RVLVR Founder Nick Bicanic shares how to shoot behind the scenes 360 video (or “inside the scenes” video, as he says) alongside a network TV show.
This post originally appeared on Nick’s blog on Medium and is being shared here with his permission. We highly recommend you follow Nick on Medium. He often writes about his 360 kit and production workflow.
I thought I’d tell the story of how I directed and produced the “Inside the Scenes” 360 video for NBC’s hit show Blindspot. The subject keeps coming up — not least of all because production companies are frequently told by networks that it’s simply not possible or too disruptive to do 360 properly on set.
I think it’s not only possible to work alongside a non-360 crew — but it’s possible to do it well. I believe we’re only just scratching the surface of what is possible in 360 video dramatically.
For those who haven’t yet seen it — here’s the final product below. I call it inside the scenes for two reasons. The obvious one being that it’s 360 and therefore it is by definition not quite the same as a usual “behind” the scenes — but also because I wanted to highlight the fact that I don’t believe it should be treated that way.
So, without further ado — here’s my view of how to approach shooting 360 alongside a network TV show. Although this is written fairly freeform, I will structure it loosely in the following sections
- On-set activity
The most important thing to remember is that a TV show crew is a family, assuming you’re not entering the show at Season 1 Episode 1 of course. They are quite tight knit and they have lived and worked together for a year, often more. You’re going to be there for all of 4–5 days — and you cannot, in that short period of time, become everybody’s best friend.
So, while it might seem cynical, it pays to focus on the most important people. Interestingly, who is most important varies depending on where in the production you are.
In general, on a TV show, the showrunner is the most important person. If you don’t have the showrunner’s blessing, you’re already off to a rough start. In the case of Blindspot — Martin Gero, the showrunner — was a gift to our crew.
It so happens that he was also directing Season 2, Episode 1 (the episode we were a part of) — but he was curious about the process and the equipment — and he went out of his way to introduce us to all the department heads early on.
(A special mention here to John Canning, NBC Digital Exec and friend, who believed in our ability to execute on a vision of making a more compelling, faster paced piece of 360 video than had been made up until this point . Without his backing this project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.)
But, let me back up a bit. To make this process of bonding with the crew/cast as rapidly as possible — go to the script read-through — as well as the tech survey.
You may find yourself thinking — “Wait — why do I have to bond with the cast/crew?” — well the answer is obvious. Remember this is a family. You are a visitor. They’re going to be moving quickly in a well rehearsed way and you are crashing their party.
Do as much as you can to prepare, and — at the risk of sounding obvious — ask for and read the script. Think about how scenes would be shot and which scenes could most benefit from an immersive approach.
You won’t be able to get into the read-through on every show . However, a tech survey should be eminently possible. On this particular shoot, Martin and I actually concocted a plan to shoot a full scripted narrative scene with an (almost) fully cleared set. We even that scene on the schedule…
Unfortunately, it was not to be — on the day we ran out of time and we weren’t able to shoot an immersive scene from Jane’s POV. But my point was, plan, plan and plan.
Realistically you don’t “need” the tech survey or the “read-through” from a technical perspective. If you know what you’re doing you can just show up 30 minutes before principal cameras roll , shove your gear somewhere and away you go.
But you do need the tech survey to start to bond with the other important people, be they the producer, DP or the camera ops.
Some people will be curious about your equipment — so be prepared to offer little demos of 360 to whoever asks (remember it’s still new to most people). A few crew members may have worked small 360 shoots on the side.
Either way, use whatever opportunity you can to bond with people. Be cautiously curious. Don’t be annoying. Some people will be interested — others just want to get on with their work — so be respectful of that.
The reason why the preparation (and your relationship with the camera department) will pay dividends here is because you only have one focal length.
In other words — if you want to see any action at all you have to be very very very close to the action.
Here’s another example of how close you need to get…
If you’re going to move ahead of principal camera you need to be extremely savvy about how dramatic staging/cinematography works, not to mention you need to have good communication with the camera operators.
(Set etiquette goes without saying — if you’ve never been on fast moving dramatic sets before— it’s probably best you don’t try any of this.)
Episodic TV shoots extremely quickly — Blindspot is actually faster still — because they are packing so much action into tight shooting schedules. They’ll move through wide masters, to close-ups to inserts rapidly while the technocrane is getting set-up for the next shot and a separate 2nd unit is capturing the stunt sequences.
Look at the day’s schedule and figure out where you want to be and why.
There are obvious creative choices to make here — you likely won’t have time to shoot clean plates everywhere and of course the set is chock full of grip gear, lighting gear and…crew.
But don’t forget the fact that you don’t need a full 360 view to tell a story in 360 — and you can actually get interesting coverage on scenes even without a cleared set (see more notes on editing later).
If you’re going to put your camera ahead of other principal unit cameras, you better make damn sure you know what’s happening. For example, don’t do this on wide masters. You will be in the way and they will all think you’re a moron.
However, on close ups , you can get very very close, often physically in front of the actual camera , because they’ll be shooting with a longer focal length. Bear in mind that cameras move (especially when Pyare is holding them) so be prepared for conversations like this:
“Standby…” (Pyare is doing a test handheld push to left edge of frame) “…Nick you’re in the shot.”
