Everyone wants 360 videos. But wanting and being able are in no way comparable. What is possible? What isn’t? Filmmakers should first address this issue before emulating an ideal they cannot live up to.
Without bright minds, creative brainstorms and innovation, the 360 format, hailed two years ago as the ultimate trend for the future , will soon face the same fate as the ridiculous fuss about 3D televisions ten years ago!
You need to know
- 360 videos are a media form in their own right. They move between film and theatre.
- So far, the low price of the camera technology required for 360 movies and its digital processing is not leading to new talent pushing virtual reality. Instead, amateurs dominate.
- What is possible with the 360 format is now primarily demonstrated by animated films such as the short film “Pearl”, the first VR film ever nominated for an Oscar.
A film every 7 years
Since 1960, a 360 film has been shot somewhere in the world about every seven years. The average film length was 10 minutes. Producing a 360 film of this length under $6 million? Unimaginable. Until ten years ago, a professional 360 film camera weighed over 650 kg. Worldwide there were only 2 (!) of them. The one owned by Disney was only used for 360 productions of their own theme parks. It was not accessible to outsiders. The second 360 camera, designed by the ingenious Don Iwerks, could be rented together with a team of specialists for a high five-figure sum per week from space in Los Angeles.
And now – almost 20 years later – it has finally become possible to produce digital 360 videos effortlessly. No wonder there was so much excitement. 360 videos were meant to revolutionize the way the modern world consumes moving images. Never before in the history of film has it been so easy to shoot 360 films and reach an audience of millions with 360 videos.
Still, 360 videos are stuck in their infancy.
What’s going wrong?
360 videos are an art in itself
The biggest sin of the makers of 360 videos is to try to imitate the previous cinematic disciplines (image film, product film, CEO video, advertising film, etc.). That’s nonsensical. 360 videos are a completely unique form of film, and not just because of the immersion. They obey completely different rules. These are far more complex than they might seem at first glance. As the Latin would say: The rules of the game for a 360 video are sui generis (unique in character) in every respect.
In 360° film, the audience guide, the rhythm and the narrative perspective are a universe and only the surface of the challenge that awaits the maker. In this sense, 360 videos are not for beginners, but a discipline for masters. The relatively low price for the purchase of a camera and infrastructure does not change this. It would be good for the producers of 360 videos not only to look outwards in circles, but also to look inwards at themselves from time to time, as the Bullet Time format does in the 360 family.
Not talent-driven, but price-driven
Unfortunately, the market for 360 video today is not talent-driven, but price-driven. Not only does this ruin the would-be professionals behind their high-resolution 360 cameras, but it also ruins the quality and future of this type of film. If the medium of 360-degree film fails, it will not be because of the technology, but because of the naivety or ignorance of the makers. Anyone who has a computer with Windows or any other computer with access to the Internet at home and knows how to upload a video to Google in 360 format on YouTube is far from being a talented filmmaker just because of that.
360 videos are ideal for letting viewers explore situations on their own. No other genre can serve the desire to discover so skillfully. 360 is the perfect format for “situation films”. 360 is unbeatable at that. As a poor copy of other film genres, 360 videos are digging their own grave. Unnecessarily.
Stories only if there’s enough money in the budget!
Telling a story in 360° is like trying to hold seven plates in the air with two hands. This is, of course, as jugglers in circus and vaudeville prove, quite possible. It can even give the appearance of effortlessness. Behind this, however, is hard training and a person who has dedicated himself to this task for years. This is also the case with the production of a 360 video.
To successfully meet the challenges of the 360 format for 360 videos in the future requires knowledge, experience and talent. And that costs. For a company specializing in 360 videos, this is an almost unsolvable dilemma. The customer wants an action. So is the ego and business acumen of the provider. And lastly, practice makes perfect.
Challenges with VR videos in 360-degree
With VR videos, the following challenges must be successfully met as a scenographer / director:
- 360 videos have limited playable zones
- omission of the classic montage and thus the possibility of condensing the content
- Pan or zoom are impossible with 360 videos
- limited handling of the choice of shot sizes (close-ups and detail shots are hardly possible in 360 format)
- Viewer’s gaze is difficult to direct (Viewer A looks at 40 degrees, Viewer B looks at 220 degrees at the same moment. Where in the picture is the actor staged? Experiencing means looking and recognizing).
