I wanted to address a worrying concern that I’ve heard a few times in the both the professional and amateur 360 filmmaking community.
The argument goes something like this (most recently heard from a high profile commissioning editor for a major media entity):
“Why would you shoot this in 360?”
The answer is that it’s the wrong question. The scary part is that there are established professionals pouring fuel on the fire of this approach.
Imagine showing up at a beach and seeing a beautiful sunset. Now imagine two people capturing this moment.
One, let’s call him Christoph — is painting it with watercolors.
The other, let’s call him Max — is taking a photo with his A7SII.
So the person who would ask “Why would you shoot this in 360?” would be asking Max “Hey man, why would you take a photo of this?”
Max would have every right to either ignore him — or pointedly explain to him that a photograph is just another way of capture a moment, or an emotion — that you can keep for yourself or share it with others. It’s not necessarily better or worse than a watercolor painting — it’s different.
In a world where people are budget and resource constrained — deciding whether to commit a single photo-journalist to a field assignment with an iPhone 6 versus a full crew with a steadi-op and a dedicated sound team versus a full 360/VR crew — is of course a real business concern.
But that is not how this question is being asked.
Instead the question is being asked as though 360 storytelling implies telling a story that takes place continuously in the full 360 degrees. This is complete nonsense
We live life every day in 360 degrees. We can see approximately 170 but we can hear/sense 360 with our ears and other visual cues.
What we do NOT do is wander around in every environment and spin around 360 degrees trying to take in every aspect of our surroundings. Instead we focus on an area of interest (e.g. a conversation, a ball, a door, a car, a strawberry/apple juice smoothie, a kiss, a group of friends) and while our attention shifts as any particular scene of our daily life unveils — we do not live life on spinning chairs exploring a landscape like a German Shepherd on speed. Feel free to say it with me:
Cinematic VR is NOT an Easter Egg Hunt.
The image above is from the movie “History of Cuban Dance” by the extremely talented and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker. I don’t mean to pick on her specifically — but rather I use her as an example of a traditional storyteller who is blinded by the new technology but not thinking enough about how this kind of media is consumed.
In a recent article based on interviews at the Tribeca film festival — Lucy states:
…she loves placing the camera so that there are multiple points of interest within the 360-degree field of view…
Hmm. I believe this is extremely confusing to the viewer and I believe it’s damaging to the medium as a whole. Arstechnica wasn’t far off the mark when they suggested that making viewers work too hard was damaging their entertainment and enjoyment of VR in general.
Even in a scenario of people consuming 360 video in VR headsets (and for the record — I believe that in the following 1–2 years the overwhelming majority of content in 360 video will NOT be consumed on headsets but directly on mobile devices without any head mounted displays) human necks and shoulders are not articulated biologically to move comfortably in a full circle — so these kinds of full-360 experiences are at best gimmicks, and at worse misguided attempts to create engagement.
Instead we should try to figure out a way of guiding the viewer in subtle ways — perhaps aspects of what Thomas Wallner calls forced perspective, perhaps sound cues. As storytellers/creators we need to embrace the control/agency that the medium gives the viewer — but never forget that viewers can run the gamut from distracted, lazy, easily confused to curious, enchanted and engaged. Storytelling hasn’t changed fundamentally in thousands of years — if anything as interactivity in VR/AR increases and we are better able to read the cues and moods of the audience — we will be reverting back to storytelling techniques of elders by campfire. But that’s a subject for another post… ;)
Lucy is very smart. I have no doubt that she will figure out a more appropriate approach soon enough. After all — it’s far too early in this medium to have any rules at all. Experimentation is important — but it’s yet another example of how important considerations of UX (user experiences) are in VR/AR storytelling.
In traditional film-making, assuming the filmmaker has ever even heard of UX it’s almost a dirty word — it’s some collection of buttons/menus that the viewer has to wade through to GET TO THE STORY.
But in VR — UX is a PART of the STORY.
I think we all forget this at our peril.