How to shoot/direct 360 video alongside a network TV show

I thought I’d tell the story of how I directed and produced the “Inside the Action” 360 video for NBC’s hit show “Blindspot.” The subject keeps coming up — not least of all because production companies are frequently told by networks that it’s simply not possible or too disruptive to do 360 properly on set.

(A companion article about 360 audio specifically — written by John Hendicott, co-founder of Aurelia Soundworks — is linked at end of this article.)

I think it’s not only possible to work alongside a non-360 crew — it’s also possible to do it well. I believe we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible in 360 video dramatically.

For those who haven’t yet seen it, the final product is below. I call it “Inside the Action” for two reasons. The obvious one is that it’s 360 and therefore by definition not quite the same as the usual “behind the scenes,” but I also wanted to highlight the fact that I don’t believe it should be treated that way.

NBC’s “Blindspot” — “Inside the Action” 360 video.

So, without further ado, here’s my view of how to approach shooting 360 alongside a network TV show. Although this article is written fairly freeform (like most of my Medium pieces), I will structure it loosely in the following sections:

  1. Planning
  2. On-set activity
  3. Post

Planning

The most important thing to remember is that a TV show crew is a family (assuming you’re not entering the show at Season 1, Episode 1, of course). They are quite tight knit because they have lived and worked together for months, a year, often more. You’re gonna be there for all of four or five days — and you cannot, in that short period of time, become everybody’s best friend.

So, while it might seem cynical, it pays to focus on the most important people. Interestingly, who is most important varies depending on where in the production you are ;)

In general, on a TV show the showrunner is the most important. If you don’t have the showrunner’s blessing, you are fucked before you even start. In the case of “Blindspot,” Martin Gero, the showrunner, was a gift to our crew.

It so happened that he was also directing the episode we were a part of — Season 2, Episode 1 — but he was curious about our process and equipment, and he went out of his way to introduce us to all the department heads early on.

(A special mention here to John Canning, NBC digital exec and friend, who believed in our ability to execute on a vision of making a more compelling, faster paced 360 video than had been made up until this point. Without his backing, this project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.)

But let me back up a bit. To make this process of bonding with the crew and cast as rapid as possible, I recommend going to the script read-through as well as the tech survey.

Read-through of Season 1, Episode 1.

You may find yourself thinking, “Wait — why do I have to bond with the cast and crew?” Well, the answer is entirely obvious. This is a family. You are a visitor. They’re gonna be moving quickly in a well rehearsed way, and you are crashing their party.

Do as much as you can to prepare. At the risk of sounding obvious — ask for and read the script. Think about how scenes would be shot and which scenes could most benefit from an immersive approach.

You won’t be able to get into the read-through on every show. However, a tech survey should be eminently possible. On this particular shoot, Martin and I actually concocted a plan to shoot a full scripted narrative scene with an (almost) fully cleared set. We got so far as getting that scene on the schedule:

Day out of days — VR ;)

Unfortunately, it was not to be — on the day, we ran out of time and we weren’t able to shoot an immersive scene from Jane’s POV. But my point was, plan, plan and plan.

Realistically, you don’t “need” the tech survey or the read-through from a technical perspective. If you know what you’re doing, you can just show up 30 minutes before principal cameras roll — shove your gear somewhere and away you go.

But you DO NEED the tech survey to start to bond with the other important people, be they the producer, the DP or the camera ops.

Some people will be curious about your equipment, so be prepared to offer little demos of 360 to whoever asks (remember, it’s still new to most people). A few crew members may have worked small 360 shoots on the side.

Do not worry about being friends with everyone on set. No one is friends with key grips. Aside from other key grips ;)

Either way, use whatever opportunity you can to bond with people. Be cautiously curious. Don’t be annoying. Some people will be interested, others will just want to get on with their work — so be respectful of that.

On-set activity

The reason why the preparation (and your relationship with the camera department) will pay dividends is because you have ONLY ONE FOCAL LENGTH.

In other words, if you want to see any action at all, you have to be very, very, very close to the action.

This position is actually ahead of Camera A (in relation to the distance from Jaimie Alexander).

Here’s another example of how close you need to get:

The dude in the baseball hat is Pyare Fortunato, the talented A cam/steadicam op on “Blindspot.”

If you’re going to move ahead of the principal camera, you need to be extremely savvy about how dramatic staging/cinematography works. Not to mention, you need to have good communication with the camera operators.

(Set etiquette goes without saying. If you’ve never been on fast moving dramatic sets before, it’s probably best you don’t try any of this.)

Episodic TV shoots extremely quickly. “Blindspot” is actually faster still, because the crew is packing so much action into tight shooting schedules. They’ll move through wide masters to close-ups to inserts rapidly while the technocrane is getting set up for the next shot and a separate second unit is capturing the stunt sequences.

Look at the day’s schedule and figure out where you want to be and why.

There are obvious creative choices to make here — you likely won’t have time to shoot clean plates everywhere, and of course the set is chock full of grip gear, lighting gear and…crew.

But don’t forget the fact that you don’t need a full 360 view to tell a story in 360 — and you can actually get interesting coverage on scenes even without a cleared set (see more notes on editing later).

COMMUNICATE

If you’re going to put your camera ahead of principal unit cameras (see above — bonding with the camera ops), you’d better make damn sure you know what’s happening. For example, DON’T DO THIS ON WIDE MASTERS. You will be in the way, and they will all think you’re a moron.

However, on CLOSE-UPS you can get very, very close — often physically in front of the actual camera — because they’ll be shooting with a longer focal length. Bear in mind that cameras move (especially when Pyare Fortunato is holding them), so be prepared for conversations like this:

“Sound speeding…”

“Stand by…” (Pyare is doing a test handheld push to left edge of frame.)