- Hardly any room for improvisation. A 360 staging can only be planned in advance with set rehearsals and with a cardboard or with the corresponding program digitally on the screen.
- there are only very limited lighting possibilities for 360 videos (spotlights in the picture). In the best case, help is provided by subsequent digital retouching so that no foreign bodies interfere with the image.
- Decor and props can be set up not only for one part of the picture
- there are only a few authors available worldwide who can think and write in 360 format
- no 360 sound. Unlike the image, the audio on YouTube and other major platforms suitable for distributing 360 is usually only available in stereo (unlike in theme parks, where the viewer’s line of sight can also be directed auditorily thanks to 360 audio).
Which specialist today has the size and can afford to advise his client against his own business interests from a 360 film because the budget for telling a story with 360 degrees is not enough? Yet 360 could justifiably be considered the supreme discipline for good storytelling with moving images. But either the development of the script is skimped on, or the 360° implementation. 360 videos that want to tell a story, but can’t, set off a downward spiral.
360 videos: Technology makes bad movies sharper, but not better
It’s amazing how many 360 movie providers position themselves as being able to shoot 360 movies in 8K or even higher resolution. At the same time, it’s scary how many of these producers are then unable to process even just footage in 4K into a 360 movie. Even the setup of a functioning workflow for image processing in 4K is technically complex and unfortunately still extraordinarily cost-intensive. That’s not news, per se. But it is exactly this workflow that determines the final technical quality and future of the 360 video.
It would be interesting to know how many of the videos that can now be uploaded online to the video platform Vimeo with resolutions of up to 8K (i.e. double Ultra HD) have actually been post-produced in this quality. More on the same topic in Filmpuls: Upscaling and Downscaling: why it pays to watch properly.
Those who buy a video in 4K or even 8K, but in the end don’t get what they asked for, can at least console themselves with the fact that technology in film is always a means to an end. A high-resolution video format does not automatically guarantee a high-impact film. That’s something 360 Videos and its creators need to get their heads around even more.
But the reverse is also true: 3D audio production is technology-intensive. This is where the right technology makes all the difference.
The head is round so that thinking can change its direction
When the Caran d’Ache company from Geneva invented Neocolor, a new type of crayon based on wax oil, in 1952, no one claimed that in future all pictures would only be painted using this technique. Conversely, when 360 was reinvented, it was predicted everywhere that it would be a killer digital tool that would take over the world. Fiddlesticks! 360 videos, like Neocolor in painting, are simply a wonderful, extremely interesting, additional way to communicate with film and video. Not anymore. But no less, either.
However, the comparison with the Neocolor crayon, which is also used in kindergarten, is not apt: 360 videos have no place there. They are among the most difficult forms of communication with moving images – at which even established directors can fail miserably. This only adds to the fascination with 360-degree movies among the knowledgeable and initiated.
Future needs origin
360 videos are in a class of their own in every way. It refuses to learn from the “normal” film, but shares with it the most important of all premises. This one is: Thou shalt not bore thy audience! The inventor of virtual reality, Ivan Sutherland, also noted this 50 years ago.
This still requires steep learning curves for all those involved. Without convincing and inspiring content, the most brilliant technical solution is long-term for the foxes and does not lead the way back to success.
As a rule, new media are first misunderstood and then imitate their predecessors in a second step. The digital 360-degree film has skipped these stages on its way to the future. He started directly at imitating other forms. And gambles away his future.
The fear of many directors of the archetype of early film, the filmed theater without classic camera angles, may be one reason why many makers do not want to see their 360 videos as theater-like productions. Theater is considered by many filmmakers to be unsexy and old-fashioned. With VR 360 Video, they’re missing out on a really unique opportunity. The 360 animation already shows what is possible today.
The author of this article produced one of the last analog 360-degree Circlevision films in the world in 1998-2000 for Condor Films using the Iwerks camera rig. Shot over a period of five weeks in the USA, Iceland and Bavaria Studios, the film attracted over 12 million viewers in the following years in the cinema built especially for it. Widmer, who produced five more global films in 360-degree format in subsequent years, including with legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, says: “The longer one deals with the 360 format and 360 videos in terms of content, the more complex the matter becomes. In my career, I have not encountered a film format that demands more humility from its makers.“
Editorial assistance: Lena Imboden
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