fact, most corporations could find a benefit with 360-degree in some aspect of their business, especially those who are utilizing social media platforms.
Wedding videos are a great place to introduce new products like 360-degree video. If you put a small 360-degree camera at the edge of the aisle next to the front row, you could watch the ceremony as well as the wedding party entering and leaving; it would almost be like you were there, sitting in the front row. Wedding receptions also offer great opportunities for 360-degree video. In general, most live events can benefit from capturing in 360-degree. Some cameras, like the Samsung’s Gear 360-degree (2017), even allow you to live stream 360-degree footage.
If you’re planning to shoot either narrative or documentary content, you may have a long road ahead of you in order to monetize that work. Social media like Facebook and YouTube can host your 360-degree videos, but they are not very profitable platforms for most creators. The major film studios, broadcasters and streaming services aren’t currently buying content shot in 360-degree video, but with more film festivals showcasing 360-degree video and VR projects, this may change in the next few years. On the upside, your original 360-degree content can be a great calling card for generating new business.
Know your audience
As a hobbyist, it can be lots of fun to experiment with a 360-degree camera. For professionals, it’s all about understanding the benefits of the medium and how these assets might benefit your clients. Obviously, you should be thinking about the differences between traditional and 360-degree content. What do you think your clients might want to see as spherical video that you currently cannot provide with a traditional format? Many production companies are still experimenting with 360-degree video while others are finding ways to directly profit with this new medium. Obviously, the types of projects you plan to bring to the market will greatly affect your ability to monetize, but you need to be thinking about 360-degree video as more than just a gimmick.
Story is underrated
With 360-degree video, your story should guide the viewer through a myriad visual journey. Often, the viewer can get lost in the visual overload and miss important elements that are critical to the journey. Many 360-degree videos use off-screen narration to tell a story, pitch a product or showcase a business. When possible, directional dialogue by the narrator can alert the viewer to a specific region of the image sphere; likewise, graphics can also be used to alert viewers to a distinct area of the frame. If you’re using actors, gestures can also be used to point out visual elements of interest.
When possible, directional dialogue by the narrator can alert the viewer to a specific region of the image sphere
Many produce their 360-degree projects as one long scene shot in a single take. While this may be easier to execute for the novice, multiple cuts and multiple scenes are, in fact, do-able. If you are doing the single take, blocking with your actors will be extremely important. Also, it’s important to note that visual effects are extremely challenging, even for skilled VFX professionals; practicals are really the only cost effective way the achieve this type of element. Remember, with the exception of cuts, there really is no such thing as “fix it in post.”
From the placement of gear to production design, there is no such thing as overplanning when it comes to 360-degree video. Since you’re not dealing with a fixed field of view, it seems pretty easy: just point and shoot. Once you’ve pulled your camera out the box, try this and see what happens. Quickly, you’ll realize that it can be challenging to keep your production crew out of the frame. With that in mind, you will need to use high overhead, ambient or practical lighting. You’ll also find that the more light you have, the less visual noise you’ll have in your image.
I find it helpful to create diagrams for placement of the camera and crew such as an audio operator, though many producers find that, initially, it is much easier to just have a single operator record both audio and video simultaneously. Storyboards can also be very useful for mapping out the various visual elements to be captured in your shots as well as show how light source placement will affect this content. Finally, if you are using any actors, you will want to use storyboards to understand how they will move through this very visual environment.
Capturing sound and image
When comparing traditional and spherical video, you’ll notice many differences in the way sound and image are captured during production, manipulated in post-production and delivered. By understanding the characteristics of each medium, you’ll be better equipped to take advantage of what 360-degree video has to offer.
You’ll want to keep your sound mono. While most online platforms support stereo, it creates unique challenges in 360-degree video. In traditional video if a train is passing on the far left side of the frame, then you’ll hear it mostly in the left channel of a stereo mix. If you try to do the same stereo mix in a 360-degree piece, when you pan your video’s field of view 180-degree the train will be seen on the right side of the frame but the sound will mostly remain on the left channel. The solution to this is spatial audio that can react to user input. Different distribution platforms have different requirements for spatial audio; additionally, the recording and mixing process is labor intensive to learn even for those experienced in audio production and post.
In traditional video, a UHD 4K resolution (3840 x 2160) may seem like a lot of detail or, to some, even too much. In 360-degree video, that really isn’t the case. When you talk about resolution for professional 360-degree video, you’re talking about the whole image sphere. If your sphere is 3840 x 2160 and your field of view (the rectangular area of the sphere you see at any one time) is 90 degrees by 45 degrees, then the resolution you have on your screen is 1920 x 960. That’s a little less than 1920 x 1080 HD. The field of view for 360-degree video depends on the player settings used by the video’s host. Many social media platforms use a field of view aspect ratio of 2:1 (18 x 9) whereas HDTV uses 1.78:1 (16 x 9) and DCI cinema uses 1.85:1 (around 17 x 9) or 2.39:1 (around 21 x 9).
With 360-degree video, you have to think of the viewer as the camera operator because they control what’s seen in the field of view. Camera placement is crucial; it allows the viewer/camera operator to easily bring the compelling elements of the shooting environment into the field of view in order to drive the story. Just like shooting traditional video, the goal of cinematography is not to merely make pretty pictures; it’s to tell a story. It can be as simple as documenting an event or as complex as an emotionally charged narrative. The story telling objective is always the same.
There are important technical considerations as well. Most 360-degree cameras utilize wide-angle lenses that have a lot of distortion that is often very pronounced at the edges of the frame where stitching takes place. Visual elements that are at the top or bottom of the image sphere may be partially cut off or not appear at all. The same can happen with objects that are too close to the camera and with visual elements that are on the edges of the frames that are stitched together. Whenever possible, any action you want your audience to see in their field of view should be kept near the center of a lens’s frame whenever possible to avoid these issues.
Motion and how it affects the viewer should also be considered. If your camera shot is locked down and the image sphere contains a vast grassy field with a person running across it, the viewer would be compelled to move the field of view to keep the runner in sight. Rapid movement like this can often cause motion sickness; typically, this is much worse when wearing a headset. On the other hand, if your camera is attached to a race car in the middle of a pack of cars speeding around a track, the viewer’s focus would tend to be on the other cars which would be moving at a similar speed to the camera car; in this case, the sense of motion would be diminished even though the camera is moving rapidly around the track.
As a rule, shoot loose. Remember, if your viewer is not experienced with 360-degree video, it may take them some time to find the area of the video that they want to watch. You also want to give them time to soak in the details of the image sphere. When a viewer pans the field of view 180 degrees to look at the back of the image sphere, it’s jarring if the camera isn’t level to the location. Keep the camera level to the location as much as possible. Having the camera stable and free from shaking also helps.
You shot loose, now keep the cuts loose and the pace slow. Give the viewer time to look around, especially at the beginning of a video. Think about your footage and keep in mind the areas of interest in the image sphere. If the areas of interest are radically different from one clip to the next, then the viewer will need time to adjust to the next shot. You may need to use dissolves or fade to and from black when cutting between shots. Don’t forget to test your edits before you finalize a project.
Anyone can buy a 360-degree camera and start shooting. However, how you shoot and edit will determine whether your content stands out from the crowd. Producing polished content will show your clients the value of the medium. It’s important to understand your customer’s needs and to illustrate how 360-degree will specifically help their business. Educate your clients about 360-degree video and explain how it can give them a competitive edge.
White Hawk Bourne and Odin Lindblom are both award-winning filmmakers. Additionally, the 360-degree photo examples in this article were shot by Odin.