Since Narrative VR filmmaking is a relatively new endeavour (especially as a creative, artistic tool), figuring out what a successful visual composition and staging means can be challenging. I hope this post and its upcoming companions can help provide a clear direction of thought and analysis for future VR shoots. I formulated most thoughts the form of questions to allow you to fill in the blanks.
THE 360 SPHERE
In VR, audience is placed at the center of a virtual sphere, with the ability to rotate 360 degrees on a vertical and horizontal plane. For VR Film, we are essentially making a decision about where this virtual sphere is placed in physical space. The placement of that sphere is what defines a shot in Virtual Reality: where does the camera go? What does it see? What is hidden? What view is obstructed and why? Where are the objects moving and what space do they occupy?
A thoughtful VR shot should includes the placement of architecture, objects and characters:
Architecture: What are the lines like in your space? Are there layers to the space? Layers replace depth of field in VR. What is hidden behind what object and how do they move in relationship to each other. A well-placed wall can add a lot to a basic space. Get creative with the distances between camera and architecture for each degree. Placing a camera closer to a corner will create meaning: obstruction, no way out, locked and in a corner. What is hidden is just as important as what is shown. How a character moves from a hidden space into the field of view guides the viewer's head. Remember there is no real camera motion when it comes to framing, your space must make up for that.
Objects: Objects can guide the audience's’ eye around the sphere. Their motion signals events and can trigger new interactions. They also represent an area in the virtual sphere that could be of interest to the audience. What additional information does an object provide? What could it tell the audience that the character doesn't know? What timed event could redirect our interest to a new area? Why would I look away one direction to look at this object?
Characters: More on this later, but characters motion within space must be spatial, considering the viewing environment is spherical, not flat. There is no edge (no limit) to the framing of the camera itself, so how do characters appear and disappear from the shot? A motion around the camera in a circle looks different that a straight motion towards it. How close is a character and why?
These three visual building blocks can overlap and affect each other, and they should. For example, how can the architecture of a space be an exit point for a character? How is a character impacted by an object?
POV VS POV
Since we are dealing with a flat image stretched onto a 3-dimensional canvas, we loose image depth. There is a clear sense of presence in the center of the sphere - something is there and is moving around a designated center coordinate. This makes the point of view of the narrative critical to a successful experience. Who am I as the viewer? Am I me? Am I one of the characters? Are they revealed later? Do characters talk to me or through me (ie is there a 4th wall)? Am I an object? What is my movement like - human, animal, surreal, mechanical, etc? What height is the camera at and why?
The cinematic 4th wall is now a spherical point, not a flat plane - which makes it an actor in itself. Anything that crosses that central point is either aware of it or not. The physical state of that actor will determine what happens when objects, sound, views and characters cross it. If a character extends its hand towards the character, does it touch the camera or go through it?
The most basic staging is POV - assuming the camera is the audience, and it seems to be the most popular staging decision at the moment. However, we shouldn't be limited by that assumption, and I think more creative shots will become more common once we are used to wearing VR headsets.
Here are three staging concepts that work well and don’t work well in 360 film.
EXAMPLE: WHAT WORKS
- 3 planes or layers: points of focus occur in three layers around the center, representing different depths in the image. The interplay between which is in focus and isn’t creates motion in the image. Lighting and stage design play a key role here.
- Reflections: not just mirrors, but also opposite or matched motion on different sides of the sphere. Sequential reflections (i.e. first left, then right, or similar), can guide the head in engaging ways if the motion is fluid and connected.
- Motion paths: A clear path for users to follow.
EXAMPLE: WHAT DOESN’T WORK
- Drastic left/right points of interest: Interest points at around 180 degrees apart make it difficult for the user to follow the experience, especially when fast changes are expected. The exception to this is an experience that attempts to confuse, hide or alter elements by limiting the user's field of view through motion, or wants the audience to make a choice about what to see and not to see. For example, a two-person conversation staged left and right at 180 degrees is hard to follow visually, and most users ends up looking at one person or somewhere else.
- Behind the viewer: The area behind the head should be used with intent, not because it CAN be there. If we want the user to look back, we need to give them a good reason to. Unless our aim is to set the user into a space they can visually explore and dissect by themselves, there is no reason to ignore what's behind us when designing the experience. Ultimately, we are conceptualising concept for 360 degrees, every direction matters.
Check out this Pre-Visualisation test of a few shots based on a two-person conversation around a table. Some shots work better than other, especially in different headsets. For example, subject tracking shot [d] works well in a Cardboard, but not on Youtube.
UPCOMING BLOG POSTS
Screenplay Conceptualisation and Writing for Virtual Reality
What is an edit in VR Film?