4 Chapter 4: 360 Storytelling Approaches

In this chapter we’ll discuss different strategies and treatments to tell 360 stories and gain insight from several acclaimed filmmakers that specialize in immersive video.

 

Telling Stories From Every Angle

One of the thrilling aspects of 360 video from a storyteller’s perspective is how “real” the format and production can feel. When creating video for standard TV or film content, producers can employ a variety of shooting and editing techniques to help propel the story forward. They can reshoot a scene multiple times, splicing together the best shots to create the perfect version of it. They can use sequences or a series of quick cuts to convey action. They can use lighting or post-production tricks to ramp up the drama. In short, producers of traditional video have the ability to easily shape the story and narrative into whatever they wish.

Capturing 360 video is a much different process and the end product is a much different experience. In general, 360 video creators don’t incorporate sequences because everything is essentially a wide angle shot. Remember, even if there is a specific character or action or portion of a scene you’d like your viewer to focus on, the nature of 360 video means giving the viewer some agency to choose where they look and how they engage with the piece. Quick cuts also may not work well because you want to give people some time to explore a scene and it can be a physically jarring sensation if one is watching through a headset to suddenly jump from shot to shot. Rather, your best course of action is to capture the scene as it is, the best you can. You may get the opportunity to shoot multiple takes, in which case, you would pick the best result.

This is why planning your shoot ahead of time is so vital in creating good 360 video content. By all means, if you witness something amazing happening and you want to capture it, pull out your 360 camera and get filming! But given the various challenges of shooting 360 video (limited battery life of cameras, massive file sizes, image stability), it’s in your best interests to really understand what you’re shooting and how best to do it. Jessica Lauretti, a filmmaker, creative director and VR documentary innovator, refers to this as “staging.”

“One of the questions that people ask about when they first watch a 360 video is ‘Where’s the close up?’” Lauretti says. “There’s no closeup in 360, unless the actor or subject walks up to the camera. That’s a close up. It’s the reverse way in which filming creates feelings and emotions, and pacing, and timing, with cinematography and editing. The reverse is true in 360 where the subject matter has to create all that. The camera is just there, it’s an observer of whatever is happening. You have to plan and stage out what the subject matter is going to be, and what they’re going to do and how they’re going to interact with the camera. Imagine that camera on the tripod is the person watching the piece. You’re creating a stage around them.”

We really love that idea — you should be creating a stage around your viewer. And how does one do that? Well, the starting point should always be trying to answer this essential question: what perspective are you trying to show?

When we watch this video, are we (the audience) meant to be…

  • A spectator or witness?
  • An active participant in the action?
  • Seeing the world from the eyes of a central character?
  • Some combination of perspectives?

Journalist and filmmaker Marie-Espérance Cerda, who has experimented with 360 video and virtual reality to shed light on Toronto’s accessible housing issues, says identifying which perspective to take is based on understanding “what kind of experience you want to give to the user.”

“If you want to put them in the heat of the action, or give a fly on the wall perspective, or a character’s perspective, those are key elements to figure out. That determines a lot about how you’re going to shoot it. For a disembodied experience of going around a house, people can feel like they were in someone’s home without being a formal guest, which would have been different if you give the experience of living in someone’s home. The difference would be in placing the camera in different positions and creating a different narrative.”

If you refer back to Chapter 3, there are lots of useful tips on shooting 360 video and positioning your camera, but it’s important to remember that to tell an effective story, having a consistent perspective framing your video can make a big difference. Unexpected and/or unexplained shifts in perspective can be jarring for your viewer — imagine watching a 360 video where you’re in a jet plane cockpit getting a sense of what it’s like to be a pilot but the next scene suddenly cuts to a shot from a camera mounted on the exterior of the plane and, the next thing you know, you’re somehow floating in the sky. If your video involves including multiple perspectives, be conscious of how those transitions happen and sequencing your scenes together in a way that feels comfortable for viewers.

WHAT KINDS OF SCENES WORK WELL FOR 360 VIDEO?

In order to better figure out which perspective to take, it helps to understand what kind of scenes work well for 360 video. There are so many different kinds of 360 video experiences, from swimming with sharks in the Pacific Ocean to visiting the Colosseum in Rome to simulations of being shot into space to watch a computer graphic visualization of a supernova exploding. Some are guided experiences using audio narration or titles, others choose to leave the viewer alone to explore the content. As different as they can be, what successful 360 videos tend to have in common is that they bring you to truly compelling places. When you have a great scene or environment, the stage can almost feel like it has set itself and you just need to turn the camera on. A compelling scene can mean different things to different people, but in our experience, we have observed a few distinct qualities they generally share as it relates to 360 video:

 

Visually Dynamic

Remember that one of the reasons we choose to use 360 video is to purposefully give the viewer some agency in where to look and when, even if you may have a specific character or action you’re trying to capture and draw their attention to. There are subtle techniques we can employ to help encourage people to look where you want them to, and we’ll get to that later in the textbook. But for now, let’s reinforce one key principle: the entire point of 360 is to look all around. The strongest 360 scenes tend to be visually dynamic with interesting and relevant things to see around the whole environment.

