The Making of a Virtual Reality Cycling Film
“Elevate” is a cinematic Virtual Reality experience starring Christian Vande Velde. We filmed it in L.A. in June of 2015.
You, the viewer, can see the world from his perspective, as a 360º film happening all around you. He talks about his love for cycling, the sacrifices and challenges he has faces, and what keeps him going. In short ‘why he rides’.
This is the story of how it came together.
Cinematic Virtual Reality as a medium is really about releasing the viewer from the Directors preconceived vision, and saying ‘You have the freedom to make your own version of this film’ just by turning your head in any direction.
When I started speaking to Alastair and his team at Team One, we knew we wanted to create something that would feel innovative for the cycling community specifically. Yes, it would be innovative in terms of storytelling and virtual reality filmmaking, of course, but we wanted it to speak specifically to the all those people who love cycling so much they get up at 6am on a Sunday morning to ride up a mountain — for no good reason other than there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.
“Over the past year immersive technologies have wowed audiences with technical prowess but most experiences rely on gimmicks rather than storytelling and narrative. We saw this project as an opportunity to tell a personal story of a great athlete and show our client’s support for cycling and all road users.”
Alastair Green, Executive Creative Director
Bringing that ambition to life was a complex process. It was only possible through a collaborative effort from client, to agency, all the way to the production team — and it took in particular an intensive design process between my Director of Photography — Carl Burke — and my engineers designing the 3d-printed camera rigs to attach to Christian’s bike.
Of course … none of it would have happened without the dedication and determination of Christian Vande Velde himself.
We didn’t want to focus only on Christian the professional. And we didn’t want it to only be about speed and muscle. We also wanted to capture Christian the young kid, Christian the amateur cyclist, Christian the father, and the husband.
Before the finish line, before the podiums, before the accolades there is the training. Hours, months and years of solitary suffering and work on lonely roads. In our immersive cycling film we experience what it means to train and ride like a pro cyclist.
In our story we wanted to capture all of this struggle — within the almost 4 minutes the viewer spends in this film. We talked a lot with him before and during the shoot about all of these issues, and once we were recording the voice-over, Christian and I spent time in the VO booth together, it felt more like a discussion than a scripted piece.
We filmed Christian during sunrise and sunset over three days using our own custom-built 360º camera rig. This allowed our crew to capture steady shots of Christian, with the camera attached to the bike or Christian himself.
To get the best sunlight, we started filming at 5:30 am each morning, and worked till past sunset. So they were long, tough days, more even for Christian than for us as a crew.
Creating our camera angles, we were inspired by the massive cycling community on YouTube, who film their own rides on a weekly or daily basis.
But we also had to improvise quite a bit — some of our gear simply didn’t work as we expected, and the camera equipment destabilised Christian’s bike a lot. Creating a dangerous situation for him during the fast downhill sections of our ride.
And not all camera angles made as much as sense as I had expected. It’s pretty weird to fly along a bicycle, watching inside a 360 film, at a low-angle. You embody the camera and so when you look up at Christian, he feels huge, a giant, and you yourself feel like a tiny little creature.
It’s about perspective and scale — in virtual reality films you are the camera. It was an important lesson to learn.
It was definitely weird to use army camouflage to hide next to the road, and it was also weird to push Christian off with our camera rigs, and then basically not see him again for about 20 minutes.
In Virtual Reality filming, there is no behind the camera. So actually seeing what you’re filming is very difficult. You kind of have to cross your fingers that you come away with something you can use.
People will tell you that you can live-stream your cameras and then auto-stitch them on the spot, using local wifi networks, etc. But in reality this technology almost never works reliably — yet.
Since this was a risky shoot, and required Christian to ride on open roads, we had to get location approval, and of course, police presence. These guys were actually a big help — blocking off the roads when needed, or just guiding us and making sure all is safe.
Point Of View
One very big lesson I learned is how hard it is to do a proper 1st person pov in Virtual Reality filming. If we could have made it happen, our hero shot in the film would have been Christian perspective.
Instead you fly just over his helmet, and with some (fake) depth of field, you get a very natural look to the shot. The depth of field helps, because it mimics how your own eyes work.
The thing with first person pov is, you have to put the cameras somewhere. And in Christian’s case, we couldn’t obscure his vision in any way, because it would be too dangerous — flying down the hill at 40 mph means you have to see every little pebble.
