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ICG Explores The Challenges Of Shooting VR During CineGear Panel

Panelists from left to right: Evan Penses, DP, Eve Cohen, DP, Celine Tricart, VR Director and 1st AC, Ben Schwartz, Digital Imaging Technician. Photo courtesy ICG.

By: Marjorie Galas

Prior to the commencement of International Cinematographers Guild’s CineGear Expo panel “Shooting Live Action VR Content” on Saturday, June 4th, 2016, ICG President Steven Poster spent a moment reflecting on the recent interest in virtual reality.  Noting content creators have been grappling with issues the technology poses and finding directions for art form, Poster drove an important point home.

“(VR) is an imaging technology, so it is an ICG technology,” said Poster.  Added panel moderator and ICG Business Representative Michael Chambliss, “We aren’t here to debate (the technology’s) validity, we’re holding an informal discussion on ways to approach the medium.”

Chambliss pointed out that cinematographers have had over 120 years to perfect capture techniques for 2D – what is essentially a box or frame.  Each panelist joining Chambliss had a fair amount of experimentation with the developing camera and capture technology available for VR productions, including 180 and 360 formats.  The panel included Eve Cohen, Director of Photography; Evan Penses, Director of Photography; Céline Tricart, VR Director and 1st AC and Ben Schwartz, Digital Imaging Technician.  DP Andrew Shulkind joined the panel remotely from a project filming in Georgia.

Using a series of visual aids, Schwartz described various camera rigs commonly used for capturing VR.  Currently Go Pros are the cameras most commonly featured in the rigs.  One particularly effective system Schwartz described was the Go Pro Odyssey.  The Odyssey features 14 Go Pro cameras embedded in a orb that shoots 360 degree 3D format in 8K at thirty frames.

The entire panel weighed in on the topic of stitching.  Stitching is the elaborate, multi-step process of connecting all the captured footage together to form a seamless image.  Schwartz mentioned VideoStitch is a reliable software program that puts together 90% of the streams.  The remaining ten percent of the process requires extreme dedication.

“(It requires) slow, fine tooth compositing and rotoscoping in platforms like Nuke,” said Schwartz.

VR presents some new issues when it comes to composing a shot.  While working on “Gone”, a narrative VR experience presented by Skybound Entertainment, Shulkind shot in a forest location.  To allow the director to be “on set” while shooting, a trap door was built underground, while first ADs and camera operators hid behind trees during takes.  Motion control slides were proved to be the best set up for camera movement, however Shulkind, the director and producers had intensive discussions prior to establishing any moving shots.

“Moving the camera is one of the toughest decisions,” said Shulkind.  “You have to decide if you are moving and engaging the viewer’s eye or being passive and allowing for the audience’s experience.”

The panel concurred that moving slowly forward on an axis helps to draw the eye in, as long as two crucial elements, speed and stability, are perfected.  Cohen emphasized the importance of blocking.  The space ratio plays a greater role in VR depending particularly if wide or rounded lenses were used.  When actors had too much space in between them – in her case, seven feet – the special gap appeared extreme in the stitched version.  Because there is no way to fully review the image until it is stitched together, it becomes important to have an on set stitcher who can put a rough cut together for immediate review.

Tricart and Penses provided examples of VR experiments that provided important learning experiences.  Tricart worked on an eight minute dramatization of events surrounding the marriage equality court rulings.   Actors where hired to perform specific dramatizations, and the camera acted as a news reporter, highlighting each event.  Cutting between people in a crowd proved excessive for a 360 degree environment; Tricart stated something like this was much better suited for a 180 degree format.  Penses experimented with extreme sports shoots.  Placing a camera on a helmet proved to be too extreme for a view experience:  the image projects sends the viewer through rapid movement but the body’s sensory mechanism recognizes it is not moving, presenting a jarring relationship.    He found the extreme sports footage worked better when there was another individual in frame so there was a narrative to follow.

“There are three basic questions to ask when you are creating a VR environment for a viewer; Who am I? (That is) is the viewer involved and interacting with the environment or are they a ghost observing the environment?  Number two: Where am I? And lastly, What’s the story?” said Penses.