This is truly an area where nature documentaries shine. From BBC’s Planet Earth to March of the Penguins, think about how natural environments offer exciting visual opportunities almost anywhere you look. National Geographic has done some remarkable work in this area, showing off the drama of the natural world.

Fig. 1: 360 Video of Victoria Falls by National Geographic

 

This can certainly extend to shooting in more urban environments. Cities and towns are full of hustling, bustling activity and captivating environs – people walking by, unique buildings, myriad colours, shapes and textures. Indeed, shooting outdoors presents challenges for filmmakers to navigate around, but in the case of 360 video, you’re often shooting outdoors because the outside world is so visually compelling. In fact, the scenes you struggle to shoot the most with 360 video are likely to be indoor spaces, as it can be more difficult to find rooms and interiors that are as attention-grabbing.

 

Fig. 2: A 360° Tour of Yonge Dundas Square by Tourism Toronto

 

 

So, a vital question to ask yourself is: is this scene visually dynamic enough to really maximize the use of 360 video? What’s important to consider is that sometimes, all it takes is a few minor adjustments to help a scene go from an underwhelming use of 360 to a very compelling 360 experience.

Say you know an incredible singer-songwriter and you’d like to film a scene where they perform one of their songs. One option could be an empty studio, where it’ll be nice and quiet.

 

A singer-songwriter in a messy studio might not make the best 360 video.

Singer-songwriter in classroom example
Fig. 3 Joshua Cameron, Ryerson University, CC BY 4.0

But does a 360 presentation make sense for this scene? With traditional video, you could easily edit the footage to fill the frame with their face and offer more visual variety. But with 360, your audience may be looking around at what’s on the screen or trying to figure out what’s on the carpet. Even if the performance is incredible, the environment is neither visually interesting or particularly relevant to the story and not a compelling 360 experience.

As the person shooting the video, however, you can choose where to put the performer. One simple change that could make all the difference? Place them somewhere interesting. A video of the songwriter busking on the weekend and giving them and their music a chance to interact with the environment and the people passing by could be a far more engaging experience.

 

Fig. 4: A student-submitted video of a busker in Esplanade Park.

Always look for a visually dynamic scene, but also know there are often opportunities to reframe your idea to make it more visually interesting. Get a little creative!

 

Access to a unique experience

Another common quality that many of the most successful 360 video experiences have is that they give the viewer access to something extraordinary, rare or unusual. Some people would never be able to bring themselves to jump out of an airplane and go skydiving but love the sensation that a VR experience can evoke. Others will never see the inside of the Louvre or the Taj Mahal in-person, which is why guided tour videos in VR are popular. Giving viewers a taste of something they would not otherwise likely experience firsthand is a good starting point when Robert Hernandez thinks about what makes for the best kinds of 360 video content.

“For me, the baseline is, a good story is a good story no matter the platform,” Hernandez says. “For me, it’s got to be a compelling story that uses the space around it. And for that, I kind of like the low hanging fruit is giving me access to things that I normally couldn’t get access to. So 360 into a location that I couldn’t go to, or access with a person where I can hold presence with them that is difficult for me to connect with in real life.”

There are some wonderful examples of 360 videos that can offer people experiences they would otherwise find difficult to have.

RYOT Studios is one of the world’s leaders in producing incredibly cinematic 360/VR documentaries. One of their most stunning examples is from their Tales from the Edge series in which they follow American skydiver and BASE jumper Jeb Corliss as he glides through the Italian alps in a wingsuit.

 

Fig. 5: GoPro’s BASE Jumping with Jeb Corliss

 

 

This piece is not only impressive for the breathtaking experience of flying through the air in a remote and beautiful location, but for weaving in a compelling narrative about Corliss and the friends who have died pursuing this adrenaline-spiking extreme sport.

On the other end of the experience spectrum, Robert McLaughlin, who leads the National Film Board’s Digital Studio in Vancouver, wanted to give audiences rare access into something else ⁠— a 360 view of the world’s busiest supervised injection site. A story about the daily challenges people with drug addiction face in Vancouver may lack the visual grandeur of base-jumping, but it can be immensely compelling because you’re showing many people the city in a way they’ve never experienced before. Being able to connect people to worlds within worlds is something many storytellers love aspiring to. For politically charged and ethically challenging stories such as drug addiction and healthcare policy, McLaughlin believes the use of 360 video actually helped the NFB’s case in gaining access:

“I think we managed to negotiate access to film in what is a very sensitive environment because we convinced the stakeholders that this could be a tool to help people see the place for what it is, not for what they might imagine it could be where ethical questions about drug use and ethical questions around legalities exist around healthcare issues, publicly funded healthcare issues, so those kinds of things. So I think the fact that we were filming in 360 provided us with leverage to convince the people that it was a different kind of way to educate people around a story.”

