This winter, PBS/NPR member station NET Nebraska published PBS.org’s first 360 video series, Watershed. The series contains sixteen 360 videos produced across three states to illustrate how people are connected to the natural world and to each other through watersheds.
NET Nebraska’s head of Emerging Media Chad Davis (CD) and Emerging Media Producer Mary Anne Andrei (MA) talked to Immersive Shooter about how they produced the series, the lessons they learned along the way, and why public broadcasting can (and should) use immersive media to its advantage.
How did you get into immersive media in the first place?
Our emerging media department is responsible for experimenting with new content creation technology, such as podcasts, app development and VR/360. We’ve been experimenting with 360 video since 2016. We are fortunate enough to have capital funding to acquire new gear and dedicated funding specifically for digital so we can apply those funds to create these experiments. (CD)
To date, we have around 40 published 360 pieces, each of which experiments with a new concept or idea. With Watershed, we put what we’ve learned during those early experiments into an actual series. PBS has done some 360 videos before, but they hadn’t done any 360 series before this one. (CD)
Tell our readers a bit of the background behind your Watershed project.
The idea behind Watershed was to explore the concept of a watershed, from one end to the other. We broke the series into two parts: eight episodes downstream and eight episodes upstream. From there, we looked for interesting stories and people who could explain why they care about the watershed. (MA)
We start each episode with the question “Who cares about a watershed (and why)?” and then immediately introduce the viewer to a central character who cares about the watershed and try to answer why it’s important to them. (CD)
Why did you decide that 360 was the best way to tell this story?This evolved from wanting to tell this story in a series of traditional, framed videos for YouTube and Facebook. As we were planning the series, we were working on other 360 videos, and we began to realize that 360 was the obvious medium for helping people feel more connected to these landscapes and natural resources. We originally thought about just doing some supplemental videos in 360, but as the camera, stitching and editing technology improved so rapidly the 360 arc kept extending outward and we started wondering if we could do the whole thing in 360. (CD)
People think of Nebraska as a flat prairie – a monolithic ocean of tallgrass – but people say we actually have more river miles than any other state. And below that we have a relatively healthy aquifer that is the envy of our Great Plains neighbors to the south. We wanted to get people to experience this watershed alongside experts and other people who really care about the watershed. People know what rivers and lakes are, but they just don’t know what a watershed is. On the PBS site for the series, you can see the location of each video on a map so people can see how it’s all connected. (CD)
Having an immersive story about the natural world gives people an opportunity to experience that place. (MA)
What gear did you use for the production of the Watershed series?We used the Insta360 Pro and several Insta360 Ones and One Xs. We prefer to use the Pro when we can because the images are sharper. All of our interview shots are on the Pro, which we shot at 8K flat (we didn’t worry about stereo). But we really like the One Xs for allowing people to film themselves and for us to get out of the shot. The Drop episode is almost entirely shot with the One. (MA)
We found that it was a more natural and newsy experience to let them takeIndividual instance of a shot; a take = each time the camera is started and stopped. the camera and film themselves. It kept us from having to stop them from what they’re doing so we could set up the Pro. Those moments also gave us some great transition shots of people walking around. Even though there aren’t as many shots in a 360 video versus a flat video, you still have to consider how you’re getting from one place to the other. (MA)
What about other gear?
For the watershed series, drone shots were critical to have a birds-eye view and offer some perspective. For that, we mounted two Insta360 Ones and One Xs to a Mavic Pro drone. (MA)For audio, we have an ambisonicPertaining to audio reproduction that captures the spatial acoustic qualities of recorded sound. mic, the Sennheiser Ambeo, but mostly use traditional tools like lav mics and boom mics, and in post, our head of audio engineering, Werner Althaus, uses Pro Tools to fix the source points in three-dimensional space and output that through Facebook’s Spatial Workstation. If someone watches on Facebook, they get second order ambisonics, and with YouTube, they get first order ambisonics. (CD)
What do you think you did that worked really well?
