360 videos and their not so rosy future: What goes wrong with VR and moving images?

So 360 videos and their makers have a future
Well meant and well done. It's anything but the same. Especially in 360° film. | © Pixabay

Everyone wants 360 videos. But wanting to and being able to do so is in no way comparable. What is possible? What isn’t? The filmmakers should first deal with this topic before emulating an ideal that they cannot live up to.

Without bright minds, creative brainstorms and innovations, the 360 format celebrated two years ago as the ultimate trend for the future will soon suffer the same fate as the ridiculous fuss about 3D TVs ten years ago!

You have to know that

  • 360 videos are a media form in itself. They move between film and theatre.
  • The low price of the camera technology required for 360 films and its digital processing has so far not led to new talents driving virtual reality. Instead, amateurs dominate.
  • What is possible with the 360 format is today primarily shown in animated films such as the short film “Pearl”, the first VR film ever nominated for an Oscar.

A movie 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. To produce a 360 film of this length under 6 million USD? I can’t imagine. Until ten years ago, a professional 360 film camera weighed over 650 kg. There were only 2 (!) of them worldwide. 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 amount per week from the site in Los Angeles.

And now – almost 20 years later – it has finally become possible to produce digital 360 videos effortlessly. No wonder the excitement was great. With 360 videos the way the modern world consumes moving images was to be revolutionized. Never before in the history of film has it been so easy to make 360 films and reach an audience of millions with 360 videos.

Nevertheless, 360 videos are still in their infancy.

What goes wrong?

360 videos are an art in themselves

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.). This is nonsense. 360 videos are not only because of the Immersion a completely independent form of film. They obey completely different rules. These are far more complex than it may seem at first glance. As the Latin would say: The rules of the game for a 360 video are sui generis in every respect (in English: unique in its character).

The audience guidance, the rhythm and the narrative perspective are one universe in a 360° film and only the surface of what is waiting for the maker in terms of challenge. Seen in this light, 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 to not only look outwards in a circle, but to look inwards from time to time, just like the 360 family does with the format Bullet Time.

Not talent driven, but price driven

Unfortunately, the market for 360 videos today is not talent driven but price driven. This not only ruins the would-be professionals behind their high-resolution 360 cameras, but also the quality and future of this type of film. If the medium of 360-degree film fails, it is not because of technology, but because of the naivety or ignorance of the makers. If you have a computer with Windows or any other computer with access to the Internet at home and know how to upload a video to YouTube on Google in 360 format, this is the only reason why you are far from being a talented filmmaker.

360 videos are ideal to let the viewer explore situations independently. No other genre can serve the desire to discover so skilfully. 360 is the perfect format for “situation films”. 360 is unbeatable in this. As a bad copy of other film genres, 360 videos dig their own grave. Unnecessarily.

Stories only if the budget is sufficient!

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 variety shows prove, quite possible. It can even give the appearance of effortlessness. Behind it, however, is hard training and a person who has dedicated himself to this task for years. This is also how it looks when producing a 360 video.

To successfully master the challenges of the 360 format in the future for 360 videos, knowledge, experience and talent are needed. And that costs. For a company specializing in 360 videos, this is an almost insoluble dilemma. The customer wants an action. The ego and the business sense of the provider as well. And in the end practice makes perfect.

Challenges with VR videos in 360 degrees

With VR videos, the scenographer / director must successfully meet the following challenges:

  • 360 videos have limited playable zones
  • Elimination of the classic assembly and thus the possibility of condensing the content
  • Pan or zoom are impossible with 360 videos
  • limited handling of selection of setting sizes (close-ups and detail shots can hardly be realized in 360 format)
  • It is difficult to direct the view of the spectator (spectator A looks at 40 degrees, spectator B at the same moment at 220 degrees. 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 by means of rehearsals and in advance with a cardboard or with the corresponding program digitally on the screen.
  • there are only very limited possibilities of lighting for 360 videos (spotlight in the picture). In the best case, a subsequent digital retouching offers help, so that no foreign objects disturb the picture.
  • Decor and props can be set up not only for a part of the picture
  • worldwide there are only a few authors available who can think and write in 360 format
  • no 360 tone. Unlike the image, the sound on YouTube and other large platforms suitable for the distribution of 360 is usually only available in stereo (in contrast to theme parks, where 360 audio can also be used to direct the viewer’s gaze audibly).