“Nick, you’re in the shot.”

(I quickly run in and move the camera one foot to the left.)

“How about now?”

“Good now.”

“Camera rolling.”

Yes, it can be stressful — because you do NOT want to be the reason a good take is ruined — but if you just sit by the shoulder of the A camera op, you can respond very quickly when necessary.

Obviously, do this sparingly — I’m not suggesting you always just stick the camera up front. Make smart choices. If they’re shooting six takes, you don’t have to shoot all six.

But you should always be aware of what the cameras are doing. If you can, check the monitors. Alternatively, ask people — if you ask a camera op how tight they are on a particular shot, they’ll (usually) tell you.

Talk to the stunt coordinator and stunt people if you’re gonna do stuff like this ;)

I like action. And I’m fairly confident that I can get out of the way of a spinning flying Motocross bike if I have to. But the stunt coordinator’s job is to keep the crew and cast safe. Notice in the photo above that the 360 camera is actually exposed (i.e., not protected by the mat). There’s a theoretical danger here (piston shoots bike too far, cable pulls rider too far, etc.), but after some discussion the risk was deemed fairly small, so we pulled off the shot.

First and foremost, though, was figuring out that the 360 rig was NOT gonna get in the way of any of the principal cameras. You do not want to be the cause of any additional roto.

You can get plenty of cool-looking action even if you are behind camera teams. For example, look at this shot:

Notice the camera team is ducking down ;)

The camera team is ducking down to stay out of the way of a long shot on a technocrane following the path of the bike. That’s another reason why I’m farther back. (Again — communication.)

SHOOT REHEARSALS

Shooting rehearsals is a perfectly legitimate way to get unusual angles. For example, for this shot — as Weller’s FBI team approaches a door they are about to blow — there was no way that I could have placed a camera in there during principal photography, as it would have been in the shot.

But they rehearsed the approach a few times without the principal camera rolling ;)

The calm before the boom.

By throwing the 360 camera in there quickly, you can snag a sequence that you’ll later use in your edit — which would be impossible otherwise.

MOVE FAST + KNOW YOUR GEAR

As I mentioned before, the pace of episodic TV is fairly relentless. So you really do have to know your gear and be very nimble. I was lucky to have met John Hendicott from Aurelia Soundworks a few months prior to the project — and by a complete stroke of coincidence, our schedules aligned. We were essentially a dynamic duo — constantly darting in and out to adjust the iZugar Z4X camera or the Zoom F8 / Sennheiser Ambeo prototype setup for recording audio.

After a sort of baptism by fire, you sink or swim. But if you swim, you’ve earned the respect of the professionals on the set — and they’ll let you do things that ordinarily wouldn’t have been possible. For example, consider this shot:

As Kesha said, “This place’s about to blow!”

Drew Jiritano (SFX) and his team are prepping the door with det cord — which is rigged to blow as the FBI team piles through to take the house. The principal camera is on the other side on a long lens, so I can get very, very close.

Only small problem is…the det cord is gonna explode and the camera is only a few feet away ;)

Of course, Drew has never seen this camera before, so he could easily have been skeptical and said no on the grounds of safety — but remember what I said about bonding and communication. He’s a good guy — I explained what we were trying to do and why, and he understood and thought it was cool.

The set was cleared apart from actors standing behind tactical riot shields (just in case of any damage from the explosion). I waltzed in and started the camera rolling just before Drew’s countdown (the first AD wasn’t too happy about that, but SFX cleared me to stay on set), and we got a very cool explosion in 360.

The camera survived ;)

I wanted to mention interviews with actors also. I actually think that in this particular case you should try to have a “cleared” set. If you’re using a static camera, that should be easy enough — just roll a few more seconds once the talent has left the room, and there’s your clean plate.

(That’s what we did in Jaimie Alexander’s makeup trailer interview sequence.)

If you’re not able to shoot a clean plate (e.g., if you’re doing the interviews outdoors), just hide somewhere out of shot and instruct the talent to deliver interview answers to camera. It’s far more personal for the viewers that way, as the talent is speaking directly to them. (I am constantly surprised more people don’t do this.)

Post

Last but not least. Of course you’ll have deadlines and deliverables, as with every project. But in this case remember that your relationship with production is still invaluable.

Titles assets and audio stems are two of multiple things you could ask for and likely receive. (Audio stems in particular were extremely useful to us — because they gave us clean audio to add to the ambisonics we were already capturing.)

A small word about editing here. Regular readers of my Medium site have heard me rant about high paced editing before — I think that the lack of rapid pacing kills many VR/360 projects. Yet rapid pacing is entirely doable — IF (and only IF) you shoot enough material. If you watch the “Blindspot” piece in its entirety, you can see what I mean.

As for audio, well, that’s a whole different article. All audio mixing for a first and second order ambisonic deliverable was handled by John Hendicott’s company, Aurelia. They did a kick-ass job — not just because I liked it and the client liked it, but because Sennheiser chose this “Blindspot” piece to be the primary sales demo of their signature ambisonic microphone, the Ambeo VR.

We had to make a lot of interesting choices due to the rapid cutting in this piece. For example, if you cut mid-sentence from audio that has a visible source — so-called diegetic sound (for example, Martin Gero, the showrunner, talking) — to an environment where the audio is now voiceover of an action scene (Martin’s voice has become non-diegetic), that has significant implications for how you approach an ambisonic mix. For more on audio, here’s a link to an article from the man himself, John Hendicott.