The feeling of “being there” can be difficult to convey. It's one of the promises of 360-degree video, and as the operator of a video series that aims to do just that, it was something I had to try. Additionally, because the technology has reached consumer price points, the relatively low barrier to entry meant it was worth at least attempting. If things went poorly, at least I didn’t spend an arm and a leg. If things went well, I would perhaps have a whole new medium through which to deliver Cloth Map works. The camera I decided on, the Samsung Gear 360 (2017 version) ran me $180.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: 360 camera technology currently kind of sucks. Though resolutions of 360 cameras have reached 4K, the image quality is still pretty dour. Everything looks muddy and the sensors don’t seem to handle contrast very well. And it doesn’t seem to be a matter of cost. Web-video masters Red Bull with their deep pockets can’t seem to make a non-terrible-looking video with current technology. Just look at this video from two weeks ago. Even the absolutely bonkers GoPro Omni looks about as crisp as a peanut butter sandwich, and it’s twenty-seven times the price of the Gear 360.
Then there’s the stitching. Samsung’s bundled software does an alright job, but it’s far from perfect. Seams are often visible and the footage frequently shifts suddenly, which doesn’t do great things for motion sickness if you’re watching with VR headset. There are also zero options in Samsung’s software, but it is dead simple and relatively fast. Third party stitching solutions like VideoStitch Studio and Autopano Video exist, but with these it can take hours to get something that looks decent (at least for a 360 novice like me) and even then anomalies persist. If I find myself doing a lot of 360 video, though, it would probably be wise to devote time to properly stitching the footage by hand.
The biggest departure from traditional filming that occurs with 360 cameras is that you’re not shooting in one direction, you’re shooting in all directions. Because the viewer can look anywhere, you have to think differently about where to position your camera (and yourself). With a traditional camera, all you have to worry about in terms of position is angle; you simply point your camera at your subject. With a 360 camera, you’ve got different things to worry about:
Seams: Software can go part of the way to making your 360 video seamless, but at the current level of technology it’s not wise to count on it. I found myself constantly aware of where the seam was on the camera and positioning the camera in such a way that the seam did not fall on the subject. It takes a little thinking ahead, especially when you can’t control the orientation of the camera (more on that below).
Movement: Fast, jerky motion isn’t that big of a deal with a regular camera because the audience’s viewport is relatively small compared to their field of vision. With 360, the viewer’s field of view could conceivably be much larger if they’re viewing with a VR headset. As such I sought to keep big movements to a minimum so as not to make any viewers spew.
Proximity: Unlike a camera with a screen or viewfinder, you do a lot more guessing with a 360 camera about what the final video will look like. The image quality is low and the camera has no zoom, so you’ll have to get close to see anything. But you don’t want to get too close because then the viewer will have to be constantly panning and tilting just to see anything.
Height: Since the viewer can look everywhere, I felt the need to make sure that most parts of the view were interesting at any given time. For example, with a regular camera, there’s no problem shooting from below to get an artistic angle, but in 360, if you’re too close to the ground a lot of the viewer’s view will just be ground, which isn’t interesting. For this reason I felt a little more bound to keep the camera at head level.
After watching the footage back in VR, however, I realized height fluctuation doesn’t contribute to motion sickness nearly as much as looking down does. This means, when shooting, it would probably be best to try and keep the subject at the “equator” of the view as much as possible, even if that means drastically adjusting height. This also benefits viewers watching in a web browser, since it means they won’t have to fiddle with the arrow keys as much to keep the subject in frame.
To make things as smooth as possible I got a three-axis gimbal called the Gimbal Guru 360. There are many other gimbal options out there (DJI makes a popular line), but very few of them are optimized for 360 cameras. Placing a 360 camera in a rig designed for non-360 cameras usually results in some or most of the view being blocked by the gimbal’s armature somehow. The Guru, by contrast, allows a 360 camera to sit on top of the entire assembly, allowing an unobstructed view.
