Having been given the wonderful opportunity of creating 360 content in support of the Royal British Legion’s commemorations for the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and insights based on the production process.
I’m sure plenty of these points are not hugely ground-breaking or revelatory — but the process of creating this content certainly gave extra resonance and focus to a few things…
1. Think Story First
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As with the majority of content, the fundamentals of storytelling need to be the key driver. There needs to be an editorial and audience-based reason for you using the medium.
With this content we wanted to use the transportative and immersive nature of the format to make people feel more connected to the events of 100 years ago. To take them out of the distractions of daily life and to instead spend a couple of minutes focused on making some kind of emotional connection to the thoughts and experiences of people a century ago. It couldn’t just be about a unique visual way of displaying archive. Which leads me nicely onto point 2…
2. Not Just Novelty
Thankfully this is a trend that seems to be going away. When the format was new I think there was a tremendous amount of content created purely because of the ‘originality’ or potential buzz of doing something in 360. That led to an arms race of organisations simply sticking camera rigs in different or exclusive places — with no reason or justification beyond that novelty.
YouTube appeared awash with videos where vast swathes of the 360 environment was pavements/railings/blank walls/blank faces - things you’d have no reason to look at anyway - and worse there was little in the way of narrative or editorial to carry you through. The amount of videos I saw for which a planned or scripted HD 16x9 framing of something would have been more effective than a loose, clunky and blurry 360 one was pretty telling. Yes, using a novel format can be useful for developing promotional opportunities, but it can’t just be about that alone or we will quickly lose audiences.
Even in this case we obviously hoped there would be an initial ‘wow’ moment from how unusual it is to be placed in this kind of environment — but we also worked hard to make sure that the editorial and narrative would pull you into an experience of immersion that was about far more than the novelty of being in an unusual virtual world.
3. Think 360…Then Don’t
Part of that came from thinking about how we actually wanted to use the 360 space — and how we expected users to experience it.
Creating a full 360 environment gave us the sense of immersion we wanted — and from testing we would see people excitedly look around as soon as the experience started. However thinking about the practicalities of people being in this environment for a couple of minutes, we made a decision to focus the majority of the material and action in the 180 immediately in front of the user, with subtle visual and audio clues to draw them to different areas of the space.
It was a difficult balance. We didn’t want to force a particular experience or constrain people, but nor did we want to leave it so open that the user felt they were missing something or had to constantly spin around. As in point 1 — we were also acutely aware of wanting to encourage people to engage with the history — with the environment enhancing and illustrating that — rather than pulling focus from the editorial.
As I’ve done above — it can be very easy to obsess about the visuals. However the reality is that the aural experience is hugely important too. I’m a big audio geek but even I was taken aback at just how big a role sound played in the success of this content.
For me, one of the most effective elements is the spatial audio (superbly created by Pete Styles). Not only does it add to the sense of immersion but it really works to bring the archive to life — and creates subtle audio clues that carry the storytelling and guide you as to where to look. It also helps the content feel different each time you experience it.
Don’t forget sound as a tool in your arsenal. It’s not just an extra or an afterthought — it’s a key element for enhancing and shaping the 360 worlds you want to create.
All said, 360 video is still a new and evolving format. The potential is still there to play and experiment. I know it can be easy to get distracted by the potential of more high-end or interactive VR experiences — but there are many people for whom a ‘vanilla’ Google Cardboard experience still has a unique magic.
We need to keep experimenting with the content we create. It doesn’t need to be flashy or expensive — there really is still a whole wealth of editorial and audience potential to be mined even in ‘simple’ 360.
Within this set of videos we tried a variety of different ideas and approaches. Blending different materials (modern live-action footage and stills, archive, animations, maps, letters, audio, VO etc.) but also playing with a variety of aesthetic and editorial ideas. It will be fascinating to see, over time, which of these people respond most strongly too — and also how the medium as a whole continues to evolve.
For now, it’s been a real honour having had the chance to play in this space — but more than that, to have had the opportunity of attempting to use digital content and platforms to bring this important chapter of our history to life.