InstaVR Interviews: Meet the VR Practitioners
InstaVR Interviews is a blog series where we turn the spotlight on our customers and other industry leaders. We find out why they create VR, how they use InstaVR, and what the future of VR will look like. To read more interviews, visit the InstaVR Interviews homepage.
Michael Wohl, Filmmaker and author of The 360° Video Handbook
Michael Becomes Interested in VR, Recognizes Its Potential at the Intersection of Technology, Filmmaking and Storytelling
Question: When did you first become interested in creating VR?
I first tried a VR headset in 1990 at an underground cyberpunk party and trade show in Hunter’s Point (San Francisco). It was super primitive. The graphics were blocky and not very useful for any practical purpose, and the hardware was bulky and awkward. But the potential was clear. I was taken by it and impressed by the concept.
I could see the Holodeck fantasy of what it could be and was waiting eagerly for the company that was demoing it to come to a real product. Of course, it never did — years went by.
I’ve been a filmmaker and technologist for most of my career. I’ve always been curious about the intersection of technology and filmmaking and storytelling. VR really sits at that intersection.
As newer tools became available in the last five or six years, I’ve really started to pay attention. I tried diving in four years ago or so, with some primitive equipment, but was still a little daunted at how challenging it was to get effective results. Little by little I’ve seen it become more practical for wider use.
Michael’s Production Company Starts Developing 360° Projects with a Narrative Focus
Question: What are the main types of clients you’re working with?
I’m doing mostly entertainment-based projects currently. I have helped out with some corporate projects, like with a hotel group in Los Angeles, where we’ve been doing some very simple VR stuff involving their conference rooms and suites. My core business though is entertainment.
I’ve got a travel show I’m developing, I’ve got a couple narrative pieces that are at various stages of production, and a handful of other “arty” projects — trying to get people to experience what it’s like to live in other people’s shoes. That’s what I’m most interested and focused on.
Letting the Project Dictate the Camera Needs, but Generally Mixing-and-Matching to Meet the Shoot’s Goals
Question: Can you talk about your approach to 360-degree camera selection?
I’ve used different equipment for different projects. We’ve done projects using the Jaunt, the Ozo, the GoPro Omni. But I’ve also used consumer cameras, like the Samsung 360 and the Ricoh. Most of the projects — almost all of them, really — we’ve had more than one camera going at a time. Not literally simultaneously, but different shots require different cameras.
There are certain situations where you can take advantage of a big camera, like the YI HALO or the Jaunt, where you can get the best 3D imagery out of it. But then there are other shoots where you’re working in a tight space or doing something mobile, and dealing with those big cameras is a pain the butt. They’re too bulky or too heavy. Or you can’t get close enough to the lens.
I end up mixing and matching cameras on almost every project.
Experiential Environments are Best Fits for Using 360° Media
Question: When you choose to use VR video over traditional video?
What VR and 360 is good for is experience. It’s for creating a sense of being transported into a new place, and having a real experience. Not just watching something or being informed about something.
So when there is content that is specifically experiential, I think that’s when it’s best to use this medium. Industries like travel/tourism, sports, and entertainment — those are natural fits. But there are environments like trying to sell a lifestyle, or tap into a community, you can create an experiential piece that helps engage customers in a more impressive and impactful way than traditional video.
Location, Soundscape, Crew Location, and Monitoring the Recording are Essential Parts of 360 Shooting
Question: What are some of the most important factors to consider when shooting in 360?
Location scouting and production design are far more important than you might expect. A movie reviewer might say, “The location really felt like a character in the story.” In 360 video, your location is always a character. It’s really fundamental.
The experience of putting on a VR headset is the experience of being transported to another place. You really have to consider how your location works to contribute to the experience. And because it’s 360, you also have to think about what it looks like in every direction, not just the background behind your interview subject or wherever the action is.
Of course, soundscape of the location is also critical too. You have to make sure it’s practical for recording good audio, but also that the sound environment is contributing to the experience.
For production sake, you also have to think how will the location accommodate the crew? You can’t just be hiding behind the camera. You need to make sure there’s a place you can be out of range of the shot and also that there’s a way to monitor the shoot. Monitoring is a real challenge depending on the camera and equipment you’re using.
The attention paid to location is amplified to a degree in 360 that most people don’t anticipate.
Sound is Even More Important than Film in Creating a Truly Immersive Experience; Combining High Quality Mono Mic Audio with Ambisonic Mics is Ideal
Question: What are your thoughts on audio capture, particularly spatial audio?
If the audience is going to be watching the video in a HMD (Head-mounted Display), you absolutely have to provide directional audio. Watching 360 video in a HMD without using spatial audio is like watching a black & white film versus a color film. It’s really essential.
If your audience is going to be watching your video on a web site or a magic window on a phone, it’s less critical, but still can benefit. Particularly based on the specific player.
Sound is more important than picture for providing a truly immersive experience. That’s been true for flat media as well as 360. But in 360, having sound that is natural and realistic is absolutely vital. That means if a person is walking to your left, the footsteps have to come from your left. But if you turn to look at them, the footsteps have to come from in front of you.
This is accomplished mainly in post production. You can record with an ambisonic mic to capture a natural 3-Dimensional soundscape, but the way those mics work, makes them less ideal for capturing specific localized sounds, like voices or sound effects like footsteps or machine noises.
That stuff should be recorded using high quality mono mics, like in traditional film. Then the sounds can be mixed into a spatialized format during post, so they sound right when the video plays back.
Ambisonic Mics Aren’t Ideal for Capturing Talking or Specific Sounds, and are Required to be Close to the Camera
Question: Can you expand on that point a bit more?
