By: Tylar Campbell, Olivia Light, Veronica Lin, Madison Pobis, Kenichiro Shino
California, perhaps best known for its coastline, is one of the most fruitful areas of seaweed and algae. However, most people haven’t had the opportunity to experience the Pacific Ocean themselves — to dive deep down and become entangled with the massive kelp forests. In pursuing this project, we were eager to convey the beauty and resilience of nature.
We chose to focus on kelp forests; one of our team members is a scientific SCUBA diver and researcher, and another one of us had recently connected with a kelp harvester at a local farmer’s market. Ian O’Hollaren, the founder of Seaquoia, has harvested and sold marine products for over five years. His mission is to share the knowledge of the amazing resource that is wild California kelp and to create seaweed-based products that are beneficial for humans, livestock, and agriculture. We joined Ian in Santa Cruz, California to learn more about his work and to tell the story of seaweed, both underwater and in the intertidal zone.
A big picture view of our process from start to finish
Following our initial team meeting with Ian, we began to brainstorm different ways to tell the story, considering in particular the strengths and weaknesses of 360. We felt that the immersive nature of VR would enable us to capture the three-dimensional nature of the kelp forests. In contrast to other ecosystems where most of the action happens along a single plane, kelp towers vertically, enabling a thriving biological community throughout the entire water column.
Before recording any footage, we created a storyboard to illustrate our vision and solicit feedback from our class.
We planned for two full days of shooting in Santa Cruz; since it was an hour long drive from Stanford’s campus, it made sense to shoot as much as possible in one go. We packed a car full of equipment such as extra batteries and chargers. Having two days to film was especially beneficial because there were a number of things that we couldn’t control: visibility under the water, lighting above the water, and the tide. Plus, as it turns out, our first day was filled with technical challenges of all kinds.
After filming, we had our work cut out for us: we had over three hours of video recordings and 1.5 hours of audio recordings to preview and pick from. With so much content to work with, organization was critical to success in our post-production workflow. Before even opening Adobe Premiere Pro, we spent hours combing through every minute of footage and audio to identify moments of interest to build out the story. This was an especially important step for our underwater footage, which had to be specially stitched to account for the dive case and then exported before being used in Adobe Premiere Pro.
Adobe Premiere Pro’s no-stitch workflow was a huge development in the software because it allowed us to preview the footage in real-time using proxies rather than needing to render the raw files. Although having an abundance of different audio sources — in-camera recordings, Ian’s lavalier microphone, the underwater microphone, and detached ambisonic — enabled greater creative freedom, it also came with a huge learning curve to integrate them. Each source had to be synchronized, layered, and spatially rotated to match the field of view for a truly immersive experience.
Recording with 360-degree cameras
While part of our team joined Ian in the ocean, donning thick wetsuits, fins, and snorkel gear, the other members recorded audio and video footage above ground. We utilized a number of different technologies to record 360 video above and below the water:
- Two Insta360 ONE X cameras with dive cases and an Insta360 ONE with dive case: for filming in the ocean, we attached one camera at the edge of the inflatable paddle board, and held the other with a pole so that it could be taken underwater on dives. We also mounted these on tripods to get stable footage above ground.
- Zoom H3: we mounted this underneath the 360 camera so that we could simultaneously record audio above ground.
- Tascam DR-10L Lavalier: to get a clear recording of Ian’s voice, we had him wear the lavalier microphone while he was speaking at the intertidal.
- Tascam Handheld Recorder with underwater microphone: we threw the microphone in the ocean to record ambient audio for use as a constant audio floor.
Our lessons learned
Telling a story about kelp forests in 360 video was a challenging, yet worthwhile journey. We learned a tremendous amount between our initial filming day and our second and final filming day; unsurprisingly, trying things out and reflecting on what worked or didn’t work went a long way in helping us learn. Some general lessons learned:
- Getting the perspective right was not trivial when we were filming at the intertidal. Fortunately, we had three 360 cameras with tripods at different heights (one at standing eye-level, one at squatting eye-level, and one about a foot off the ground), so we were able to experiment in parallel. Each perspective enabled us to focus on different things, but also presented various challenges. The tallest camera felt most natural as a viewer, if the other human subjects were also standing, but then the seaweed on the rocks were especially distant. In contrast, while the lowest camera was better at capturing the texture and size of the seaweed, the human subjects needed to be squatting around the camera to prevent any sense of disorientation.
- Each scene in VR needs to be sufficiently long to allow viewers to explore and look around; this was especially true for our underwater scenes, where the ocean is an unfamiliar, yet mesmerizing setting. In addition, because our subject was moving so quickly along the intertidal, it was tricky to set up shots that were long enough.
- Relatedly, the quick pace made it difficult to keep the subject within ideal distance of the camera. We had to make several tradeoffs between distance and duration, and scrambled to continue tracking Ian as he worked to harvest the seaweed.
- Since 360 video is a relatively new medium, it took a bit of time and practice to get used to the fact that everything is in the shot for 360, including us if we’re anywhere nearby. We chose to frame our video to address this; that the viewer is positioned as another tour participant along with all of us. This helped make it feel more authentic and natural.
- Ian was phenomenal as a subject, and we are so grateful for his collaboration and cooperation. For our second filming day, we directed him more so that he was comfortable addressing the camera — affectionately named Shelly — as if it were another participant in the group.
- In post-production, we needed to pay particular attention to our transitions between scenes. On a draft compilation of shots, our class provided helpful feedback that alternating between underwater and above water scenes made for jolty shifts; in our final version, we changed the sequencing so that the viewer could start by first entering the ocean, then experiencing the underwater scenes, and then finally experiencing the above water intertidal scenes.
- It was extremely helpful to have multiple sources of audio to play with during post-production. We wanted to take advantage of the spatial ambisonic audio when we could, but in some cases, the ambisonic microphone was too far away from Ian. Having a backup lavalier mic clipped onto his waders enabled us to layer audio and use some of his interviews from the tidepool as narration during the kelp forest tour.
In addition to the general lessons learned for filming in 360, the underwater aspect of our project presented a number of unique challenges.
- The dive cases were less intuitive to use than we had hoped — when the cameras were enclosed, it was difficult to ensure that the buttons were pressed to begin and stop the recording. The screen and indicator LEDs were hard to view in the water, and our first attempt in the ocean resulted in only a few still images, rather than videos. For our second attempt, we started the recording before entering the water; this worked, but left us with many long clips to sort through afterwards.
- The dive cases also muffled the audio while in the water — while we were able to use the underwater microphone to get ambient underwater audio from land, we were not able to get clear audio recordings at the surface of the water.
- The underwater visibility was beyond our control, and we were fortunate that the visibility improved dramatically on our second day of filming as compared to our first.
- Because our project involved filming in the ocean where swells can be quite large and dangerous, our safety was of utmost concern, particularly when entering and exiting the water. We continued to film where possible, but did make sure to prioritize our safety in these instances.
Reflecting on our journey now, we are blown away by all that we learned with just two filming days and a handful of post-production days. In sharing all of these lessons and tidbits, our hope is that others are inspired to pursue storytelling with this unique medium.
We would not have been able to complete this project without the guidance and support of our Immersive Journalism course. We’d like to thank Geri Migielicz for creating such an excellent learning environment and for exposing us to the potential of location-based journalism. We are also grateful for our classmates, who previewed countless rough drafts and provided detailed feedback. Additionally, a huge thank you to Ian O’Hollaren for being such a great sport and for sharing with us his story and passion. As a team, we feel lucky to have worked together on this project; our individual strengths made our production a great success and enabled us to learn from each other.