Linking Film Traditions

A Filming Guide for VR and 360-Degree Films — Part 1

Joe Camilleri
7 min readApr 5, 2018

Part 1 of 5

I have done a few 360-film projects in the last year or so. Most of what I have done has progressed roughly on a trial and error basis. You can see me in the screen shot below, playing around with shot direction in a battle scene I filmed recently for an educational project. I believe, at this point in time, that 360-film has not yet reached its full potential. And, it will take time.

Auguste and Louis Lumière’s attempts at being creative in the filming spectrum, are possibly seen as laughable today, in comparison to what film and the cinema have achieved today, in terms of narrative possibilities. Yet the likes of the Lumiere brothers, Georges Méliès and Alice Guy-Blaché, were the conquistadors of what was regarded at the time as a very new artistic medium. They were the entrepreneurs of a medium that many in the late 1800s were finding bequiling, yet lacking in direct appeal and usage when compared to photography, painting and the theatre. This was to change … a lot!

Fig. 1 ‘Le Voyage Dans la Lun’ (A Trip to the Moon) by Georges Méliès (1902)

Today, we find ourselves in the same predicament. We know that after so many attempts, VR and 360-film is finally here to stay. Jaron Lanier, a VR pioneer, aptly referred to as the ‘father of virtual reality’, has had a lifelong mission with a lasting effect, that of eventually making disbelievers quake in their boots. And how they tremble!

Fig. 2 Jaron Zepel Lanier. May 3, 1960 (age 57)
Computer scientist, composer, visual artist, author

The point of this brief history? That VR and 360-film are undergoing an evolution that traditional film had already been through a century before. We can only argue together our points of view at this point, and discuss and share ideas gained through continuous attempts to achieve what traditional film has achieved over the decades. These are a few of my discoveries, ideas and postulations, which I am putting forward for your arguments.

When embarking on a Virtual Reality (VR) film production, it is imperative that a list of factors is always kept in mind, prior to, and during, the actual filming. These factors need to be considered with particular attention, and their contribution to the project, kept constantly in mind, before and during filming. Much would be made considerably easier for post-production once its underway and filming is over.

Fig.3 When Nokia revealed Ozo®’s full specifications in 2015, critics were quick to confirm two sore posts for this professional-focused device.

Let us get a brief understanding of this list of factors deemed to be of such importance. I will start by discussing, that which to me should stick out as a sore-thumb in this list, as without it, there would be nothing to film in the first place, be it with traditional or VR cameras — The Setting and the Story.

Fig 4. The 360 video rigs from 360RIZE® mount between three and eight Blackmagic Design Micro Cinema camera 2Ks® or Blackmagic Design Micro Studio camera 4Ks®.
Fig. 5 Google Jump® is a 360-degree, 16-camera array, and it’s the first one in VR film history to be specially designed for filming 360 film/VR content.

The Setting and the Story

All stories begin with words in your head; an event, an action that is yearning to be narrated. But, what is a story? This begs another question; Why are we talking about stories in a world of technological advancements in filming methodologies such as VR? The answer is quite simple really, everything starts with a story, everything happens because of a story, everything develops through a story. Humankind has been relying on stories since the first elementary communication methods were conceived. Stories are the element which keeps humankind in touch with its past and consequently, storytelling would be the art form which has developed over centuries of recounting events from family member to offspring. Let us delve deeper into the narrative uses and techniques needed to depict a good rendering of the story in 360 filming.

How are the characters to interact with the environment?

Primarily, the question arises, what is a character and why are characters needed? John Bucher discussed 7 shards of narrative in his public talk in Malta in December 2017. One of these shards was adamantly stated to be ‘The Character’. Bucher pointed out that even if the character is simply an inanimate object which is given human-like attributes, this would still be a character. He continued to add that there can never be a story without at least one character. But we will be discussing the functions of a character in storytelling and narratives in another article.

The title question points to two elements, existent in traditional filming, but taken to a new level of viewer expectation through the virtual ambience that is being discussed in this article. These fall within the narrative technique known as Point-of-View (POV), strongly present in both traditional and contemporary filming.

We have all seen, at some point in time, movies where the camera would take on an unexpected angle, and it is because of this angle, and particular way of capturing the shot, that the viewer is moved from a comfortable perspective to a more intense and, at times, uncomfortable way of observing what the director wants him/her to see. There are several POVs in traditional filming and these retain very similar traits when talking about filming for VR. Yet there are two particular POVs which take precedence over all other POVs whilst filming for any kind of VR experience.

The first POV is widely used in most VR filmed experiences. This would be the observer-within-the-action POV. The second POV goes deeper as it places the viewer not just within the action but as part of the action. Let’s call this the direct-visual POV. What are the differences?

The first is the most usual depiction of a presence in filmed VR. It denotes the presence of a camera with two or more lenses (see figures 3–5). Discussing cameras and their evolution in recent years by a myriad of brands would mean another whole article by itself.

The advantage about cameras is that the choices are never-ending, the disadvantage is that many individuals shooting 360 video for the first time might make the mistake of going for high-end cameras immediately thinking that the better the camera, the better the results. In terms of resolution, frame-rate and stitching, this would definitely be the case, but otherwise, at times, keeping to more compact and practical camera solutions (click on above links for some examples) would be advisable, especially if the manpower is limited and the deadlines are tight.

Fig. 6 Chris Milk’s experimentation with observer-within-the-action POV in ‘Clouds over Sidra’ (2015)

Back to POVs. This presence is usually a centered presence, and would not denote any movement from the first-person viewpoint (see figure 5). This scenario would simulate the viewer standing, crouching or sitting (depending on height of camera in relation to surroundings), in the midst of the subjects that/who are creating the ongoing action. Hence the viewer is more of an observer. This placement denotes a level of immersion which can tend to be partial as the viewer will not feel the need to interact with his/her surroundings. This method is used for situations involving the viewing of concerts, bands, interiors etc.

The second example of primary POVs in VR filming, is what we previously termed as the direct-visual POV. This takes into consideration the much discussed difference between digital VR and film VR. The contention is always that film VR is technically 360 filming, and not, as is many times depicted, especially in 360 degree camera adverts, VR as seen in PSVR games. Digital enable users to interact with ease with their surroundings, due to their 3-dimensional (3D) build. In film VR this element is quite missing to date. The VR elements are limited to addons such as binaural sound, and direct interactions through ‘buttons’ created in Unity. With these additions, and more on the horizon, 360 film can be given the elevated position retained, up till now, by digital VR experiences.

More about filming in 360 in Part 2 of this blog — Which environments would lend best with the mood and type of story that is being told?

Joe Camilleri

The author of this blog will be present at the Malta Robotics Olympiad (MRO) being held on the 20th of April, 2018. He will be launching his new 360-degree film in collaboration with Saint Martin’s Institute of Higher Education.




Joe Camilleri

360 film specialist/lecturer, with a flair for visual narrative & storytelling techniques. ”"