Edward Chizhikov is the head of the RT360 department at Russia Today. Although he joined RT in 2008, he’s spent the last one and half year leading the news organization’s ever-growing 360 production team. Since its inception, the team of 20+ has produced more than 100 360 and VR experiences in six different languages, which have racked up more than 32 million views.
RT was one of the first channels to broadcast live in 360 on YouTube in April of 2016 and has a dedicated 360 viewing apps for Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Google Daydream, iPhone and Android.
Eduard sat down with Immersive Shooter to talk about RT’s standards and process for VR storytelling, why they make 12+ versions of every single 360 video, and how they sent a 360 camera to space.
What are some of your favorite or most memorable pieces you’ve ever done?
One of the most memorable experiences we’ve done is the Space 360 project (featured above). We sent a 360 camera to the International Space Station with a cosmonaut acting as our correspondent last September, and we’ve shared seven of those episodes about what it’s like to live on the ISS. What’s his schedule like, talking about sports and health, how he eats, how he sleeps. It took us a couple of days just to transmit a single episode’s raw footage back on Earth through the satellite.
We also have a great story from Palmyra where we managed to get to before ISIS took over and destroyed many buildings and artifacts, so we were able to film something that doesn’t exist anymore and we have that bit of history in our hands. Those are the types of projects I think are worth filming in 360.
We’re also looking to experiment more with underwater filming and other highly technical challenges.
How does 360 video fit in or compliment RT’s other media types, like traditional video and text?
It depends on the subject. Sometimes we do just the 360 video and that’s the story. For example, we covered the Victory Day Parade and the fighter jets in 360. Most of the time we have the traditional video content and use 360 only if we want them to feel the presence.
With 360, you can film everything. You can film both sides of the equation—protesters throwing stones at officers, officers firing back. You can see the whole thing. You can’t cut anything out. You can show precisely what actually happened. If we can have the full picture, we want to do that.
What have you discovered about your audience’s response? How are they watching it, are they sticking around, how do the views compare to traditional video? Any other discoveries?
Most of the views are from Facebook, but YouTube is big as well since you can watch them without a headset. We also have apps on many of the major platforms, so people can watch it anywhere, because we know it’s just a matter of time until that market grows.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the 360 industry as a whole? For journalists in particular?
It’s so many things. The cameras and the devices are not there yet. Even still, they will be there at some point and we’ll be able to film 8K, 16K or even 32K, but then we still have the problem of how to show people that quality. Existing VR headsets aren’t ready for that. When people watch video these days, if it isn’t HD it’s bullshit. If we had a way to show that quality —quality as good as modern flat screen TV’s—people would constantly be in VR. That’s a huge challenge at the moment, but it’ll change soon with better cameras and better headsets.
How is RT pushing the limits of 360 video? What’s next? Spatial sound? Higher quality? VR experiences?
My goal is to do something no one has ever thought of. I can’t disclose anything now, but we’re working on several things which I think will be mind-blowing. Right now, everyone is doing similar things, but we can change that. We can push the tech beyond that point. It’s in our hands at the moment. If we create great content, people will watch. And as more people get involved and buy headsets, more and more companies will invest in VR. So, we can basically create that circle and push VR to become more profitable.
RT’s 360 gear
What’s in your gear bag?
That depends on project. If I was shooting something big, like in the Bolshoi Theater, I would carry several cameras. If I were doing some big story like Palmyra, I would also take a drone so we could film the beauty from the air. If I have a prison cell to film, I’d just bring a small camera for minimal parallax effect. But, if I was doing a trailer for a movie, I’d have Blackmagics, GoPros, or Sony Alphas, depending on what fits better for the story.
If it was a breaking news story like a protest, I would rush there with just a small VR camera to do live. We’ve done four or five 360 livestreams, and we’ve been having a great experience with the Samsung Gear 360 and we’ll soon be testing the Yi 360 camera. With all these live-capable small cameras coming out, we’ll probably do more and more livestreams.
What do you recommend as a starter kit?
I would start working with the smaller cameras, just to understand what it’s like. But, you also have to understand what you want to film and how you may need to change your cameras based on that. There’s no single solution. Everything depends on your story idea.
But, now’s the best time to start because you can do anything right now. A year and a half ago, we had so many limitations. Now you can get started with a really small kit.
What do you use for your livestreaming?
We use WireCast and Wowza to switch between cameras, add graphics, titles, everything, just like a normal flat transmission. You can even do 3D 360 live, if you need to, which was impossible just a year ago.
You’ve shot in a lot of interesting locations that no doubt required some special tools. What are your favorite accessories?
We have a drone with stabilization for aerial shoots, which is great since most people will never get that perspective and people like to watch things they don’t get to see in real life. It was developed by Russian engineers precisely for us to use.
We also custom print a lot or our rigs with a 3D printer, and we have all kinds of mounts for fighter jets, underwater, etc. We can mount our cameras to just about anything. If we can’t find what we want on the market, we make our own.
For example, the camera we sent to space—we can’t say what camera we sent—but we had to develop the lens and battery systems on our own.
What you use for stitching and post production?
We use Kolor very often, but we also realized we needed more tools, like Nuke and Cara VR. We use 3ds Max for our graphics, SynthEyes for stabilization. There are more than 10 different software programs involved in production.
We also integrate a lot of infographics into our videos, which very few people do at the moment. For example, we 3D modeled a huge factory in Russia and filmed the whole area with a drone, and afterwards, we used Kolor, Nuke, Cara VR, 3ds Max and several other smaller software programs to add the infographic overlay to the video so, even though the factory doesn’t exist, it will look like you are there flying over it.
RT360’s immersive storytelling tips
How do you decide which stories work best for 360?
Here are my top five.
- Places where people can’t go. Film something that people can’t see otherwise —like space, for instance.
- Places where people don’t want to go or things they are afraid of doing themselves – like extreme sports – but want to feel what it’s like. The best part of 360 is that you can basically be anyone: famous conductor, a belly dancer, or extreme sports driver.
- Sightseeing and travel guides. So they can see places without leaving their homes.
- Sport events. So they can watch without a ticket.
- Culture and education. You can do great stuff using graphics and 360 video. It would be nice to see VR for historical pieces, or for biology classes. Even the math could be possible to learn in VR.
What other concrete production suggestions or strategies have you learned?
Basically, if the weather is bad, you won’t film a good shot. With one camera, you have so many things that can go wrong. But with six, eight or even 16, you’re compounding what can go wrong—so you always have to have a backup plan.
It’s also important to note that the people doing VR now are the ones creating the way people will be doing VR in 20 or 40 years. That’s a very powerful thing.
RT edits 360 videos different for headset versus mobile and desktop. How so?
The main concern is that you have different approach to VR versus desktop. When people watch in VR, the time goes much faster. If you have a 5-second shot on YouTube, it’s too long. But in VR, 5 seconds is nothing. You can’t do anything with 5 seconds. People need at least 10 or 15 seconds to see around, so we do that for VR and for Facebook and YouTube we use 5-second shots because people are still moving the mouse quickly and getting bored. You don’t get the same immersive effect on YouTube and Facebook as you do in a headset.
So, we do two different videos, one for headset and one for Facebook and YouTube. And we do each of them in six different languages, so we end up with 12 different videos. Then, you also have some where the Arabic version ends up longer than the English version after the translation, so we have to add more shots. It can be a nightmare, but it’s also fun to take on those challenges.