Environments in 360 Storytelling
What kind of environment would lend itself best with the mood and type of story that is being told?
Part 2 of 5
The first clarification here would be to explain what I mean by ‘environment’ in this particular context. The explanation would be twofold.
The first type of environment being discussed, is the type of space that can either limit or increase the possibilities of interaction within a 360 film — this can be defined as the inclusion of presence due to available environmental possibilities, through available tech.
The second type of space tackled in this article, is the space that is being filmed, the location itself.
A good reference point, and starting point, for the first type of environment being discussed, is theme parks, and how much meaning is embedded in the this physical space. John Bucher, author of multiple books explaining the changing world of storytelling, sees an acute parallel between theme parks and the POV present both in VR and 360 film. You are there, present, in an alternate universe. For instance, Disneyland uses a lot of forced perspective to make structures like Cinderella’s Castle seem larger than it is and, by extension, for you to seem smaller and childlike. Yes, there is a manipulation of space. The space itself is designed to create a sense of nostalgia. Before anything even happens, the story has already begun, and you are immersed, without knowing, because immersion just happens and cannot be forced. The moment you understand and believe that you are in that environment by forgetting, even for an instance the real world, then the storytelling has functioned, the immersion is on.
Space is Dynamic
‘Defying the Nazis’, takes you on a journey which is very similar to the theme parks mentioned earlier. But, the viewer is being transported, and although there is a semblance of movement, there is no element of dynamism present in this experience. In this PBS documentary by Ken Burns, memories of that voyage provide an emotional climax to the story of Martha and her husband Waitstill, two people whose incredible acts of heroism had a monumental impact on society and history. This virtual reality experience recreates the voyage, putting the users right on the deck of the SS Excambion, creating a timelapse experience that takes them from a port in Lisbon to the Statue of Liberty in a matter of minutes.
The important thing to remember here is that set and setting are not just the background to the story or simply the vessel in which the action takes place. In order for it to feel dynamic, it has to be dynamic. It has to be engaged in the process. This is the power at your fingertips as an immersive storyteller.
Virtual reality is a way to immerse users in an entirely virtual world. In VR, a user will, almost always, wear a headset which encapsulates the entirety of his/her viewing perspective. In other words, what you see is completely dictated by what is seen in the headset.
In more elaborate setups, additional senses are utilized. In VR arcades, guests are often strapped into contraptions which simulate movement, sound is customized, air may be blown on the subjects to mimic the feelings our brains expect in certain situations, and some sort of handheld tools are used to allow user interaction within the environment.
Now, let’s delve deeper in the first type of environment I mentioned earlier, the type of space that can either limit or increase the possibilities of interaction within a 360 film, the tech-related environment. Let’s talk tech.
While the Samsung Round promises 3D video, the ZED and Intel’s RealSense really manage to provide this 3-dimensional element so ethereal in 360-degree film shooting. Both technologies map surroundings and provide the depth which so many other 360-degree cameras lack. The Samsung Round, provides a similar depth, which is more of an illusion when compared to the other two. Considering that Samsung Round delivers 360-film recording and spatial sound together with the depth element, then this camera is very much currently seen as the complete package, which does not rely on other technologies to perform and create a deliverable.
Figures 7 and 8 show a particular piece of technology and the result of using this technology. The ZED camera is an interesting piece of equipment as it does what very few other cameras have done till now expect for two particular other cameras, which technically speaking still do not do exactly what the ZED does.
Intel RealSense VP Sagi Ben Moshe said in a statement:
“Many of today’s machines and devices use 2D image recognition-based computer vision, but with Intel RealSense’s best-in-class depth technology, we are redefining future technologies to ‘see’ like a human, so devices and machines can truly enrich people’s lives. With its compact, ready-to-use form, the Intel RealSense D400 Depth Camera series not only makes it easy for developers to build 3D depth sensing into any design, but they are also ready to be embedded into high-volume products.”
But what does all this have to do with the ‘environment’ element in the title of this section and the relation to ‘mood’ and ‘type’ of story?
The answer is simple really… it is the lack of 3D element in most 360-degree cameras, that is usually most felt by viewers during current 360-degree films. Although viewers can turn their heads and view subjects in motion and subsequently a narrative occurring, similar to a traditional movie, yet the picture still appears quite ‘flat’. This detracts considerably from the ‘mood’ and hence needs to be amplified by the ‘type’ of environment that is being depicted. In short, diversity is key.
So, let’s talk diversity in environment.
Placing the camera in the scene is key and important to storytelling. To capture the action of the scene, you need to consider what role the person wearing the VR headset will take. Will the viewer be actually participating, or simply viewing the scene? This would prove various possible setups for the camera. What must always be kept in mind, in camera placement, is the height of the camera; as in, if the camera will be mounted low to the ground or hanging from a ceiling, or set up a few feet up from the ground to emulate a seated person, or standing person. The angle of the camera; as in, if the camera will be set up to emulate the view of an actual person, as if the viewer is peeking into an alternative reality. In any of these cases, the camera should always be placed in or around the center of the activity. If there is no actual activity, make sure to place items of interest which might help to ‘lead’ the viewer towards the action, or if the viewer’s gaze wanders, these items of interest would act as a magnet for the viewer’s gaze back towards the action. Give the viewers freedom to explore as they wish, but always build the narrative in a way which acts as a guide, should the viewer get ‘lost’.
PAVR’s Teleportaled,is an experience which takes the audience from environment to environment in the very short span of just over 4 minutes. In this film, it is the environment change itself which is of primary importance for the success of the experience. If the camera had filmed just one environment, there would have been very little of interest for the viewer. But, the camera’s ‘jump’ from one location to another break the monotony of the film and transposes the viewer into multiple settings without having to physically move an inch. Each setting is an escalation of interest and more for the viewer to view, hence the viewer is actually given a reason to move on through the experience without experiencing boredom.
In VR and 360 video, immersion is key. Technology has given the torch to VR in this case, but this does not detract the immersion possibilities for 360 video. In 360 video, it is the story-teller who creates the immersion. In traditional film, there was not 360 element, yet immersion in certain movies was very strong. One would laugh, cry, boo, even feel hate for specific characters in a movie. That usually depended on the prowess of the story-teller. In 360 film, the same rules are being bridged … and its working.
More about filming in 360 in Part 3 of this blog — Where do the characters enter and exit the environment from in a 360 film?