360 Video-VR: a new indispensable tool for journalism ?

Interview with Thomas Seymat, 360 & VR editor at Euronews.

During the GEN Summit held in Lisbon (30 May-1 June 2018), I met Thomas Seymat, 360 & VR editor at Euronews.
Around a few questions, Thomas summarizes his experience with 360 video & Virtual Reality (VR) for the multilingual news channel.
His detailed answers give us a relevant overview of this new tool, with its innovative narrative mode, and which is increasingly being used in digital and web newsrooms.
Thomas Seymat, Euronews 360/VR Editor & Térence Jarosz, ENEX News Editor au GEN Summit à Lisbonne (01/06/2018)

Can you tell us about your experience with 360 video and VR at Euronews?

Like many kids of the 90s, I remember watching movies or series where the characters used big, clunky VR headsets with basic CGI. But the beginning of my professionnal interest for 360 video and VR in news dates back to April 2015.

I was covering the MIPCOM in Cannes for Euronews and attended a panel on new storytelling methods. On stage among the experts was Antoine Cayrol, then at OKIO-STUDIO. He was presenting this new generation of VR, which is primarily consumed on smartphones. The tech, on both the capture and distribution side, was in infancy, but the content available was already really cool. I was hooked in seconds, but it took months before it would impact my job as well.

After MIPCOM I started reading everything reports and articles about VR and journalism I could lay my hands on. There wasn’t a lot published back then. I also contacted people working in the field, such as Anh-Hoà Truong at Stanford.

Later, I must admit I badgered my editor-in-chief, because I was convinced this medium had potential for Euronews. He ended up accepting that I, with the help of colleagues, drafted an application for the 1st round of Google’s Digital News Initiative funds. This (eventually successful) application aimed at making Euronews be the first international media with an immersive journalism workflow fully integrated in both the digital and TV newsroom, to regularly produce 360 news videos in-house. This strategy was radically different from the dozens or so immersive documentaries or news reports that had been published at the time: they had been produced by content studios on behalf of media organisations, with large budgets, and were often not timely due to punishing production time.

Laundry Day Around the World | 360 video — The New York Times

We’ve started this regular production of 360 news video in June 2016, during the UEFA European Championship. In terms of equipment, we had signed an exclusive partnership with Samsung, to use its Gear 360 camera which was shooting in a good enough quality, and was also easy to use for our journalists. This kind of more flexible, less expensive, internal production workflow would be adopted a few month later by the New York Times for their Daily 360. They also partnered with Samsung to produce one video per day (!), in addition to the longer videos done by NYTVR.

Two years later, Euronews has produced over 145 immersive experiences and 360-degree news videos, a large part of them dubbed in all the 12 languages Euronews publishes content on online. The videos have reached over 13.5 million views, across all languages and platforms. We covered for instance the 2017 French and German electoral campaigns, the consequences of climate change in Europe, and other events and places from Venezuela to Japan, and from the Arctic Circle to Subsaharan Africa.

There’s actually no 360 team per se at Euronews; I’m the only person working fulltime on the project. For each video project, a group made of journalist, producer, video editors, etc… will temporarily work together until the video has been published. In total, over 60 people have been involved on producing 360 videos here, including 40 journalists from our HQ in Lyon, France and our bureaux in Athens, Budapest, and Brussels.

German Election 360°: Lake Constance — Euronews 360°

What are the main steps to produce a 360 video?

Looking back on this project, we went through three successive steps, each one feeding from the previous ones:

  1. Learning how to shoot a 360 video that is technically OK,
  2. Learning how to produce news video using the newly acquired 360 skills — not forgetting the basics of journalism (5W, etc.),
  3. Learning how to hone the storytelling of these news videos to make them more interesting and engaging (going beyond extreme sports and visually-striking scenes).

I do not have a background in video journalism, but the steps to produce a 360 video are similar to what I imagine the production of a regular, “flat” video can be: research (as much as possible), shooting, editing, audio mix, publishing on relevant platforms. Of course 360 videos can’t be broadcasted on TV, but platforms like Youtube, Facebook and Vimeo are all 360-compatible.

Some 360 cameras require a stitching step for the footage — through proprietary software — but some others provide already-stitched footage straight out of the memory card, ready to be edited in your favorite video editing software.

I would say the main difference with classic video reporting is that there’s no ‘off camera’, nothing outside of the frame. The 360 camera, as the name suggests, films the whole scene surrounding it. It’s a little challenging at first, as the tools traditionnally used in a flat video to guide the gaze of the audience don’t work anymore, and this narrative grammar, established over decades, must be rewritten. Indeed, with a 360 camera it’s impossible to zoom, to pan, to edit back-and-forth for interviews etc. It’s also impossible to do a very fast-paced edit because it tends to be very disorienting for the audience. For these reasons, a handful of journalsits I trained at Euronews or elsewhere felt robbed of their job, that their did not have a journalistic role to play any longer when shooting 360 video.

