Key Learnings from a Paid 360 Live Action Video Project

There were a lot of key learnings from a recent paid 360 Live Video project, which I was hired to produce, that have become core to my journey in VR. I hope by sharing them here it is of value to my peers who may be getting their hands dirty in 360 production too.

I was commissioned to tell the story of a customer of a national bank who runs into unexpected debt troubles because of a medical accident and to do this in a 360 Live Action film. The film is ~3mins long and includes 2 locations, 5 scenes, and 3 actors (incl. 1 VO). It was shot with Kodak SP360 4k and a Samsung Gear 360.

Let’s start with the positives:

  1. I am really proud of the film, the production team and the cast — and doubly so considering how hard it was to get there (all the usuals…not enough time/money). The story holds for the three minutes in length and I am even left with the positive feeling of ‘I don’t want this film to end!’ (Yes, yes I am biased!)
  2. We really focused on the benefits of VR, namely the feeling of presence. People I have shown this film to felt like they were actually in the story, including in two particular scenes where the viewer felt as if they were “riding” on the bike.
  3. Post is much easier/shorter because you have so few shots to include. For our film, it was 6 cuts and the edit was locked.

Trying to break the fourth wall:

The client and I wanted to break the fourth wall, the imaginary line between the performance and the audience, and we did. A really nice, perfectly timed look at the camera for just the right amount of time, delivered an awesome ‘breaking the fourth wall’ moment. Super kudos to Yazmine who, whilst a trained actor, learned the medium of 360 for the first time on this shoot.

What breaking the 4th wall in VR means — view from a bicycle

The Challenges and Consequence:

  1. I hate the Pray & Shoot (and run quick and hide behind a tree) system of 360 production. I miss being behind the camera and watching the take live, physically there and being able to respond dynamically. I don’t have a solution for this prob other than to tell directors to be acutely aware of it. I can watch the takes live on my phone when the camera is stationary (and you are a few feet away) but I really hate using tech when directing. It is distracting and takes away from being in the story. Also, streaming a take via bluetooth drains the camera batteries and can overheat it, shutting the camera down. For the shots where the camera was mounted on the bike, the bluetooth signal failed quickly.
  2. Constrained timeline/budget: this is unrelated to 360 and just a general rule of production. The old adage of you can have two of the three but never three of three holds here too: cheap, quick and good. In hindsight I would have liked a bigger budget to do a longer shoot, more time with the actors, to do some test shoots, and more time for post. (Yes, yes I know one could say that about evvvery shoot.)

#1 and #2 combined to lead us, the production team, to being disappointed with the original shoot. We didn’t get what we hoped for from the original actors; this wasn’t their fault, it was ours. And we didn’t realize it until we had wrapped production and were stitching the shots back in the office and watching the rushes. Ouch. It was so painful to watch. If this was a regular shoot, we would have seen the issues live on set and done a few new takes. From around the corner where you are struggling to hear the dialogue, it is much harder.

After trying a few fixes, we came to the conclusion that we needed to throw out the rushes and re-shoot. It was painful and expensive and needed us to cancel everything else on our plates to deliver the film by the client’s deadline.

For the re-shoot, we sought to reduce how many scenes we could shoot in a day and left more time in-between so we could download the footage and review the shots, confirming all was perfect before moving on or wrapping.

Notes for 360 Live Action Edits:

  1. Stitching lines: for shots where the camera is mounted on the bike, we tried a number of deviations of how the 360 cameras should be positioned to minimize the stitching lines and ghosting. We settled on the position where the lines were parallel to the ground, meaning we lost the handle bars in the stitching. We rectified this by adding “handle bars” (i.e. some simple graphics) in post.
  2. Removing the tripod: We didn’t want the tripod in certain shots and so had to remove it in post. It was a fairly straightforward fix of duplicating the floor texture and using a blur. So while the rough cut was super simple and quick to do (once you have the stitched the footage), set aside extra time for motion graphics.
Look Ma, no haaandsssss.
Handle bar added back into clip in post. Magic!

Importance of Experimentation

A lot of live action 360 films are…boring. They can end up being just a bunch of establishing shots. I was cleary-eyed of this going in and I wanted this emotional story to connect with viewers. We experimented with shots and positions while keeping the “establishing” shots to a minimum. One film which assisted in offering a guide for story-boarding and post was Jaunt’s Shaq Goes to Cuba. Yes, it is as cheesy as it sounds but I liked how the director brought you into the story, kept up the pace by cutting every 15 secs or so, and used the space well such as Shaq lifting up a young girl to dunk the ball, nudging the viewer to look up too.

I am still trying to learn from other practitioners and experimenting with shot types and post production styles to compensate for the lack of closeups in 360 while delivering emotional resonance. I suggest you get the shots you know you need for your shoot but set aside time to try experimental shots. The medium is still so new, we need people to experiment and push the craft forward.

Besides eventually getting to an end product we are proud of, I am also happy that we were able to expose a bunch of new people in the industry such as the agents, actors, and studio teacher (i.e. professional chaperones as we had a child actor… it’s CA law) to 360 production.

Feel free to ping me with any q’s for your shoot and I am happy to try and answer! *Big thank you to my collaborative partner on this project, the Soap Collective (Ian Hirschfeld, Logan Dwight, hellojarreau)
Shamir is currently part of Facebook Oculus’ Launch Pad program experimenting with immersive storytelling in VR. He also consults to companies on content and digital marketing strategy. Previously, he was Head of Digital for the Doha Film Institute (origins with Robert de Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival partnership with Qatar) that sought to empower filmmakers across the Middle East region and beyond. Shamir is a graduate of Harvard University and the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. He now resides in San Francisco.