Which specialist has the size and can afford to advise his client against a 360 film against his own business interests because the budget is not sufficient to tell a 360-degree story? 360 could justifiably be considered the supreme discipline for good storytelling with moving images. But either the development of the screenplay or the 360° implementation is cut back. 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 film providers are positioning themselves to be able to shoot 360 films in 8K or even higher resolution. At the same time, it is frightening how many of these producers are then not able to process shots in 4K into a 360 film. Even the setup of a working workflow for image processing in 4K is technically complex and unfortunately still extremely costly. This is not news in itself. But it is exactly this workflow that determines the final technical quality and future of the 360 video.

Technique makes-bad-films-sharper-but-not-better-filmpulse-360-degree-film
It’s always about the content. Always.

It would be interesting to know how many of the videos that have been uploaded to the Vimeo video platform online with resolutions of up to 8K (i.e. twice the Ultra-HD) for the last four weeks have actually been post-produced in this quality. More on the same topic in Filmpuls: Upscaling and Downscaling: why it’s worthwhile to take a good look.

Those who buy a video in 4K or even 8K, but don’t get what they asked for in the end, can at least take comfort in the fact that technology in film is always a means to an end. A high-resolution video format does not automatically guarantee an effective film. 360 Videos and its creators have to put more effort into this.

But the other way round is also true: the 3D audio production is technically intensive. Here the right technology makes the difference.

The head is round so that thinking can change its direction

When the Geneva-based company Caran d’Ache invented the Neocolor, a new type of crayon based on wax oil, in 1952, nobody claimed that from then on all pictures would be painted using this technique alone. When 360 was reinvented, it was predicted everywhere that a digital killer tool would take over the world. Fiddlesticks! 360 videos, like Neocolor in painting, are simply a wonderful, extremely interesting, additional way of communicating with film and video. Not anymore. But nothing less.

However, the comparison with the Neocolor crayon, which is also used in kindergarten, is misleading: 360 videos have no place there. They belong to the most difficult forms of communication with moving images – which even established directors can crash and fail. This only makes the fascination for 360-degree films even greater among the knowledgeable and initiated.

Future needs origin

360 videos are in a class of their own in every respect. He refuses to learn from the “normal” film, but shares with it the most important of all premises. This is: You should not bore your audience! This was also discovered 50 years ago by the inventor of virtual reality, Ivan Sutherland.

This requires steep learning curves for all those involved. Without convincing and inspiring content, the most brilliant technical solution is for the foxes in the long term and will not lead them back on the road to success.

As a rule, new media are first misunderstood and then, in a second step, imitate their predecessors. The digital 360-degree film has skipped these stages on its way into the future. He started directly with the imitation of other forms. And gambles away his future.

The fear of many directors of the archetype of early film, the filmed theatre without classic camera angles, may be one reason why many producers do not want to see their 360 videos as a theatre-like production. Theatre is considered by many filmmakers to be unsexy and old-fashioned. With VR 360 Video you miss a really unique chance. The 360 Animation already shows what is possible today.

Background information

The author of this article produced in the years 1998-2000 with the camera rig of Iwerks for Condor Films one of the last analog 360-degree circular television films worldwide. The film, which was shot over a period of five weeks in the USA, Iceland and the Bavaria Studios, attracted over 12 million viewers in the cinema built especially for it in the following years. Widmer, who produced five more global films in 360-degree format in the following years, including with legendary cameraman Michael Ballhaus, says: “The longer one deals with the content of the 360 format and 360 videos, the more complex the matter becomes. In my career I have never met a film format that demands more humility from its makers.“

Editorial assistance: Lena Imboden

Kristian Widmer
About Kristian Widmer 15 Articles
Kristian Widmer is a member of the Swiss Film Academy. He holds a doctorate in law and an MBA from the University of St. Gallen HSG, and was for many years CEO of Condor Films AG, which was founded in 1947 and has been awarded an Academy Award™

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