The Guru was pretty easy to set up and functions well with the included iOS app, which allows calibration and remote control of pan, tilt, and roll. This is a required function in the field because I had to decide at the start where I wanted the seam to be, and, because the gimbal was correcting for yaw rotation, I couldn’t just twist my hand to change the seam angle. The gimbal would also occasionally get out of alignment but it was pretty easy to reset it with the app.
The Guru does have the option to have the camera follow your changes in direction, meaning the camera will point wherever you twist the gimbal. I figured this would be nauseating to someone in a VR headset since they wouldn’t be controlling their left-right head movement, so I opted to lock the camera orientation and let the viewer choose where to look.
Once I had let the Samsung software convert the raw footage into stitched equirectangular video, editing in Premiere wasn’t too bad (though I did have to make proxies for my computer to be able to handle the 2K footage). Premiere even has the ability to display 360 footage natively in its own program window. The sequence must be configured as equirectangular in the sequence settings, but from there it’s as easy as right-clicking the program monitor and choosing VR Video > Enable. I generally stuck to non-VR mode for editing and would only turn it on for checking titles.
When editing, I assumed the viewer would be watching with a VR headset. I thought it best to consider the lowest common denominator when making decisions that may impact the motion sickness of the viewer. As a result, I used a lot of fades, both for changing scenes and for cutting to B-roll, to minimize disorientation as much as possible.
Cutting to B-roll also introduced another wrinkle. Since the B-roll was filmed in the same location as the A-roll, I knew it would be disorienting if the view cut to the same place but in a different orientation. This was a definite possibility since the orientation of the camera was different between takes. To solve this, I shifted the footage laterally using Premiere’s Offset filter. I simply lowered the opacity of the B-roll, offset the footage so that the subjects aligned, then brought the opacity back up.
Titles were another hurdle, one that I haven’t yet mastered. If you lay a normal title on your equirectangular footage it will appear warped in the final product as a result of the footage being adapted to a 360 player. What you must do, then, is pre-warp it so it matches the stretched-out look of your footage. Only then will it look correct in the player once it is interpreted as 360 video.
To warp the titles correctly I used a set of third-party plugins for Premiere called Mettle Skybox, which was recently acquired by Adobe. The plugins aren’t yet a part of stock Premiere, but if you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber Adobe will give them to you for free if you send them an email (it took them about a day to get back to me).
With a little wrestling I managed to get a title working. The Cloth Map logo animation next to the title was a bit tougher and required much fiddling and fudging. For some reason, the perspective tools didn’t work the same on the animation as they did with the text. More testing is needed.
Exporting was fairly simple. Just be sure to check the “Video Is VR” box before sending the project to Media Encoder. Only then will YouTube recognize the file as 360 video. Otherwise YouTube will present plain ol’ equirectangular video.
I don’t know if it was the resolution or the 360 nature of the footage, but on my 2017 Macbook Pro, five minutes of 2K 360 footage took one hour to export. The CAX video, which was 46 minutes long, thus took nine hours. Be sure you have lots of hard drive space, too. The resultant file was 14GB (2880x1440 @ 40 Mbps H.264, the same as the source footage), but the export failed twice due to space constraints despite having over 40GB of free space.
There is certainly a lot of overhead with a 360 video workflow, but 360 footage does produce a different kind of piece. If done right, you can get that feeling of being there in a way that traditional cameras just can’t give. It’s definitely not always the right choice, but 360 video can be applicable to certain kinds of tasks. It’s just a shame it doesn’t look better yet.
Is there hope for the future? I’d like to think so. GoPro has announced a true 360 camera, the Fusion, which looks markedly better than the current contenders. GoPro also claims to have some radical voodoo technology called OverCapture that’s supposed to let you pick the shots you want after filming. No more composing shots!? I’ll believe it when I see it. Until then, I’ve signed up for the Fusion pilot program, so maybe I will see it.
I liked messing around with the Gear 360. It’s a different kind of shooting, a different kind of editing, and it produces a very different kind of video. For sure, there are very specific applications of 360 video that are effective, but I don’t think they’ve all been discovered yet.
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