Actually, the role of the journalist still matters very much. An immersive journalist is still a journalist, with a job to do and choices to make: choice of the topic, choice of the angle, of the interviewee(s), where the camera will be positionned (and at what height), when to press the ‘rec’ button, etc.

And while editing a 360 video is indeed different, it’s still possible to guide one’s audience via editing technics or sound design. This latter can be complicated, especially if you plan a fully spatialised soundtrack, but it’s worth the extra effort. Spatial audio really increases the feeling of immersion.

Life in Gaza after 10 years of Israeli blockade — Euronews 360°

What are the pros and cons of 360 video?

This medium is a new tool in the journalists’ toolbox to cover the news.

Of course, not every story is worth doing in 360 video. But, in my opinion, no other media can create such a feeling of presence, of immersion to its audience. You can add to that a relative freedom for the audience (freedom to look around) and increased transparency. Since there’s no longer any ‘off camera’, accusations of biased framing hiding part of the reality of the event can’t be levelled anymore. It’s also according to me a demanding media, but in a positive way. The audience, when using a headset, is isolated from outside distraction and can focus more o the story.

There’s a lot of talks around the capacity of these 360° videos to spark empathy among its viewers for the events, the characters, etc. Several storytellers, experts and scholars are focused on the question. However, for now I’m not convinced people with strong prejudices against, let’s say, refugees or the role of people in climate change, will change their mind after watching an immersive video.

There are of course drawbacks to 360 video; this new medium is not perfect. The diffusion of 360 video is limited for now for several reason.

First of all, it’s not a broadcast product. The publishing of immersive videos is limited on a few 360-compatible platforms which are either tech giants (such as Youtube and Facebook, where your content is subject to the change in their respective algorithms), or smaller, niche platforms and apps.

360 video is also very heavy, data-wise. For professional use, you need at least mp4 footage in 4K, not mentionning shooting at 60fps or more. It is so much data that it becomes rapidly unmanageable if you want to transmit footage shot in remote places or shoot live 360 video over cellular data. For now, the ‘tubes’ of the Internet aren’t simply wide enough. In the near future, it’s possible that progress in compression technology, as well as 5G, will help with this challenge.

Crossing the divide from Venezuela to Colombia — Euronews 360°

How do you see the future of 360 video in general, and for news in particular?

It’s a hard task, since I’m not a prophet. But that being said, if you look back three or four years, you can see some trends emerging. One of them being that the equipment and the software needed to shoot and edit 360 videos has gotten cheaper and/or their performances have gotten a lot better.

For instance, there’s now a wide range of prosumer 360 cameras that journalists can use to shoot videos on the ground, in 4K or more. The last version of Premiere Pro now has 360 features that were until very recently only available via special After Effects plugins. So in a nutshell it has become simpler, and relatively cheaper to make better videos, at least on the technical side, for immersive journalism or 360 videos in general.

On top of that, three or four years ago, there was not a single tutorial, blog, or how-to on immersive journalism. The resources online were limited to fiction 360 video. Shooting immersive content for fiction allows storyboarding, rehearsals, staging and directing which is dramatically different from reporting events happening in front of you.

This lack of journalistic guidance is no longer a hurdle : the community around immersive journalism is now very active and welcoming. And through videos or blogs like the Journalism360 initiative, it’s much easier to find advice for beginners and advanced storytellers alike. We can hope that the exchanges of experience and the best practices collectively identified by storytellers across the globe will contribute to, step by step, set in stone the grammar of immersive storytelling.

On the long term, I think we are currently in the first iteration of immersive storytelling, the version 1.0, with the beta and alpha version of VR from the 1990s and 1960s now clearly beyond us. The technologies to capture and publish immersive content are evolving very rapidly and in addition to 360 video and VR you now have Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, stereoscopic 3D video, as well as photogrammetry and light field technology.

To quote Paul Cheung, who is currently the Director of Journalism and Technology Innovation at the Knight Foundation: “This is an opportunity for the news industry to stay current and ahead of the curve. I feel like the news industry is having a role in shaping the outcome of [VR and 360], which is vital because that means in the early stages we are thinking not only about how to tell the story but what will the business model look like.”

Journalists should take a closer look and see how these technologies can impact their work — unlike how the industry behave with the Web. It’s our role to be there, to be active, and to experiment.

In French here.