Interview transcript recorded in January 2018
Although a lot of the same 360 video tricks of the trade still apply, shooting 360 underwater presents its own unique challenges.
We set out two years ago on the journey to create great underwater VR and quickly became frustrated. Every camera system, until recently, had the same issues – constant overheating, persistent SD card failures, little to no ability to review footage in real time, rolling shutter/slipping frames in post, heavily compressed H.264 outputs – and that was just the beginning of the headaches!
Despite those setbacks, we shot the first native 3D 360 underwater content (non-nodal) in January 2016, produced the first live 360 underwater broadcast from a remote location with ABC Good Morning America in May 2017, and developed the VRTUL 1 and 2 underwater camera systems.
Here is what we’ve learned about shooting great underwater VR:
1) Keep your camera safe.
The ocean always wins, and that’s definitely true when shooting underwater. We’ve lost plenty of cameras to a single drop of water in the wrong place.
For that reason, properly maintaining your cameras and housing is extremely important.
You should also always bring a backup camera. As the saying goes “One is none”.
We use our own camera, the VRTUL 2, as our primary underwater camera. As a backup option we look for something small, convenient, and inexpensive if the production is on a budget.
The 360Rize Abyss,and Boxfish are both solid options in that respect.
2) Being waterproof and being able to stitch underwater are two different things.
Whatever people say, the GoPro Fusion and Garmin Virb do not stitch underwater. They might be great for situations around water, like white water rafting, but taking it underwater is a completely different story.
Given the laws of underwater optics, the field of view is reduced by about 30 to 40 percent, leaving the footage un-stitchable. To get the full field of view, you’ll want a dome port instead of a flat port.
3) Check for water and fog–often.
This is one of the most common issues that arise when shooting underwater. If you take your camera apart outside on a humid day you will have fogging issues.
To limit fogging try as best you can to open them up in dry places whenever possible and keep your cameras out of the sun. We also put desiccant, like those silica gel packets you’ll find in a new pair of shoes, in our cameras to remove humidity.
4) Be aware of underwater time limitations…
And I’m not just talking about oxygen levels. When you’re shooting underwater you need to be very intentional with what you’re shooting because you aren’t going to have the record times you’d have above water.
First, there is the issue of heat. Although the water might help mitigate the heat, the heat generated by the cameras is trapped within the external housing. Most cameras start going out after 10 to 15 minutes of being turned on. If that happens, turn it off and give it some time to cool off. And next time only have the camera on when you’re shooting.
Second, you can’t plug your camera into a computer to review footage and see if it was a successful shoot. At this point in the technology, you’re just praying you got everything.
5) But take your time!
I prefer longer takes underwater where you can sit back and feel what it’s like and just imagine you’re under there. Quick cuts are good for some stuff, but there really is something special about the feeling of swimming through reefs and exploring the ocean like a diver.
Plus VR headsets and diving masks have very similar form factors so it’s a bit deceiving–in a good way.
6) Understand movement.
In 360 you typically set up the camera and walk away, but in underwater 360 the camera is usually in your hand.
With that comes the desire to move the camera around to ‘point’ it at all of the cool things around you. It takes a lot of discipline to fight that feeling. Underwater 360 is about making nice, even motions to make sure people watching in a headset aren’t’ getting nauseous and have the time to explore the scene on their own.
Another challenge here is to figure out how to keep a low profile for the diver holding the camera. What we recommend is to have them 3 – 4 feet away from the camera, with a longer pole connected to the camera. You’ll also want to keep the camera horizontal and on a level plane.
Stabilization is key here. It becomes much easier the greater your dynamic range and color detail is, with VFX tracking systems. We haven’t nailed it down with Mistika VR yet, so we use Nuke and Cara to stabilize.
7) Understand light.
Shooting in the Caribbean on a sunny day or shooting in cold water in a dark environment will lead to very different challenges and very different footage. It is still better shoot underwater on a sunny day and at a shallow depth, especially for lower-end cameras.
Every camera has a sweet spot underwater, which is usually less than 10 feet. At that depth you can keep the colors, whereas when you go deeper you’ll lose more in the color spectrum. Filming at depths of 60 to 100 feet means that there is very limited available light and much of the color information is lost.
That is why having manual control over your camera is important. You might also want to shoot brackets whenever possible. With the VRTUL 1 and 2 you can adjust the shutter and white balance to make sure you are capturing the appropriate light and not shooting too dark or blowing everything out.
You’ll also want to shoot RAW whenever possible so you can capture all the light gradients and you’ll have the flexibility to change that in post. If you can find a camera that shoots in compressed H24 encode, which means the light temperature is baked in, you are stuck with what you shot at that moment in time.
8) Understand distance.
Water clarity can be a big issue; visual fidelity drops off faster through water.
Although proximity helps retain visual fidelity, it also makes stitching harder. With the VRTUL 2, we can get within 6 inches to a foot of objects, but most underwater cameras require a distance of two feet at the corners.
We start our stitching in Mistika VR and then move to Nuke and Cara for final rotoscoping and disparity generation, since Mistika doesn’t have those tools. But, Mistika does a great job with templates and they make it easy to fail fast with their quick rendering times.
9) Do no harm.
Our oceans are fragile ecosystems. Be aware of coral and reef degradation. Follow the rules and leave it the same it was when you arrived.