Beginner’s Guide: Awareness

For those who know me, I’m not often critical.

I like to live by the mantra, “You’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution.” Well, I hope this post is part of the solution – by shifting the way we approach virtual reality content creation – as I’m about to unload something that really bugs the hell out of me with regard to why there’s so much shitty VR out there.

Working at a big television network, I meet people all the time with “brilliant ideas” for virtual reality videos. Most of the time these ideas include things like, “Drop the camera on set and let the fans feel like they’re really there!” Because, you know, standing around a set for a few hours is really how you engage a viewer. Have you ever been on a filmset? There’s a lot of standing and waiting. It’s not exactly fun.

For the average vlogger or 360 enthusiast, this sort of thing relates to shooting VR in your home, back yard, or favorite pizza joint. You can’t just pick a location you’ve been to many times in real life and expect to capture it perfectly by simply plunging the camera into the space and treating it like you would a person. In real life, we all typically stand too close, and we’re so not aware of what’s behind us.

Which brings me to the topic of this post, AWARENESS.

When I was a small boy at magic camp (yes that exists) I took a workshop called Understanding Parameters where Hiawatha taught me that knowing the boundaries or limitations of a project can actually make you more creative. Only now, in hindsight, do I truly appreciate that workshop’s title in all its glory.

By understanding parameters, you have a solid notion of what can be done and how you might be able to accomplish it. No baseball player steps on the field without first knowing the rules of how to play the game.

Learn the rules kid, or put that fancy VR rig down and go buy yourself a Ricoh Theta to have some fun with.

For those serious about creating VR content:

When shooting VR you need to expand your awareness to consider the whole 360 canvas. You need foresight and planning. The biggest shift in terms of quality VR content is going to be a shift in perspective.

Think about what’s in front of you. What’s to the left of you? The right? Behind you? Up and down? If you haven’t strained your neck while setting up your shot you’re doing something wrong.

Get yourself one of these:

It’s a clock, for those of you who are too young to remember how we told time before digits appeared on iPhone screens.

This is your guide map. Learn it. Use it. And don’t forget it.

I find it’s a great way to communicate your ideas about framing and action, etc. Sometimes I look at my actor and say things like, “Enter at 12 o’clock and walk around to 3 o’clock before saying your line.” You start to sound like a commander and chief leading your militia through the combat zone.

And then I tell the editor, “Put the title at 3 o’clock so that when the shot cuts, it replaces our actor on the screen.”

Here’s a grid I found to show the regions on a flat panorama.

It wraps into something like this:

Instead of thinking, “Oh I can stick this camera anywhere and make it look like you’re there” you need to visualize the image from the camera’s perspective. Imagine you are the person in the headset, what would you want to see?

Now this one’s important because without it you’ll spend all your time and money shooting something that can’t be salvaged in post. You won’t believe how many atrocities fall on my desk that I honestly can do nothing about because whoever shot the video didn’t understand their parameters. Granted, it’s all very new so I wouldn’t expect them to understand. But still. Don’t make our same mistakes.

The most important lesson learned from these blunders, which yes now I will blame you for if you mess it up in the future is this:

You need to draw a perimeter of 3 meters around the rig and not let anyone cross that. Not only will it not stitch if they do, but it’ll also look weird seeing someone’s big alien head close up especially if you’re not shooting in 3D.

Think of your scene more like a play. And think of the viewer as having “breathing room” to enjoy the scene and look around. My friend Tom who works as a producer for Google Daydream shared a YouTube video you can watch called, “How NOT to shoot in 360.”

Which brings us to the next point, looking around.

I get it. You want to make someone feel like they’re at the baseball game. Don’t drop the rig in a chair and press record. You will fail.

The actual canvas you are painting is a 360-degree sphere. Baseball stadiums were designed for people to watch in one direction. They were designed so you would conveniently NOT have to turn your head. Thats not what we’re doing.

If the game happens in front of you, why waste time, energy, and a shit ton of gigabytes recording the fat fuck chomping on a hotdog behind you?

Rather, quality VR content will come out of staging a show around a 360-degree canvas. Setting a 360-degree scene, and encouraging viewers to turn their heads.

I’d stick the rig on the pitcher’s mound, and hope to god the ball doesn’t crush it. Or better yet, I’d invent a new game which is played around a circle with an out of bounds region in the center that’s around 3 meters in diameter.

Well, now you got the basics and a few handy roadmaps. Go out there, give it a shot, and see what you bring back.