So, after some fiddling with Carl, we settled on having the cameras stuck to his helmet.
The result this creates is actually quite creepy. The cameras actually don’t see the helmet, obviously, and so if you look down within the VR headset, all you see if a black hole between Christian’s shoulders.
We decided to fill that hole in with texture from his jersey.
Still creepy looking, as if he doesn’t have a head at all. So to take this further, we decided to film a separate helmet — rotating it around in the sun to catch the suns reflections from all angles — and composite that into the shot.
The trickiest part was actually to give the helmet an off-set wiggle — since the head would move on a different layer from Christian’s body we had to account for that to make this look natural.
Stitching is the process where to literally stitch together the different cameras that form your 360 field of view. It’s a laborious process, made only more complicated by a) the fact you’re working with around 7000 x 4000 pixels of video, and b) you’re trying to keep quality as high as you can, by avoiding exporting compressed video during your post-production process.
In our case, working with mp4 files coming out of the GoPro cameras, we would pre-stitch in Auto Pano Pro, but then re-stitch properly in After Effects, just so we could bring the original camera files straight into the post-production environment — essentially skipping the Auto Pano Pro export.
Team One, my editor Joe Randall-Cutler and I were all on the same page from the beginning, that editing would be essential to bring this story to life. Virtual Reality films are still very new, so how editing works — as a discipline and a process — in VR isn’t very clear yet.
We wanted to go for an experience that lives somewhere between a traditional film and a modern VR experience, with the best elements from both. Our story is about one man’s life, all of it, not just one small section.
We also wanted the editing to rise and fall in sync with the landscape. So that when Christian is going uphill, the film feels slower, more heavy. And when he goes downhill, everything speeds up and feels more intense.
We were focused throughout the project on on having a sense of chronology in our film, where you experience the story from sunrise to sunset. Within VR, this is unusual, that sense of time changing visually.
Designing titles in Virtual Reality films is tricky, again because of the high resolution, but also because you’re working with footage that is all bent and rounded, and so straight lines need to become curved.
We were inspired by the branded jersey designs Team One had developed for Christian and the other two cyclists, on our shoot day.
Once we had a look we were happy with, I worked with Eric Shockmel to animate them inside of our filmed footage.
Because our viewers could be watching Elevate on any number of devices, and any number of compression settings, it can be tricky to use such intricate patterns — it took a bit of fiddling to make sure it always looks great.
Because of the rough terrain, it would have been impossible to capture Christian traveling at 40 mph on a carbon fibre frame bike, if we did not also have some very heavy post-production work done, including post-stabilising of the footage. The bumps in the road and the movement overall created a lot of shake — and what is weird about these spherical camera rigs is that all cameras shake at a different angle. So the shaking doesn’t match up when you stitch.
We had to stabilize that shaky footage, which is fine in theory, but generally stabilizing relies on cropping your footage a little bit — which is also not possible since your 360 footage then won’t match up at either ends.
Without going into too much detail, it involved many hours of complicated stitching within the frame — basically by stretching and squeezing sections of each frame.
It also took finely detailed painting work to remove all of our camera equipment (and their shadows) from view.
Much respect to my post-production team, esp: Marcus Punter-Bradshaw, Jakub Wesolowski, Preite Davide, Zlaten Del Castillo, and Stefano Pasotti.
Music is half the picture. That is true for Virtual Reality as much as for any other visual medium.
The work done by Plan8 created a perfect companion piece to the visuals — very early on in the process. Everyone who heard the music had this immediate sense that “this is the music’.
You can still listen to that first track here.
And having that music early on helped us focus — it set the tone for us on-set, and it created a very clear structure to work to from the moment we got into the edit.
The result is a combination of several layers, stereoscopic sound design responsive to where the viewer is looking, the calm meditative narration, the sense of movement and the tension that the music builds — together they create a truly impactful VR sound experience.
All in all, this project is the culmination of many people’s passion and energy. And their willingness to embrace the chaos, and accept we didn’t have all the answers at the start — a certain kind of flexibility is needed to bring Virtual Reality films to completion. There are many moving parts, and it can be hard to predict what works well.
I am a virtual reality and interactive film maker, working at the intersection of storytelling and experiential technology.