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An Intro to VR Filmmaking

Cinema has evolved dramatically over the last century: from silent, black and white films to stunning, full-length features complete with special effects and more.

Filmmaking is going through yet another revolution, as filmmakers Guy Bauer and Anthony Casanova demonstrated at the Garage on October 4. Together, they film 360-degree, virtual reality films, and they – along with many others revolutionizing filmmaking today – are rewriting the rules of cinema.

The first thing to know about VR is its difference from AR, or augmented reality. Virtual reality places the user in a completely new world, occluding their natural surroundings, whereas AR overlays a new world on top of the natural one, mixing both real and virtual elements. Pokémon Go, the smartphone app that took the world by storm this summer, is a great example of how AR can be brought to consumers.

So why is VR so hot today? The truth is that it’s been around in some form for years, but it hasn’t been accessible to the everyday consumer until recently. Old VR technology was large and bulky, making it too heavy for any user to use comfortably. Today, we can experience VR through technology like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, or our phones – have you noticed the short 360° videos in your Facebook feed from companies like Lowe’s?

Bauer and Casanova use a GoPro rig, consisting of 6 cameras in a cube-shaped support held up by a long pole, to which a battery is attached. The cameras allow the entire surrounding to be filmed at once.

The GoPro rig shown here consists of 6 cameras, which allow the entire surrounding to be filmed at once

The GoPro rig shown here consists of 6 cameras, allowing the entire surrounding area to be filmed at once

To show the process of filmmaking from start to finish, Bauer and Casanova filmed a short clip of everyone in the room jumping in a circle. After the film was processed and edited, it showed the circle shifting to the left in midair and allowed viewers to pan throughout the video to see every part of the room.

Even this brief foray into 360° videos highlighted several of the differences between traditional and VR filmmaking. Because the cameras capture all of their surroundings, it’s difficult to hide artificial sources of lighting or props that wouldn’t ordinarily be seen in the frame to assist in filming. It’s also unadvisable to move the camera at all during filming, since a shaky camera combined with the 360° experience can make some viewers experience motion sickness. Another aspect of VR filmmaking that filmmakers like Bauer and Casanova must take into consideration is the fact that viewers will tend to shift their attention away from the main focus of the film to explore their surroundings.

How do VR filmmakers combat these issues? The simple truth is that Bauer, Casanova, and other filmmakers are still learning. They noted that it’s best to film in natural overhead light, since they haven’t yet figured out a way to introduce artificial light to the scene in an unobtrusive way. Smooth movement of the camera in one direction seems to minimize motion-sickness, although there’s little they can do about any other props they don’t want on screen.

Compelling viewers to stay focused on the story of the video is a bit more difficult, but it’s definitely possible. A short 360° video based on Mr. Robot, the TV show, keeps viewers on track by having the characters move throughout their surroundings and having each new scene start where the main characters were located in the previous scene. VR filmmakers are still developing ways to give viewers the freedom to explore while reigning them in when necessary.

At the moment, VR filmmaking is limited to the entertainment industry, but where will it go from here? VR has potential applications in healthcare, education, retail, and journalism, among others. Only time will tell exactly how much of an impact VR has on our lives, but for now we’ll have to be content with the occasional 360° film popping up in our Facebook or YouTube feed.

Michelle Nguyen

About Michelle Nguyen

Michelle Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in Biomedical Engineering. She’s from Houston, TX and in her free time she enjoys watching Sherlock and eating tiramisu.

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