What works and what doesn’t on a virtual reality set?
The technology has landed at a price point accessible to low-budget independent moviemakers, and for VR-makers, sharing the experiences is essential if we are to push the art form forward. Here are some standard practices evolving right now.
1. Acquire the Right Gear
There are a variety of affordable VR camera options in the consumer and prosumer markets. The Ricoh Theta S is a popular option for those entering the field, though it does top out at 1080p resolution, which can look less impressive stretched out over 360 degrees. GoPro’s Freedom360 mount allows you to record on six cameras and then stitch the footage together in post. You can use any GoPro camera with this rig, including their 4K model, but having to use six cameras can raise the budget of your project significantly, to say nothing of the stitching time in post.
Currently, the Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K Action Cam gives the most bang for the buck and comes with a variety of helpful accessories. Our Kodak bundle included a mount that would keep the cameras as close together as possible, making our stitching more workable. Look up the stitching software a camera comes with it (and check out reviews). If your camera doesn’t come with stitching software, at least be aware of compatible programs.
Whichever camera you decide is best for your project, you’ll want to see footage shot on it before purchasing it. YouTube’s 360° channel is a great place to see a camera in action before spending your own money.
2. Find a Medium-Appropriate Story
While many stories could, technically, be shot in VR, some subjects will lend themselves to the medium more than others. Two characters talking at a table might work perfectly in a traditional narrative, but it’s perhaps not optimal for the interactive, visually dramatic nature of VR.
As VR still has a novelty to it for many viewers, it’s smart to keep the runtime on your story short. Stories that lean heavily on external scenes are helpful to beginning VR filmmakers, as you can use natural light and have less gear to worry about keeping out of the field of view.
Consider what shooting in 360 degrees could bring to your story. For horror films, there are the obvious “gotcha” scares—people and creatures jumping out of nowhere. For comedies, there are numerous possibilities to show moments happening behind a character that they are completely unaware of. Action films can be a lot of fun in an immersive environment, but be cautious about making the viewer nauseous!
3. Get Your Memory Cards and Batteries Straight
Reality bytes. With 256GB microSD cards becoming available at great prices, it might be tempting to buy as much memory as you can afford for your shoot. However, many cameras, including the Kodak SP360, have a maximum compatibility at 128GB. Buying the wrong memory cards can waste precious time in pre-production, including the time you need to spend on test shoots. Most cameras only come with a single battery, which may or may not suffice for the amount of time you plan for production. Having an extra battery or two can mean the difference between a smooth shoot and a shoot that ends two hours into the day.
4. Plan Time for Test Shoots
Before bringing in actors and additional crew, set aside time to conduct test shoots in a similar location to the one used for your film. On a recent project, we planned to shoot with one Kodak SP360 facing “forward” and one SP360 facing “backward.” These directions take on different meaning when shooting in full 360 degrees. We needed to experiment with camera placement and movement in order to create scenes that could be stitched together easily.
5. Make Crew and Gear Invisible
One difficulty every VR moviemaker must consider is how to keep the crew and the gear out of the shot. In traditional production, everyone piles in behind the camera. Gear is placed just out of frame. In VR films, we lose the edges of the frame, so you have to be creative about where crew and gear are positioned. Your production designer will encounter challenges, too, such as being unable to hide inconsistencies out of frame. Planning camera movements out in advance helps.
One method to achieve “invisibility” is to set up the rig and then monitor the scene remotely, which makes camera movements more challenging. Even if you are able to keep your crew out of the shot, keeping lighting instruments and sound gear out of the image can be challenging.
There are several approaches to accomplishing this. One method is to shoot your scene facing one direction, hiding the crew and equipment behind the rig, then spinning around and shooting the same scene from the opposite angle. The syncing and stitching of the images, however, might be difficult. Another approach, if you are using a two-camera system such as the Kodak bundle, is to use a helmet with a camera and sound rig mounted on top of your DP’s head. (GoPro filmmakers have been perfecting this approach for years, after all.) This allows the DP to also hold a lighting instrument below the camera rig in some situations. If your budget allows, adding two more cameras to your rig, placing one at each directional pole around the DP and crew, can be a helpful solution. Again, this does add steps to stitching in post.
6. Step Up Your Sound Game
Don’t forget that sound is half of the viewer’s experience. Several audio companies have developed products to enrich VR filmmaking but these may be unaffordable to the independent VR creator. The 3Dio Omni Pro binaural microphone is one of the most advanced audio recording systems in the VR market, but retails for $5,499. Audeze’s Tetrahedral Planar Magnetic Microphone comes in a bit cheaper at $3,995. And Sennheiser unveiled a new VR microphone at CES 2016, which will be available later this year.
In the meantime, some less-advanced binaural microphones are available for under $100 and are easily mountable on even the most basic VR rig. Immortal Mics (immortalmics.com) and The Sound Professionals (soundprofessionals.com) both offer recording options for this budget. Alternatively, VR moviemakers are experimenting with ambisonics, a process that uses a spherical microphone to capture a sound field in all directions, including above and below the listener.
As with traditional production, getting clean audio, regardless of your recording process, is key to creating a truly immersive experience. Bad audio, or sound that doesn’t feel natural to VR’s 360-degree space, will pull the viewer out of the immersion.
7. Cast for In-the-Round Technique
A good bet is to look for actors that have had experience in immersive or experimental theater. This minimizes a temptation that many actors have: to be aware of where the camera is placed, or the vantage point of an audience. If possible, plan time in pre-production for your actors to rehearse with the camera in the room (especially if your rig ends up looking like a distracting post-apocalyptic transport vehicle).
Like traditional filmmaking, VR is a craft. It takes practice and time to learn how to affect an audience the way you desire. Consider shooting two or three very small projects in VR before moving on to a larger project you’d share with the public. The lessons you learn in your first few VR filmmaking experiences may be just what you need on your way to revolutionizing the VR world. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2016 issue, currently on stands. Photographs courtesy of John Bucher.