“It very much provided narrative around the place and what it looked like on the inside and outside.”

 

Fig. 6: Inside Insite, by NFB

 

Emotion or feeling

We’ve established how this kind of video, especially when worn with a headset, is a more immersive experience that tends to induce sensation and emotion in the viewer. Well, oftentimes that’s what you’re really looking to capture in a scene ⁠— a feeling you’d love to get across. And a scene doesn’t have to be flashy or somehow rare to elicit those kinds of feelings in people. Take this powerful example by the New York Times. Two days after Brussels saw several of its transit hubs bombed in terrorist plots, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people, a reporter took a 360 camera to a subway station to capture the eerily quiet commute. Weaving in interviews with several citizens on their way to work or school or wherever they were going, the context of the situation imbued an otherwise plain and unexciting collection of transit shots with genuine emotion.

So again, sometimes the most quotidian scenes may seem likely poor candidates to maximize the strengths of 360 video. But if there is some strong feeling the scene provokes ⁠— sadness, excitement, determination, anger, humour, nostalgia ⁠— then it could absolutely be worth capturing.

 

Fig. 7: The New York Times’ 360 video of the days after the Brussels Attacks

 

DIFFERENT WAYS OF FRAMING YOUR STORY

So perhaps you’ve identified a scene that is either visually dynamic or offers special access to somewhere interesting, or a combination of both. And maybe you’ve figured out which perspective you want to take when you capture the scene. But now you need to figure out another critical aspect to your storytelling approach: what kind of story are you trying to tell? 360 and VR video is still in its infancy and we’re seeing exciting new storytelling perspectives emerge all the time. But there are several popular approaches to perspective we’ve observed that can help give your content the focused narrative or flow a 360 video requires. Here’s a description of some different approaches than have been used to frame scenes. Keep in mind that your video may incorporate a combination of these kinds of approaches.

 

The event or moment

One of the most straightforward and popular kinds of 360 video content is to simply capture a live performance, event or particular experience, giving the viewer the perspective of being right in the middle of the action and experiencing it for themselves. You may choose to include audio narration elements or additional context through text captions, but more often than not, content creators that are capturing events like concerts, dance recitals or fashion shows prefer to present the video without commentary to preserve the immersive feeling as much as possible. This works particularly well when the scene can easily speak for itself and be understood without needing additional context. This type of treatment also works well for longer scenes that have lots of visual interest and natural progression built in. Some examples include:

 

Fig. 8: MTV’s 360 video of (good ‘ol Canadian) Shawn Mendes performing his hit song “Mercy”

You’ll notice that MTV was able to train multiple 360 cameras on Mendes at once, giving them different shot options to select from in editing, which in turn offers people different angles in which to view the performance.

 

Fig. 9: New York Times’ 360 video of a Donald Trump campaign rally

 

In this NY Times piece, you’ll notice the reporter made the choice to offer some narration in order to provide context and additional information. But conceptually, this video is similar to the Shawn Mendes performance we saw previously, as the primary goal is to allow the viewer to take the perspective of an audience member.

As an interesting spin, you can also reverse the perspective and shoot the video from the point-of-view of the performer or key subject.

 

The guided tour

Sometimes a great character isn’t a person, it’s a place. Particularly when the place is full of visually interesting elements and has a real sense of identity. Here are two examples of a guided tour approach to 360 storytelling, where the objective is to lead the viewer through a location, letting them feel like they’re physically exploring it. These may involve walking or movement shots, in which case we suggest using cameras that have excellent image stabilization built-in and/or finding other ways to help stabilize the shot (see the Chapter on Camera Shooting – Stabilization).

 

Fig. 10: BBC’s 360 tour of Buckingham Palace

Again, whether you choose to use omniscient narration or text or even other characters’ interviews to help add context or help the viewer along the path depends on what kind of experience you’re aiming to create for them. In the video below, students at the Ryerson School of Journalism chose to use the reporter as a consistently active presence throughout the scenes to help describe the surroundings because many audience members will not have the cultural or linguistic familiarity with this location.

 

Fig. 11: Fishing Villages in Hong Kong

Dramatic reconstruction or simulation

What happens when the scene or place you want people to experience for themselves in either too dangerous or too difficult to film? One approach would be to reconstruct the scene and its specific details as closely as possible to the original. This method can make for exhilarating and intriguing experiences, as we’ll see below, but they are definitely some of the most labour intensive and challenging 360 videos to produce.

Recreating or simulating a real-life event requires several well-thought out elements. To honestly represent an original scene, one needs to conduct thorough research and plan well.

