360 video was all the buzz for the last few years at trade shows and around the industry. It seemed everyone was jumping on the VR video bandwagon. As buzz always does, the talk seems to have died down, but 360 production has not. There are great, new groundbreaking 360 experiences surfacing all the time. It seems like things are settling in for the long haul.
We caught up with Ben Carlin, the VR Live Director for Digital Domain. DD is a visual effects company with global reach, having offices from L.A. to London (and around the globe). Their credits range from commercials to television and movies. Their trophy case is full and includes Academy Awards for “Titanic” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” They are heavily involved in 360 productions with clients like Samsung, Chrysler and Nike all using their services.
“I think the hype is really just beginning because people are just starting to understand it, and manufacturers are starting to make the toys that make this really cool.”
Ben says that the 360 landscape had shifted, for the better, in the past year. “I think the hype is really just beginning because people are just starting to understand it, and manufacturers are starting to make the toys that make this really cool.” He also points us to upgrades in the ways people are viewing 360 video, which has led to more dynamic viewing experiences.
Ben tells us that there has been a real jump in the technology, especially in the past year. “We’re finally reaching a point where camera manufacturers are embracing 360 video and making some tools for us to use that are more well-suited to shooting situations.”
In particular, smaller cameras, like the GoPro Fusion, allow for 360 video cameras to be placed where they never could be before. “This year we had a camera on the head of a competitor at a very big mountain biking competition.” Ben says, “Last year we wouldn’t have been able to do that because the cameras were simply too big.”
The post production tools have also caught up. Previously, if you shot moving video that was particularly fast or shaky, it could actually make a viewer nauseous. Ben points out, “The software now has hit a point where we can take footage and stabilize it where the mountain biker looks like they’re riding through water. It’s incredibly fluid and stable.” He says that result would have required an incredibly slow and expensive process even 6-12 months ago.
At Digital Domain, they rely on a number of software solutions to get the best 360 video. Ben mentioned Mistika VR by SGO,”which does optical flow stitching that helps us in some of these really tight situations with a moving camera. Some of the more point-based stitching systems just can’t quite compute those types of movements.”
As for the world of audio recording, there have been some real advances in 360 capture as well. Ben is a fan of the Ambeo VR Microphone. “Sennheiser spent a lot of time working with VR professionals and 360 sound recorders to develop this a microphone.” He says that VR sound is especially tricky and DD often contracts quality sound engineers who are experienced with special sound and the Ambeo workflow.
The Challenges Looking Ahead
There still are challenges ahead, however. Ben says that cameras are advanced but, “The big thing that we’re still trying to get past is resolution. Trying to get to that point where 360 video looks as good as a 2D video.” He explains that although 360 video cameras are recording 4K and even 8K, “Ideally we want to get to 16K. That’s where we’re getting to a place where an image becomes true to life.”
He says that industry-wide, there’s still a learning curve. Specifically, developing the visual language of 360 video means that production professionals, “have to kind of drop some of that kind of experience of 2D video before you pick up 360 video.” Ben says, “The way you move a camera and what you expect the viewer, as an active participant, to go through in your experience is paramount. If you move the camera too quickly or you have too much action happening around the camera it can confuse [and] lose the message that you’re trying to get across.”
Ben says that one inherent challenge of 360 video is stitch lines. That’s the area in-between the field of the camera’s lenses. They have had to learn by experience to block shots and move talent around those trouble spots. He tells us that there too, “The technology is catching up and helping to alleviate some of that stress.”
The great news is that 360 headsets are getting better and less expensive. No longer do you have to be tethered to a computer or use a system that uses a phone. Ben says that’s where the experience is going: “the ability to just put on a headset and be entertained is what we’ve always wanted, and I think we’re just starting to see those types of products come out on the market.”
Jeff Chaves is the Chief Creative Officer of Grace Pictures Inc., which he co-owns with his wife, Peggy. He got his start as an Army Broadcaster in the 1980s and spent 12-plus years working in broadcast television. Jeff left the industry to pursue full-time ministry.