While shooting the short “Eat You Alive” at YouTube Space LA back in September, director Brent Coble had to suppress his urge to shoot close-ups of the hungry mouths devouring human flesh.
It wasn’t due to any content restrictions. Close-ups simply weren’t part of the cinematic toolset at Coble’s disposal. That’s because he was shooting the zombie home invasion on Stage 2’s “Walking Dead”-inspired set in 360-degree immersive video. Even if he moved the camera in close to capture a zombie bite, he couldn’t be sure the viewer wouldn’t be looking at the ceiling or the other side of the room instead of the gnashing teeth of the undead.
“You’re writing these stories with your brain still thinking you’re going to get [shot] coverage, and you can’t do that,” said Coble, who shot a total five Halloween-inspired 360-degree videos at YouTube Space LA that premiered this month “So you have to make sure that the story you’re telling actually necessitates 360 rather than just a single camera.”
Coble’s experience highlights a key issue facing creators looking to dive into virtual reality technology: how do you tell a story when you can’t control what the viewer is looking at?
The answer may be that people need to broaden their perception of what visual storytelling is.
“Ultimately, experiences are storytelling,” said Peter Csathy, CEO of Manatt Digital Media. “I’m a big music festival guy. That’s my thing for my family, and the weekend is a story for us.” With virtual reality, “if you can’t attend it, you can be there. You can live what it’s like to actually be immersed in the crowd.”
Live concerts, sporting events and video games are obvious vehicles for virtual reality that, unlike traditional film and TV-style narratives, don’t need to deliver a steady, singular stream of plot points subtly and economically. But that doesn’t mean projects with such rigid storytelling requirements are ultimately unsuited for the virtual world.
Former Disney animator Glen Keane employed a simple technique to direct the viewer’s attention in his immersive animated short “Duet.” Made to be viewed on smart phones as part of an initiative by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, it tells the intertwining stories of a boy and a girl as they go from birth through the early stages of their lives.
“If I wanted a long shot, the character moved further away. If I wanted a close-up, he would come closer,” Keane told the author in an interview late last year.
Keane also used subtle cues in the animation and the sound design (by Scot Blackwell Stafford, who also composed the score) to entice viewers to follow the action in certain directions.
For him, the experience was freeing rather than restrictive
“In a lot of ways, it’s closer to how I actually feel when I animate,” said Keane, who worked at Disney for 38 years. “When I animated Ariel, Aladdin or the Beast, when a scene was done, I never thought of a cut. I pictured that the character continued on after that. But I think the longest shot I’d animated in my career was maybe 30 seconds at the most. [“Duet”] was five minutes of solid animation of three characters, and it was like an unbroken conversation all the way through.”
A non-360 version of “Duet.”
For Coble, the process was a bit more frustrating.
“For each [short], there was probably a week of practicing for a camera, making sure that the position of it was right,” said Coble, a senior producer at YouTube Space LA. “You have an idea you really fall in love with, then you do your first test with your co-workers and you’re like, ‘This is not really good at all.’ If you’re making a traditional video, you can grab a camera and some lights and do some set-ups and figure it out. With 360, it’s 80% pre-production and getting ahead of that curve and realizing that you’re maybe not servicing the story as well as you could. You just immediately have to pivot and make it better.”
Chris Riedell, who plays one of the zombie attack victims in “Eat You Alive,” found the experience to be a lot like performing in a one-act play.
“Outside of where the 360 camera was set up, we were pretty free to play,” said Riedell, who in partnership with sibling Nick has directed the films “Camp Takota” and “Bad Night,” as well as numerous clips for their YouTube channel The Brothers Riedell. “It was a lot of blocking and moving and making sure where we were at in the space, but it wasn’t necessarily about hitting perfect marks for a lens. There are moments in ‘Eat You Alive’ when we were legitimately in it, and you don’t get the same feel with a traditional single camera.”
To capture the action, Coble used an array of six GoPro cameras mounted on a boom. The image could not be monitored live, because the half dozen image streams had to be stitched together with software in post to create the 360 image. Nonetheless, it was easy for them to figure out when they had hit cinematic paydirt.
“We knew which take we were going to use the second we cut the camera,” Coble said. “I think we used number seven, then we did maybe two more and everyone was like, ‘It’s not going to get better.’”
Ultimately, Coble thinks the evolution of virtual reality storytelling will mirror the progress we’ve seen over the last few years with content produced with individual GoPros and other action cameras.
“They had what seemed like a simple use, and then people got creative and found really cool innovative things to do with it,” said Coble, “and I think the exact same thing is going to happen with 360.”