The whole thing was entirely experimental. We certainly learned things along the way. For instance, we’ve gotten away from the traditional documentary technique of seeing the person interviewed on-camera. Instead, we allow the person to introduce themselves on camera, and then we segue to VO for the rest of the video. (MA)
While she was producing Watershed, Mary Anne also produced a piece called Under the Milky Way that gave us a chance to experiment with overnight timelapses shot by360 cameras. We used what we learned on that to start shooting timelapses for Watershed. That brewery timelapse in episode 3, “Fishes’ Brew,” worked really well. It gives you a sense of motion without making you sick in a way that wouldn’t be possible at regular speed. (CD)
Also, letting folks film themselves with the Insta360 One X on a selfie stick. We’re actually going through and reshooting some of the upcoming episodes because we learned how useful that trick was for getting additional b-roll we wouldn’t otherwise have. It really gives you a lot more shots and transition options. (MA)
I used to believe in the phrase “Spots not shots” for shooting 360. So we asked them to pick five spots they would like to show us. But, with the way we ended up using the Insta360 One, we were able to get more fluid shots, transitions, close shots. It really changed the way we shoot. Now, I don’t know if the whole “spots not shots” phrase still totally works. In some ways, shooting this series over the course of two years gave us more technical opportunities as we learned along the way. (CD)
Did you have to do any sort of training before handing over the 360 camera selfie sticks to the sources?
We do teach people how to use the selfie stick Insta One X camera. We showed them where the stitch linesThe seams in a 360° video where footage from one camera has been combined with another. are and asked them to make sure to face one of the lenses toward themselves or whatever they were showing us. We told them it’s OK to put the selfie stick over their shoulders to get a back shot. We asked them to hold the camera naturally because if they hold their hand out in front of them, it will look weird since the stick is cloned out. And, we told them to just forget about the selfie stick and just show us what you do. I think you see that very well in episodes one and two. You’ll notice a couple times where they’ll look right at the camera, which we ask them not to do, but it generally worked out well. (MA)
We set the camera up for them and while they’re shooting we’re normally hiding nearby in case they have any trouble with it. For episode one, Rafael Pease was going into the backcountry to shoot and it was impossible to coordinate with the lack of snow, so we sent him the camera and he just took it out on his own into the backcountry. He’s a filmmaker, so it wasn’t hard to walk him through it, though he hadn’t used a 360 camera before. (MA)
How do you get the audio to match what they’re doing when they’re using the selfie stick to film themselves?
We replay the video and have them narrate what they were doing for us. (CD)
How did you stabilize all the handheld shots?
All of the motion of those handheld shots would throw people off in a headset, but we built this series for consumption on a desktop or magic windowA method of viewing 360 content where a rectangular frame acts as a portal to the larger, spherical recording. The viewe... More. That just made more sense with the state of the industry. Of course, we hope eventually people are watching 360 in headsets, but most of our traffic is not from headsets. For most cases, Insta360’s in-camera stabilization was enough to stabilize those selfie shots. In some cases, we had to add a little extra stabilization through Premiere. (CD)
What stitching software did you use?
Across all 16, we ended up mainly using Insta360 Studio. And for anything that was janky, we used Mistika VR. Actually most of the video for the early pieces was stitched in Mistika VR, but Insta360 Studio got better so we were able to rely on it more by the end. (CD)
Do you have any post-production lessons-learned you could share with us?
With 360, even in magic windowA method of viewing 360 content where a rectangular frame acts as a portal to the larger, spherical recording. The viewe... More mode, there’s so much information coming at you. We didn’t want the visuals to override the audio, so we used text to reinforce key points of learning (MA)
Since we’re making this for people watching on YouTube and Facebook and not in a headset, when we set our zero degrees for all edits, we try to do it in a way that acknowledges that there are a lot of people who don’t realize they can move around the frame. We want it to still make sense if they don’t rotate their view. (CD)
We had some last-minute edits where we had to change the zero degree so action ended on the zero degree instead of starting on the zero degree. For example, in the brewery episode’s final shot, one of the guys is pouring the beer and he walks out of the shot. Originally, we had our zero set on where he was at the beginning of the shot, but then we realized that if people don’t move the video around, they’re closing out that video looking at deadAn environment with little or no reflections or reverberations of the sound. space. Or, in the skiing shots in episode 2, “The Weight of Water,”, we’d rather people ski into the shot rather than out of the shot. We’d rather the shot start with them looking at deadAn environment with little or no reflections or reverberations of the sound. space and end with them seeing what we want them to see than the other way around. (CD)
Our hope is that people would see the start of the action and follow it. But, if they don’t follow the action, they’re looking at deadAn environment with little or no reflections or reverberations of the sound. space for 10 seconds. And, we’re seeing in our user testing that a lot of people are not following the action. That’s one of the reasons we test. We’re eating our own dog food. (CD)
What would you have done differently if you could go back in time?
