What skills and techniques transition from broadcast to 360 video? Here’s what Harriet Hadfield learned on her first 360 video shoot in Northern Canada, after 10+ years in broadcast.
The single most exciting thing about VR 360 storytelling in 2017 is that there are no rules.
After more than 10 years spent creating TV news pieces and reporting live on-location, I was starting to find television content a little… stale? It’s a world of rules, formulas and maximum durations. In VR there are already a few conventions – some I accept and others I disagree with – but I think ‘best practice’ is still pretty much up for grabs.
My VR conversion took place the day after I left my job as a TV correspondent for the British broadcaster Sky News. A brilliant former editor, Andrew Hawken – now CEO and Founder of VR start-up Mesmerise Global – had pinged me a message: “Come and have a chat about VR,” he said, “I think you’ll be really into it.” And I was.
I left that meeting buzzing, armed with two Gear 360 cameras to ‘have a play with’ on an upcoming trip to Northern Canada.
VR storytelling is at its most effective when the viewer is transported to a place they wouldn’t normally go, and the current point-and-shoot 360 cameras work best in bright conditions, with plenty of contrasts. So, for my first VR piece “Thirty Below”, the tiny town of Atlin (pop. 500), was the perfect location: remote and mountainous, with expansive horizons sharply lit by a contrast of snow-covered ground and bright blue skies.
My kit for shooting in 360 on this project was incredibly basic:
- 2 x Samsung Gear 360 v1
- Manfrotto tripod
- Samsung S6 phone (for remote recording and viewing)
- GoPro accessories adapter (1/4 screw)
- Sticky GoPro mount (for helmet)
- 64gb micro SD cards
- iPhone (for recording audio)
- Rode lapel mic for iPhone with jack adapter for 7+
- MacBook Pro with Premiere
- Lacie drive
- Samsung Gear headset V2
The Gear 360 is a brilliant bit of kit. Despite being tiny, it out-performs its size by capturing impressive footage, especially in bright, crisp conditions. It saves a huge amount of edit time by self-stitching its dual 190-degree camera shots, meaning the workflow is achievable for one video journalist working solo on a deadline.
It’s for these reasons big news organisations like CNN and The New York Times have adopted the cameras for their in-house reporters. On reflection, I think my small and unobtrusive rig gained me access to film events and people who might otherwise have been less inclined to be involved.
While shooting, I spent a massive amount of time hiding from my camera and tripod. This sounds obvious but don’t underestimate how time-consuming it can be! I found the ability to remotely control the camera and monitor the action via the Gear 360 app essential – although it wasn’t always practical on the days the temperature dipped to -30 degrees Celsius – the kit often froze and my hands couldn’t operate without thick gloves!
Having two cameras was a game-changer, and let me create my favourite shot in the piece: having bought a 20-minute ride on a light aircraft, I only had one window to capture the flight. I needed a camera on-board, but was able to position the other –recording – halfway down the runway. It created a pretty near perfect 360 shot. The viewer watches the plane taxiing toward them, then – as they spin around in their headset – lift off into the air.
The decision to actually appear in the film made my life much easier. From a news gathering perspective, as some shots could feature me in vision, it allowed for the capture of some natural sound and successful POV shots. For interviews, borrowing from the classic TV set-up shot, I framed up to show the interviewee chatting with me, leaving the tripod positioned as the ‘third person in the room’.
I am impressed with the audio captured by the Gear 360 but wanted my interviews recorded in broadcast quality, while keeping my kit lightweight. For this, I used a separate smartphone with a Rode iPhone lapel mic, then matched the sound in the edit. To create watchable shots, I used a basic tripod (no handle!) and some GoPro mounts refashioned for the Samsung’s 1/4 screw with a very cheap adaptor.
It was pretty simple to transition to editing 360 using Adobe Premiere Pro, there are just a couple of extra VR boxes to check and I was away. You can use the “headset mode” to look around the shot, but I quickly became used to viewing the timeline in flat panoramic mode.
I’d returned from Canada with hours of footage, but hardly any of it made it onto my final timeline. Here’s what really didn’t work in the edit:
- Quick shot changes: Shot duration averaged around 5-6 seconds in my initial edit but this was way too quick when watching in the headset. It feels strange to let each shot breathe for 10 seconds or more, but it’s crucial to give the viewer time to properly look around.
- Too much movement: POV shots in 360 are really effective but must be used sparingly. Mostly it’s a problem with motion sickness and how long someone can tolerate the movement within the headset. In traditional video we’d use every frame of the ‘action’, in VR it needs to be anchored between static shots to ground the experience.
- Always start with best pictures. Right? Wrong. Years of television news taught me to open a piece with the most engaging piece of footage, but my instinct to use the plane taking off as an opening shot proved disorientating in a 360 view. Instead, I chose to start with a straightforward static establishing shot of the town’s main street to introduce the viewer to the location.
- Narration and music: I kept my scripting as light as possible, breaking up the voiceover with natural sound or music. My opening line aimed to immediately place the viewer: “You’re standing on Main Street, in Atlin…”.
- Graphics: I decided not to use any on-screen furniture as it might break the viewer’s attention away from the authentic immersive experience.
As a total VR rookie, I’m certainly no expert, but just having a go proved how possible it is to make the transition from flat to 360 video journalist. The freedom to experiment with this new, immersive and innovative way of telling stories is the most exciting thing to happen to visual storytelling in my lifetime.
My plan now is to make a whole load more films with my content company, HumanImage. So, check back on Immersive Shooter where I’ll be sharing the best and worst of my 360 filmmaking adventures.