In this case, the BBC wanted to simulate the experience of a house fire, giving viewers the perspective of both someone inside of a burning house and the firefighters that spring into action. The objective was to build a sensory experience that also served to educate people on what precisely happens during a house fire, based on thorough research and interviews with safety experts.

 

Fig. 12: The BBC’s Dramatic Reconstruction of a real-life fire rescue

 

In a post for the BBC’s Research and Development blog, editors Zillah Watson and filmmaker Peter Boyd Maclean explained some of the challenges of creating this piece.

“We experimented with putting the camera on the face of the firefighter to get his point of view and make the viewer feel in the moment. But we couldn’t make this work, because sudden movement that you are not in control of as a viewer is confusing at best, and at worst creates motion sickness. However we did use a POV (point of view) shot to show the fireman going up the stairs – we used a short shot and slowed it down to avoid nausea.”

For the safety of the film crew, the producers chose to create the scene using special effects in post-production rather than setting an actual house on fire.

“To create the fire effects we filmed multiple shots, for example on the stairs in a real house – clean, with smoke and with the firefighter. We then re-shot the scene at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, where we could add the fire effects safely. We used a fire special effects team with a gas controlled fire which burned on different areas on the stairs so we could composite the scene later. The final film had over 500 layers of effects.”

 

Fig. 13: “The Party”, a visual experience of what Autism might feel like, by The Guardian

The Guardian also experimented with this approach to storytelling in its video “The Party,” which tries to present us a glimpse into what it’s like to live with autism. In this piece, the audience experiences the 16th birthday party of the character Layla through her eyes and her inner monologue, which describes some of the challenges and anxieties people with autism face in social settings. While less viscerally dramatic than the previous house fire video, it also relies on special effects and deliberate staging (if not outright acting) to set the scene. The addition of the inner monologue (which is based on research and real-life anecdotes) may add depth to the first person perspective experience, although one could also see versions that omit or limit the narration in favour of allowing the user to have a more “hands-off” journey being effective as well.

These videos are an interesting example of the potential for creating 360 videos that serve to simulate or re-create events that happen in real-life, but that the producers did not capture in real-time. What’s also important to know is that, at the beginning of the video, the producers of the BBC fire video identify this piece as a “dramatic reconstruction of a real-life event.” Given how real watching this video on a headset could feel, one could easily mistake this as real-time footage. And especially considering the significant use of post-production effects and the elaborate staging of the shoot, it is in the interests of transparency that the public knows elements of these experiences are fictional. (See the chapter on Ethics of 360)

 

The profile

If you have a genuinely fascinating character (or collection of characters) and your goal is to offer more insight into their lives, then putting them at the heart of your 360 story can be very effective. In this type of approach, we are spectators getting a close look as someone goes about their life, tagging along as they do their work or show us their home and describe their experiences to us.

 

Fig. 13: VR Gorilla’s profile on Amref Flying Doctors

 

We suppose that one could try having the central character wear a 360 camera on their head to film a first person perspective, if the goal was to show their experiences through “their eyes” as much as possible. We’ve seen this attempted especially with scenarios like extreme sports or the previously mentioned dramatic reconstructions. But filming first person perspective 360 can be quite tricky to do well, requiring additional considerations into stabilization, staging and camera positioning. We would suggest for beginners wanting to shoot a profile story to stick to keeping the lens on the character. It generally makes for stronger storytelling as well.

We mentioned previously that your video may incorporate a combination of different approaches to framing scenes. The key is to understand that each scene should be conceptualized with some specific purpose or outcome. Remember, the nature of 360 footage is that each scene is meant to be played out. So there are a couple of important questions to consider as you prepare to shoot:

  • What am I really trying to show with the whole video?
  • What am I really trying to show with each individual scene and how do they connect together?

In the case of the Brussels commute video, what are you really trying to show with the whole video? That the attack has left people shaken up, but life must go on and so the citizens will continue using the subway. That is the overall focus and narrative. Each individual scene connects together to help you tell that story.

 

TL;DR:

  • Before you start shooting your story, it’s important to figure out what perspective you’re taking and then to set up your staging to achieve that perspective.
  • Certain kinds of scenes work very well for 360 video, particularly scenes that are:
    • Visually dynamic
    • Offer the viewer access to a rare or unique experience
    • Emotional or provoke feeling
  • There are many different approaches to 360 storytelling, some popular ways to frame your story include:
    • Giving your audience a virtual front row ticket to an event, performance or moment
    • Leading your viewer on a guided tour of a special or interesting place
    • Reconstructing or simulating something that has already happened
    • Focusing your video around a central character and creating a profile story
  • Your 360 video piece may also involve several types of scenes and approaches. The key, however, is understanding and figuring out a) the overall focus of your project and b) how each scene connects together to achieve this.

 

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