Featured image by Susan Botello, International Mobile Film Festival.
Filmmaking is in a very strange place right now.
While traditional filmmakers focus on witty scripts and clever cinematography, technology such as smartphones have revamped how we tell stories; how quickly we can tell them, and how many get access to see them (hint: everyone).
Now we have 360 videos. Game changer.
The ripple effect this has had on both filmmakers and film festivals is quite astounding. While the latter was once seen as a traditional, formal event for the elite filmmakers of the world has now opened up to let anyone with a good idea and a phone create award winning films.
“YouTube launched digital distribution”, says Elliot Grove, founder of the biggest independent film festival in Europe: Raindance. “Netflix now dominates film viewing, and film festivals that have failed to develop a strong digital strategy have been unable to survive. In today’s noisy and competitive marketplace film festivals, more than ever, need to develop a strong brand and a unique voice.”
In a nutshell: some creatives are falling behind, while others are losing their minds with excitement. The storytelling potential is mouth-watering…yet the execution? That’s debatable.. The budget is available, as seen with Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book VR experience…..but telling a story in 360 is more challenging than most realize. Much of what filmmakers have learnt in the past is rendered irrelevant. For example, editing favorites like smash cuts and fades: how will viewers respond to this in VR? Guerrilla filmmaking? How does one even make use of a full 360 environment? Capturing existing environments is one thing (yes…we have all seen a beach in 360 by now)…but telling a good story is another entirely.
What’s forgotten is that the language of VR and 360 videos is still evolving. Much like during the launch of television, programming was mostly talking heads, i.e. ‘radio for TV’. When the internet grew in popularity during the mid 90s, it was all ‘browsing’.These days people chat online more than they read, or browse. The language of communication utilising a new medium evolves over time.
We haven’t quite developed the VR language yet. If VR is in its infancy, then VR filmmaking is right there with it, according to Max Schleser, Co-Founder of Mobile Innovation Network Australasia (MINA) and lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology.
“We are just beginning to understand what is possible with 360°filmmaking”, Schleser said. “Once you edit 360° video in Premiere Pro you begin to understand that rhythm and pacing are distinctively different…while the idea of VR is not new and has been surfacing since the 1990s, accessible omnidirectional video cameras that integrate with standard video production workflows were launched in the last two years.”
Arguably the most challenging aspect for 360 filmmakers is simply maintaining audience attention on the action. It can be too tempting for audiences to observe the full environment and thus miss a critical plot point. Binaural sound has proven to be very effective in directing the audience, as seen with Cirque Du Soleil’s Inside the Box of Kurios. A sound behind your right ear draws your attention to turn around, as a performer sneaks up in front of you. For a first time VR user, expect them to almost fall off their chair as I once witnessed.
Scrolling text can also achieve the goal but is somewhat a novelty and can easily be overused. As for other solutions, most are yet to be discovered. This is why Max believes the answers will from the creatives, not the technicians.
“Experimentation is needed in the fast pace production environment”, he continues. “The market will focus on precise applications, while we will see innovation happening in the independent sector. Rather than trying to keep up with 2K, 4K, etc I believe in exploring the periphery to push the boundaries about what we know about cinematic VR.”
The creative and technical aspects of VR are well covered today, but the million dollar question (literally) is ‘who will buy these videos, and how?’ How do producers profit from their content? The B2B space is excited about VR and already putting it in use – real estate, tourism, health – the list goes on….yet consumer adoption is what will take VR into mainstream. Those of us in the industry have watched growth take place, but perhaps not at the pace we would have expected. We’re dealing with shorter attention spans these days – an era where the first five seconds of a video will determine whether a viewer will bother watching the rest.
There are a handful of sites currently offering 360 video for purchase or licence. AirPano is selling beautifully shot, aerial 360 video; VideoBlocks offer a large range of short 360 video clips from around the world….and as I’ve found in the industry, contacting YouTube producers to license their content can prove successful. However, once again this is for business use – the goal being to then have customers experience it for monetary returns in sales for themselves. This is not true consumerism.
YouTube meanwhile sits ahead of the curve in some ways, allowing 360 video uploads and then paying their standard residuals for views. This is a terrific opportunity for 360 video producers to gain some revenue but this alone will not create the ‘360 boom’. The content mustn’t just be 360, it must be 360 with purpose and thus offer viewers a greater emotional experience and talking point in their social circles than standard video, for them to adopt the concept and make consumption habitual.
The uprising of VR gaming centers (i.e. spend your Saturday night with some drinks and VR at our spot) is growing in popularity, as seen by Zero Latency which offer social VR gaming sessions. These facilities are popping up worldwide. This is arguably the first major step to VR consumerism. From there, studios can potentially distribute VR video content to these spots for customers to enjoy within a shared experience – a virtual cinema amongst friends like a karaoke booth. Next is buying your own VR entertainment system to enjoy with others. “It’s only cool when your friends think it’s cool”, so to speak. Word of mouth often carries tech to mainstream and ‘normalizing’ such advanced tech is critical for VR to go mainstream.
The recent announcement by Mark Zuckerberg to launch the first portable VR headset is the first step to said normalization. HTC and Google are hot on their heels with their own unit, and others will follow. Standalone headsets remove the laugh factor of mobile VR from the average consumer, where many experts believe mainstream VR consumerism will begin. No longer strapping a phone to your face – the gimmick aspect of mobile VR – you can experience VR with a sleek, fashionable headset. Then comes 4K resolution; mobile positional tracking and more, which will continue its upward trajectory. Within this framework, monthly subscriptions of premium content can begin and there we have it: the monetization of VR consumerism.
So begs the question…
…Is it content or hardware that comes first in bringing 360 video to the forefront? Most likely it is both that will draw the audience. As VR enthusiasts ourselves that eagerly await the VR consumer boom we need high quality content, and we need it to be consumed in the simplest way using the most advanced, fashionable tech. Companies such as Netflix joining the VR industry certainly help, but producing a lot of their own 360 content is what will propel the ‘need’ for consumers to adopt the concept of 360 video. The same can be said for any distributor network. We need viewers talking about the ‘Game of Thrones in 360 episode’; the 360 livestream of The Bachelor……the 360 of what is popular right now. As hardware quality and accessibility improves the studios will sink more dollars into VR productions. The synergy of hardware advancement and studio dollars in content production will take it to the next level. That’s when it will be ‘cool’, and when it’s cool, that’s when products move from nice-to-have to must-have. Until then, 360 producers should continue doing what they’re doing. They’re first in a growing market and being first goes a long way for the industry and for their position within it. Collectively, we will create the 360 boom.