We haven’t gotten to the postmortem phase, so I don’t know yet. I guess in episode five, we’d have liked to have birds in that episode. We were off on the migration cycle by a week, so if we could do anything differently, it would be to shoot that a week earlier. (CD)
Shooting nature is very difficult. It was hard to get the Pro out there and get close to the animals. We really needed more time to do that set up and make that work, so if we’re going to film nature 360, we need to adopt the techniques wildlife photographers use, like having a blind, filming multiple days, etc. (MA)
How has the audience responded to the Watershed 360 series? To your 360 video efforts in general?
It’s too soon to say for Watershed as we just started our promotional push for it after a delay in 2019 for catastrophic flooding here in Nebraska. Our push is for initial viewership on Facebook with more long-tail viewership on YouTube. Those expectations are guided by the performance of the other 360 videos we’ve released. (CD)
Overall, the response from our audience [to our 360 videos] has been good. We’ve had a couple break-out hits, including an ambient piece documenting the solar eclipse from Carhenge in western Nebraska. That had just under 1.5 million views on Facebook. Considering Nebraska has fewer than 2 million people in it, we’re proud of those numbers. A couple videos have hit the six-figure mark on YouTube, including a 360-video profile we produced putting you in the middle of SWAT training, which is in our all-time Top 10 for YouTube.
Historically, the tonnage comes from Facebook and our quality hits are from YouTube. But Facebook’s routine tinkering with its algorithm has definitely suppressed the heavy traffic we saw when we first started producing 360 videos – especially the changes they made in 2018 which resulted in less exposureThe measurement of the brightness and range (latitude) of light being captured by the camera. Exposure is governed by ca... More to videos from non-individual pages. And typically, we have anywhere from a few hundred to 10,000 views for each 360-video on YouTube. (CD)
What’s next in immersive for you guys?
We want to marry 360 and podcasting where we have a 360 video accompany each podcast episode and let the relative strengths of each medium complement the other. Those experiments will happen during a project Mary Anne is producing in summer 2020 about skateboarding-culture. We’ve got an Insta360 Titan now and we’re eager to test that out. And we’ve talked with PBS about opening up the Watershed website to other filmmakers so that the site offers a compositeThe post-production process of combining two or more images. Could be as simple as a title superimposed over an image, o... More of all the watersheds in the US. Moving beyond 360-video, we’ve built a fully immersive, 6DOFSlang for Six Degrees of Freedom. VR experience and have another pure VR project in the pipeline for 2020 production as well. (CD)
We’re using 360 cameras for traditional broadcast more and more. Our proof of concept was the crane migration. We were filming from a very small plane and there was no way to get a larger camera or a videographer in it, so we set up a 360 camera and a GoPro. Well, the GoPro failed, so we crop 16:9 shots out of that 360 and they ended up being amazing shots. We’re slowly convincing broadcast videographers to use them instead of GoPros so they can get multiple angles on the same scene. (MA)
Emerging media is not just about producing what everyone else won’t, it’s about expanding the toolset of creative options to which our producers have access. (CD)
How is NET Nebraska measuring the results of your efforts in immersive media?
Our metrics for success are threefold. Are other producers picking up these tools and using them? That’s our cultural metric, that’s proof that we’re fulfilling our department’s mission to add value to the organization. The second leg of the stool is hard numbers. We want views in the 10,000s and 100,000s, and we think we’ll get those with long tail viewership. Our SWAT 360-video slowly built into the 1000s of views over about 18 months, and then YouTube’s “suggested videos” algorithm took a shine to it and in short order we were above six figures. The third leg is this content’s use in education settings. As a broadcast entity, we are licensed to the University of Nebraska so creating pieces for use in the classroom is core to our mission. And some of these 360 pieces will be released later this summer through the PBS Learning Library along with guides designed with curriculum in mind to help teachers adapt the content to their classrooms. (CD)