The most important thing when recording audio is you want the microphone as close as possible to the source of the audio. The further away it is, the more reverb, and the more unnatural sound. And also if you want the volume up, you have to crank up the gain, which means bringing in more noise.
You really have to put the microphone as close to the subject as possible. The way ambisonic mics work, they have to be positioned as close to the camera as possible, otherwise it won’t work. Otherwise, when you play it back the audio will be offset.
Ambisonic mics aren’t designed to capture someone talking or specific sounds that you would need for the finished piece.
Camera Placement and Lack of Coverage/Close-Ups/Inserts is Important to Consider While Filming
Question: Can you talk about some of the differences to keep in mind, when transitioning from traditional film capture to 360?
In many ways, experienced filmmakers are a disadvantage when filming in 360 because they think that 360 is an extension of a flat shoot. In reality, it’s a totally different medium. The more you can think of it as a full-bodied experience, instead of a video you’re watching with your eyes, the better your 360 will turn out. You have to throw out a lot of the tools that traditional videographers rely on.
That means the 360 camera is your viewer’s head. Where you position it is really important. You have to think about how it’s going to feel while you’re watching it.
With traditional video, for example, a frequent car shot is what’s called a “hostess tray”. The camera is set up just outside the car window looking in. If you do that in 360, while watching it, you’re literally hanging outside the car. It’s completely distracting.
Also, there’s no coverage. You can’t ensure important details are covered in a close-up or insert, the way you can in traditional film. You have to think of choreography, and arranging the action in front of the camera, to have stuff close to the camera and far away from the camera. It’s as true for carefully crafted narrative as it is for documentary experiential projects.
Identifying Stitch Lines Before Shooting is Critical
Question: What’s a mistake that you see less experienced 360 filmmakers make?
The other really big thing is stitch lines. It’s really important to keep your main action off of stitch lines. Not to have people walking back and forth across the stitch lines. Not to have critical action sitting right there on the stitch line.
While we can stitch the cameras together to create a seamless looking panorama, there’s a limit to what you can do. If you’ve got a critical visual element — a road sign on the stitch line — it’s going to look a little wonky. That’s going to be a real distraction to the viewer.
Standalone VR Headsets Will Greatly Expand Market, with 180-Degree Cameras Making Shoots and Distribution Easier
Question: What are some trends you’re seeing in hardware — both headsets and cameras?
We’re really waiting for standalone headsets, like the Oculus Go and the HTC Vive Focus. When we start seeing higher quality portable headsets, you’re going to see a massive expansion of the market. That will hopefully be one of the steps that will push us towards a wider audience.
But I also see as really exciting the emphasis on 180-degree VR. There are a bunch of the vendors focused on 180 at CES. I think for the most part, no viewer wants to crane their neck and look over their shoulder. We don’t do that in real life. In VR, it makes it really distracting and uncomfortable.
With 180, or other wide formats like 240, you still get the same sense of immersion as true 360. But first of all, it’s much easier to shoot. You can have crew or lights behind the camera. And the files are smaller, so the quality can be higher, and it can use less bandwidth to stream.
There’s many benefits to 180. I kind of wish they’d push for a wider range. Increasing field of view in headsets is another thing that is changing. Right now, most of the headsets are at a 100 or 110-degree view, so you can still turn your head a bit and not pass that 180-degree line. But with wider field of view headsets, the cameras built for 240 or 220-degree range are going to be a sweetspot for building things that feel fully immersive, but are simpler to create.
360 Video Handbook Designed as a Guide Covering All Aspects of the Filming Process; Can be Read Front-to-Back, or Used as a Reference Guide
Question: Your book, 360 Video Handbook, is a great reference for filmmakers in the medium. What inspired you to write the book?
I wrote the book because I was trying to learn how to work in 360, and there was no uniform or united source of information. There’s a lot of information from different vendors, but each vendor is pushing slightly different pieces. And none of it was put together.
I wanted to put together something that was a tool for 360 creators to help move the industry forward. I want to help people make better videos. When you watch a good piece of 360 video or a good VR piece, it’s something you never forget. But when you watch a bad one, it ruins it. I know someone who watched one or two pieces of not great material, and said, “Oh yeah, I saw that 360 stuff and I’m not into it.”
It’s because there are these small gotchas that have a big impact. I tried to write it to be a hands-on reference guide on set or in the editing room. Each chapter (ed note: there’s 63 chapters) is only 2-3 pages long. I wanted to break it into bite size chunks so you can jump right to one specific topic and get instructions on one aspect — like interviewing in VR, or rig removal to remove your tripod, or how to choose your camera, or understanding parallax. You just need that one piece of information at that moment.
You can read the book from beginning to end, but it’s also designed so you can jump right to a specific section to help you with the exact task at hand.
New 360 Videographers Can Use the Book to Understand Broad Conceptual Stuff, While Experts Will Find Specific Advice
Question: So is the book more designed for 360 novices or experts?
It’s useful for both. There are pieces of it that are way too complex for newbies. But because it is broken up into chapters, you don’t need to distract yourself with a lot of the technical information. The broader conceptual stuff will be very helpful and just how to approach a 360 project.
But if you are more advanced, and you’re starting to think about how to work with effects, or some of the technical parts of production or post-production, there’s a lot of chapters that are going to be helpful. I’ve tried to cover the whole range from conceiving a project to outputting and uploading to what are the best venues for your footage to what are the best source files that will give you the best quality.
I try to talk you through all aspects to maximize your experience.
Special thank you to Michael Wohl for his time and insight. Links to his production companies are at the top of the page, and if you’re interested in purchasing the 360 Video Handbook, visit: https://www.360videohandbook.com/