How We Train Journalists in 360º Video

As Contrast VR, we are the specialised immersive media arm of Al Jazeera, producing and creating all things 360, virtual reality, and more. Yet, we believe that the best journalism is rooted in collaboration, drawing from others’ areas of expertise and sharing knowledge across different disciplines. We also understand that the only way that 360 video can flourish as a medium is to reduce the barriers to entry, open the doors to conversation, and exchange success (and failure) stories. In this vein, we often collaborate with journalists from other Al Jazeera networks, including AJ+, 101 East, and Al Jazeera English, as well as freelancers from all over the world.

A training session Contrast VR led for a few producers from Al Jazeera English programmes.

When doing so, we generally rely on the easily mastered Samsung Gear 360 to become the individual’s new weapon.

Whether virtually or in person, our training sessions generally last about an hour and cover the following three categories:

1. The Current VR Landscape

In this section, we cover the existing 360 / VR landscape, both discussing good existing 360 video examples, as well as other leaders in the news media 360 space (NYT, The Guardian, RYOT, CNNVR, Nat Geo, etc). In order to be successful in 360 video, we believe it’s imperative to be familiar with the existing content creators and learn from good examples. Some of our favorite pieces include 6x9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement (The Guardian), Bashir’s Dream (RYOT), & Fight For Fallujah (NYT VR).

2. Why We Do 360 Storytelling

We always, always, always stress asking this question before entering into any 360 video production: Why should this video be in 360? We think about people, places, and experiences, where each of these elements become a large part of the character and subject of the film. We think about action, taking into account that the space has rich visual stimula in all 360 degrees. We think about authenticity, using the 360 camera as a portal to bring a human viewer into the story to harness real and genuine first person perspectives. We think about accessibility, taking advantage of the medium to transport a viewer into a space and world that they either would likely never go, or couldn’t go. Above all, we look for character driven narratives, where subjects take us into their rich and visual world, sharing their experiences with us as viewers.

3. How to Film in 360 Video with a Samsung Gear 360

This is always the fun part. Here is where we like to get hands on — there’s no better teacher than experience. We have a few pointers:

Camera Placement: Any important information should be within 6–20 feet (1.8m-6.0m) of the rig, considering that the resolution drops off dramatically around 20 feet (6.0m) from your camera. The camera should be placed as close to the center of the action as possible. The subject of the shot can be 2–3 feet (60.0cm-1.0m) from the camera, as long as it’s static (not transitioning in between lenses and consequently crossing the lenses overlap). Think about it as the distance you would feel comfortable talking to a person in real life; this is the perfect distance between the camera and the interviewee/subject

Camera Height: The standard height is 6 feet (1.8m), but in general the height should match the eye line of the subject (so if your interviewee is sitting down, the height of your camera should be lower). Avoid shorter heights than 6 feet (1.8m) for b-roll shots because it is disorienting to cut these scenes from other shots at a regular height.

After a practice exercise in taking the camera out for a test shoot, we reviewed the footage together.

Camera Orientation: Keep your Samsung Gear upright most of the time, but feel free to experiment new angles and points of view. Having the camera upright guarantees a more reliable shot, but remember to also place your camera where people wouldn’t be able to reach or to be at — that is one of the interesting aspects of a good 360º piece. If hanging the camera out of a window, for example, make sure the subject is not in the stitching line. You can preview your shot live if you have a Samsung phone with the Gear 360 app. That way, you can both check if the distance between the camera and the subject is ideal, but you can also check the setup and the composition of your shot as well as check if the stitching lines are compromising the scene. Try not to direct one of the 180º lenses of the camera at strong sources of light like the sun, because the color balance and exposure will end up different between the two cameras when you stitch the footage.

Lens Cloth: This is one of the most important pieces of equipment. A smudged lens can completely ruin a good 360º shot. Always wipe each lens before every shot, and check for lens smudges when you are verifying if the camera is recording.

Interview: Record external audio for any interviews, and make sure that you ask each interviewee to introduce themselves. Keep interviews precise and to the point.

After the pointers, we take out the trainees for a quick spin with the camera. We ask them to run an exercise where they choose an interesting spot in their current location to film a short 1 minute clip. We ask them to experiment with the camera height, camera placement, and camera orientation. With the camera height, we ask them to try and film from closer to the ground, simulating a child’s perspective, as well as a middle perspective, and a tall perspective. We also ask them to experiment with the orientation, having them move a subject around the camera, both through the different stitch lines, as well as the proximity of the subject.

If time permits, we download and stitch the footage, review it together, and then spend a bit of time brainstorming some ideas that could work as a 360 video.

And then, voila, off they go into the world, ready to start exploring 360 video.

Written by Joi Lee, a producer for Contrast VR