Virtual reality (VR) has only gained mainstream popularity recently, so making VR videos is still very complicated. I have filmed with helicopters; I have filmed with cranes; in the absence of space or any other practical alternative, I have attached a very expensive camera to a goddamn drainpipe, with a goddamn rope, and I have, somehow, got the goddamn shot.
All of those projects were an absolute cinch in comparison to making VR videos – and yes, we count 360 videos as VR; if it’s good enough for Google and Netflix, it’s good enough for us – a fun, but occasionally painful process (literally – I injured my knee wearing one of those headsets) with a huge number of variables and moving parts.
We’re a virtual reality agency that's been getting a lot of these commissions recently, so we’ve become quite familiar with the process. Here’s how it works.
When making VR videos, the first decisions you’ll need to make are budgetary. Up to a point, the quality of your project is largely contingent on how much you’re willing to spend on it: a huge outlay won’t guarantee something good, but there’s no such thing as a quality cut-price experience in this format.
The first budgetary decision you’ll have to make will pertain to your specific filming rig. Entry-level setups using two 180-degree cameras won’t provide full-feature VR, but they function perfectly well if your project is fairly uncomplicated, and retail at about £350.
If you’re insistent on an ultra HD experience with no distortion, no fisheye effect, and no compromise on anything, there are higher end options such as the 8K, waterproof, six-camera GoPro Omni but your budget moves up to about £3500. Nothing wrong with a little overkill – but as a rule, the more cameras there are, the more complicated the production.
For a static video, the camera will be your main priority; for something with a little more motion, you’ll want to think about setting up a dolly track for any horizontal camera movements. If you’re recording sound, you’ll also need to secure special 360-degree audio equipment.
Once you’ve secured your rig, you need to think about what kind of 360 VR video you’re after. Monoscopic VR is basically a matter of stitching several images together like squares on a patchwork quilt: it’s cheaper, easier, and in most cases, will give you a perfectly serviceable video.
If you’re really committed to immersion, you’ll probably want to think about stereoscopic video. This assigns a camera to each ‘eye’ in the name of approximating a human field of vision. While the extra depth perception is a nice touch, stereoscopic filming is hard, and requires far more in terms of initial investment – so if these are your tentative first steps into making VR videos, walk before you can run.
You can convert mono to stereo later, but you can’t do the reverse.
VR is like standard filming on the highest difficulty setting.
On a normal set, you always have to maintain a certain level of awareness of extras, crews, and errant boom mics. When you’re using 360 cameras, you have to maintain this level of awareness at all times – and from all angles. Your crew may have to wear costumes or hide. Your clients cannot be on set, no matter how much they protest: while this might be okay on a regular live-action project, there’s very little chance of them accidentally making it into the shot on a regular live-action project.
Finally, in every shot, there’s a 1.5 metre ‘danger zone’ where you can’t film anything at all. Why? Well, look at the young man in the centre of this image, who appears to be phasing in and out of reality:
Indeed, if you can clearly delineate your stitch lines, you can make your editor’s life a lot easier. Merging the breaks between each camera can take a long time – sometimes up to a week – but it’s better than creating a video that seems to be populated mostly by interdimensional ghosts.
You’ll also need to think about hiding your equipment. The tripod will always make it into the shot, so you’ll either need to remove it with a reference photo, or plaster something over it in Photoshop. The latter approach is clumsy, but quick; the former is preferable, but time-consuming.
That’s essentially it – except, not really. When making VR videos, you still need to do all of the things you’d usually do for a live-action production (organising schedules, crews, lighting, and negotiating budgets, amongst other things) but you need to do them on top of the above. If it sounds daunting, it is – until you do it.
In any case, directors and marketers alike should adjust to the format, because VR isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Tempting though it may be to write it off as a gimmick, when Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Sony are investing billions, it’s time to pay attention.
In a 360-degree world, video production is no longer about finding the right angle.
I only have positive things to say about TopLine. We pushed the team hard on timelines to animate a new video explaining what Carfused is and we are really happy with the results. The team are easy to work with, responsive to feedback and love the creativity they bring to the table.Matthew Crole Rees