Episode 3: Shooting basics

This is the third installment of our guide to producing 360 video. We focus on working with a 6-camera GoPro rig, but many of these tips apply to other rigs, as well.

In this post we’re focusing on shooting with a 360 rig, and there are some factors to consider when working with 360 video that don’t come up with traditional video. They have to do with camera movement, position within the scene, and shooting with post-production in mind.

1. Mind the lines:

Scenes with people moving between cameras (across stitch lines) any closer than about 5 feet will come out with mangled faces and bodies as they cross the seams. It can be creepy looking and tedious, if not impossible, to fix.

So, whenever possible, it’s best to stick to shots in which any characters closer than a few feet away from the camera are sitting or standing in one spot. This is especially tricky because things tend to look farther away than they are in 360, so you have to get as close as you can without ending up with a shot that’s a mess to stitch. And note, with the six-camera rig anything closer than about 2 feet will be mangled and potentially impossible to salvage.

In a directed film, you can achieve really clean shots by “blocking” — giving actors a range within which they have to stay so they don’t cross a stitch line. In journalistic work, well, you’ve got to work with what’s available — but keeping these limitations in mind helps you know if a shot’s likely to work.

Note: The same rules apply with stitch lines on 2-lens/2-camera fisheye rigs like the Ricoh or the Kodak — but you’ve got fewer seams to watch out for, so the action can get really close to the lens as long as it stays in one 180-degree section. This video — which is also a nice tutorial on masking in Autopano — demonstrates the stitching problem with 2 cameras and close action pretty well.

2. Ask: Will the stitching software understand this shot?

Some of the most difficult shots we’ve found to stitch are rooms with clean, unadorned walls, and those with very close objects.

Autopano will automatically turn your 6-camera shot into a panorama by identifying common features between shots. However a lack of texture in the areas where the footage overlaps will give it nothing to grab onto. If you have to, you can add “control points” by hand to tell the software where the matching points are — but it’s a tedious task that doesn’t always work. (More on stitching to come in a later post.) Below are some examples:

This shot was a joy to stitch. Look at all those wonderful lines!

Beautiful architecture too, huh?

This shot was a nightmare. There’s nothing to grab onto on those walls, and very close objects like the chair make for a harder stitch:

The lines here show which footage comes from which camera. Notice the wide expanses of white wall in the upper center and upper right.

One workaround we’ve considered for the white walls problem: Post-its! Put them on the walls in areas near where the cameras meet to give the stitching software something to grab onto. Of course this adds another tedious post-production task to mask them out.

Stitching issues also come up when the cameras get closer than a couple feet from an object — even a static one — because the closer the cameras get to something, the more different the view of it will be from one camera to the next. We’re of the opinion that sometimes it’s OK to have slightly mangled objects if it’s the difference between getting a shot and not.

Like this one taken in a tight space. Look at the wonky edge of the table at the bottom of the image. It was about 1–2 feet from the rig:

Sometimes it’s tough to avoid a too-close shot, but it can come out OK as long as the distorted portions are inanimate. (look at the edge of the table)

3. Think of the camera as the viewer’s eye level

For a viewer watching 360 video — especially in a headset — the position of the camera is their perceived eye level in the virtual space. My first thought in the first piece I watched on a Cardboard was “Why am I so tall?”

So, think hard before you put a camera on the ground or in the rafters. Have a good reason for it if you do.

Otherwise, we tend to do a lot of shots deliberately positioned to about eye level for a seated or standing person. Putting the rig a little bit below eye level — chin or chest level — tends to yield the best results. The subject of your shot can be the measure, too —lower the camera if your subject is short, and vice versa.

4. Mind the mirrors (and shadows and reflective situations)

Try not to have your rig create shadows on what you’d like the viewer to look at

It seems obvious — you’d never have your own shadow in the shot for a flattie, but when you can’t see the actual shot (and it is a bright sunny day) sometimes you forget about the obvious. This goes for mirrors, shadows and reflections in windows (occasionally, some tape over the flashing GoPro lights can do the trick).

5. Be kind to your viewers’ vestibular systems (a.k.a. be really careful with camera movement):

Put simply, our vestibular systems let us know when we’re moving, and if what we see and what we feel doesn’t match up, it can make us sick. (Read: As a 360 video producer, you have the power to make people puke.) With immersive content there are a lot more complexities to it than that, and Research VR, which is all kinds of awesome, did a long podcast on motion sickness in VR with a whole lot of insights that carry over to shooting 360 video. Check it out if you want to go deeper on these questions.

For practical applications, there at least seems to be consensus within the 360 video community about the impact camera movement in immersive content can have on a viewer’s balance and spatial reckoning systems — but this doesn’t necessarily translate to a consensus on what’s safe and what isn’t.

We tend to be pretty conservative with our shots, and we generally split these considerations into two categories:

***WARNING: We’re including some shots below that may not be for the faint of heart/stomach. Please watch at your own risk.***

Wild or unnatural movement (just don’t):

Camera shake falls into this category, as does fast or erratic camera movement.

Here’s an example: The Wall Street Journal did this VR piece — in which you can ride the NASDAQ’s up and downs like a roller coaster . The project is clever and beautiful, but the motion is wild and bouncy, and there’s no reference point for the viewer’s movement in the space.

Natural movement (the jury is out):

We think of “natural” movement as including situations a human might actually find themselves in that would make them sick in real life, too — and the VR just compounds the problem — like sitting in a backward-facing seat on a train, for example. Or, less likely, careening headlong toward the ground in a wingsuit. And our favorite: Roller coasters! (Ugh.)

One strategy for getting away with moving camera shots is to let the viewer see what they’re traveling in, to give them a reference point. Helicopter shots are pretty popular. And of course even if it’s in a vehicle, it can still screw up a viewer to see the movement but not feel it.

Some suggest that moving the camera slowly and on a single axis at a time (up, down, right, left) is fairly safe. (How to do this while keeping yourself and your gear out of the shot is a whole problem on its own.)

We’ve done some shots in trains and buses that we think work pretty well, but hey — maybe not. Does this shot make you feel ill?* Let us know in the comments. (Click here if you’re on a phone and it’s not opening the YouTube app.)

And what about this? (Click here if you’re on a phone and it’s not opening the YouTube app.)

  • Note: Research VR points out that the suggestion of motion sickness before a VR experience makes a person more likely to feel it. Sorry.

Who are you?

Good question. Immersed In Journalism is a publication by Bay Area-based production company Tiny World Productions, established in 2016 by Melissa Bosworth and Lakshmi Sarah. Email (immersedinjournalism at gmail dot com) or tweet at us if you’d like us to produce your next immersive content.

Thanks to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for support.

Immersed in Journalism’s 360 Video Essentials

A start-to-finish guide for producing 360 video

Immersed in Journalism | Tiny World Productions

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Immersed In Journalism is a publication by Bay Area-based production company Tiny World Productions.

Immersed in Journalism’s 360 Video Essentials

A start-to-finish guide for producing 360 video

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