I quickly run in and move camera one foot to the left.
“How about now…”
Yes it can be stressful because you do not want to be the reason a good take is ruined , but if you just sit by the shoulder of the A camera op you can respond very quickly when necessary.
Obviously do this sparingly . I’m not suggesting you always just stick the camera upfront. Make smart choices. If they’re shooting 6 takes you don’t have to shoot all 6.
But you should always be aware of what the cameras are doing. If you can , check the monitors. Alternatively ask people . If you ask a camera op how tight they are on a particular shot, they’ll (usually) tell you.
I like action. And I’m fairly confident that I can get out of the way of a spinning flying Motocross bike if I have to. But the stunt coordinators job is to keep the crew and cast safe. So on the photo above , notice that the 360 camera is actually exposed (i.e. not protected by the mat). There’s a theoretical danger here (piston shoots bike too far, cable pulls rider too far, etc.) but it was deemed fairly small after some discussion . So, we pulled off the shot.
First and foremost, though, was figuring out that it was not going to get in the way of any of the principal cameras. You do not want to be the cause of any additional roto.
You can get plenty of cool looking action even if you are behind camera teams. For example look at this shot:
The reason the camera team is ducking down is because there’s a long shot on a technocrane following the path of the bike and they have to be out of the way of that shot. That’s another reason why I’m further back. Again , communication.
Don’t forget that shooting rehearsals is a perfectly legitimate way of getting unusual angles. For example , in this shot, as Weller’s FBI team approaches a door they are about to blow there’s no way that I could get a camera in there during principal photography as it would be in the shot.
But they rehearsed the approach a few times without the principal camera rolling.
By throwing the 360 camera in there quickly , you can snag a sequence that you’ll later use in your edit , which would be impossible otherwise.
Move fast and know your gear
I mentioned before the pace was fairly relentless. So you really do have to know your gear and be very nimble. I was lucky to have met John Hendicott from Aurelia Soundworks a few months prior to this and, by complete stroke of coincidence, our schedules aligned. We were essentially a dynamic duo , constantly darting in and out to adjust the Izugar Z4X camera or the Zoom F8/Sennheiser Ambeo prototype setup we were recording audio with.
After a sort of baptism by fire , you sink or swim. But if you swim, that means you’ve earned the respect of professionals on the set and they’ll let you do things that ordinarily wouldn’t have been possible. For example, consider this shot…
Drew Jiritano (SFX) and his team are prepping the door with detcord — which is rigged to blow as the FBI team piles through to take the house. Principal camera is on the other side on a long lens so I can get very very close.
The only small problem is…the detcord is going explode and the camera is only a few feet away.
Of course , Drew has never seen this camera before so he could have easily been skeptical and said no on the grounds of safety . But remember what I said about bonding and communication. He’s a good guy . I explained what we were trying to do and why and he understood and thought it was cool.
The set was cleared apart from actors standing behind tactical riot shields (just in case of any damage from explosion). I waltzed in and started the camera rolling just before his countdown, and we got a very cool explosion in 360.
I also wanted to mention interviews with actors. I actually think that in this particular case you should try to have a “cleared” set. If you’re using a static camera that should be easy enough — just roll a few more seconds once the talent has left the room — and there’s your clean plate. (That’s what we did in Jaimie’s makeup trailer interview sequence.)
If you’re not able to shoot a clean plate–e.g. you are doing the interviews outdoors–just hide somewhere out of shot and instruct the talent to deliver interview answers to the camera. It’s far more personal for the viewer that way as the talent is speaking directly to them. I am constantly surprised more people don’t do this.
Last but not least. Of course you’ll have deadlines and deliverables, as with every project. But in this case, remember that your relationship with production is still invaluable.
Titles assets and audio stems are two of multiple things you could ask for and likely receive. Audio stems in particular were extremely useful to us , because they gave us clean audio to add to the ambisonics we were already capturing.
A small word about editing here — regular readers have heard me rant about high paced editing before — if you watch the Blindspot piece in its entirety you can see what I mean. I think that the lack of rapid pacing kills many VR/360 projects — and it’s entirely doable….IF (and only IF) you shoot enough material.
As for audio , well that’s a whole different article. All audio mixing for a 1st and 2nd order ambisonic deliverable was handled by John Hendicott’s company Aurelia. They did a kick-ass job , not just because I liked it and the client liked it, but because Sennheiser chose this Blindspot piece to be the primary sales demo of their signature ambisonic microphone — the Ambeo VR.
There were a lot of interesting choices we had to make due to the rapid cutting in this piece. For example, you cut mid sentence from Audio that has a visible source — for example Martin Gero, the showrunner, talking (so-called diegetic sound)—into an environment where Martin’s voice is now voiceover of an action scene (it’s become non-diegetic) that has significant implications on how you approach an ambisonic mix.
But for more on spatial audio for this piece, stay tuned for John’s step-by-step spatial audio workflow later this week.
This post originally appeared on Nick Bicanic’s blog on Medium and is being shared here with his permission. We highly recommend you follow Nick on Medium. He often writes about his 360 kit and production workflow.