VR or 360 video has been my passion for some years now. The idea of exploring this immersive medium is incredibly exciting. To actually finish making an innovative VR music video with a great team of talented people has been a little surreal to say the least. But that’s what VR is all about – a whole new level of film reality! I’ll get to the detail of why it is later, first some background.
Seeing, or should I say feeling, Björk’s Digital exhibition at the Carriageworks in Sydney transformed my VR passion into obsession. I felt like I had been part of an experimental and intimate performance with Björk herself. Especially her VR film Stonemilker took me somewhere other films simply cannot and I felt ‘I have to do something like this’.
The problem was, as it so often is in the film business, expense. I couldn’t afford to invest in VR cameras myself. So I started telling everyone in my network about my ideas and my desire to work with VR. This proved the old adage if you are hungry enough – you will somehow find the food, and sure enough things started happening.
I was chosen to participate in University of Technology Sydney workshop called VR Creative Cluster. This brought together a team of industry people working with VR and gave us each the chance to pitch a project. Wow, this was big break for me.
I pitched my idea of creating a VR music video. An immersive experimental video where the audience feel like ‘being there’ with the band, moving around experiencing the performance for themselves.
So together with a small team including the talented guys from the production company Chello, I found myself directing a VR/360 Music Video for Sydney indie band Pirra. It’s for their track Hunter and song gave me the basis of my filmic theme.
Please make sure you check out Pirra’s Hunter here, without them I wouldn’t have realised my own dream.
“We reckon it’s awesome!” – AAA Backstage’s review of the VR music video.
Just two weeks after my pitch we were shooting. We filmed with 6 Gopro cameras and I would say GoPro is pretty good and relatively inexpensive way of capturing 8K. The hard part is stitching the individual footage afterwards.
The strange thing when shooting VR is the crew has to hide from the camera, because obviously the cameras capture everything. I spent the entire shoot hiding behind a big pole, and by the end of each take I was clapping my hands saying “well done guys” – but actually I only sensed how good it was, I hadn’t actually seen the take haha! Of course you can playback and rig up a remote monitor but our budget was tight, so I went with gut feel.
The location was amazing – an old art studio that was actually torn apart just a few days later. With paint stains on the floor, wires and trashed wallpaper it had an incredible depth of field for the main images and the details. This allows the audience’s eyes to wander around at will, just like they were in the space themselves.
The track itself, Hunter is about the free, perhaps darker side of human feeling, when we feel like wild animals with emotions and evolution leading our actions. I had the singer Jessie Beck dressed in a long black cape, going for the wild ‘wolf’ look.
While VR creates a new way of telling a story it also means new challenges for the director. When you are watching a VR film, you are the camera – you decide where to look. So in planning the story for Hunter I choose to keep it simple. Each performer is interacting with the camera so the audience is exploring all facets of the performance.
I decided the film should start off slowly and then cut in between the different rooms as the track intensified. When editing I found it was better not to cut it like a usual fast paced music video, but rather give time for the audience to explore and move around.
In the classic music video genre you can go for fast cuts and sequences but for a 360 degree film the viewer needs time to navigate around in the clip. That’s why the first minute of Hunter is deliberately slow paced, one long take without any cuts. Then as the music builds so does the pace. I did this to deliberately unsettle the audience a little, to confront with the reality of Virtual Reality – to literally play with time and space.
Björk’s VR film ‘Stonemilker’
In Björk’s 360 degree film “Stonemilker” the storytelling is kept super simple. The focus is on Björk’s performance, she stretches her arms upwards and then dances in big bold movements capturing our attention. While her vibrant yellow costume makes her pop out from the cold, clean Icelandic background.
Being ‘right there’ in the raw Icelandic landscape with Björk dancing close around the viewer forces the you to look around for her next move. It’s this that creates that immersive VR experience of being her ‘intimate’.
I am really pleased with the finished film Hunter but ideally I would have liked the performers to be even closer to the camera, as Björk does in Stonemilker. But unfortunately close-ups can be quite difficult in VR and 360 films. The subject will appear distorted because 360 cameras have an ultra wide focal length, which is better suited to a landscape or scenery shot. Unfortunately VR still requires advanced technology. Getting hold of camera rigs that can capture perfect spherical video is an expensive task.
Even knowing this, and with the benefit of hindsight which even VR doesn’t give you -yet! – maybe Hunter would have worked better if I had framed the performers in mid-shots. Standing too far from the camera lowers the resolution of the subjects and you can’t see the detail in their face expressions. Every shot teaches you something new and this was my ‘lesson’.
Directing and Producing Hunter has been a real learning experience. Especially as a director, to think of storytelling in a completely different way.
Keeping it simple is essential – at least in these formative days before we all become tuned into it and 360 viewing becomes second nature.
Quick advice – VR Storytelling
My number one VR advice is you need to think of storytelling in a completely different way, you must take a huge step back and let the performances take place. Almost like directing a theater play, which is the original 360 reality after all, you need to use big movements and performances to keep the audience in the “back row” entertained.
- Keep it simple, let performances take place.
- Interact directly with the spectator/the camera.
- Move around the spectator/the camera if possible.
- The bigger the movements the better, because details tend to get lost.
- Frame the subject either in the foreground OR background.
- Edit slowly: In 360 video the viewer needs time to navigate around in the clip.