I’ve been looking into the rise in the development of the virtual reality arena for the last year. Through various avenues I’ve been exploring the VR space.
It’s only been about 18 months since Facebook bought Oculus – which is when most anyone in the business would say, “Shit, just got real.” Sure VR had been a concept for the better part of last century, but it’s this latest perfect storm of events that has upturned the VR landscape – significantly.
Palmer with Kickstarter then Carmack thus Facebook
This might very well be the tipping point and what I might call, B.F.B and A.F.B – VR Before Facebook or VR After Facebook. Currently, it’s a wild west of early development. There are head mounted displays, hand controllers, towers and cardboard (though some would argue that Google cardboard is NOT VR). Most recently (and officially) a consumer level VR headset arrived and quickly sold out – the Samsung Gear VR.
Right now it’s a market where content is king and yet content is evolving. Almost everyone you can talk to in the VR business will admit that we are in the early stages of the technology. I liken it to when the Lumiere Brothers first frightened audiences with the 50 second silent film, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat or known in the U.S. as The Arrival of the Mail Train. From that, the moving image has made amazing strides, from narrative, documentary, and in turn the “medium” of television and all it’s formats. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time.
And in all this craziness, in the back of my mind, a question keeps rearing it’s ugly head.
What does the workflow look like?
This was a question that I ran into as I looked at footage and stitched it together, exploring the process and the software most commonly used in the filmed VR world, I started to build a workflow. It was an evolution (and continues to be), it’s not an absolute, and in it’s ideal it expresses opportunity. Hopeful, and willing.
It’s a work in progress so I won’t share it in detail just yet. I’ve showed it around to some people in the VR “know” and got some positive feedback. Here is a glimpse to what it looks like:
Here is the gist of what’s in the charts.
VR FILMED PRE-PRODUCTION WORKFLOW PAGE 1:
On this page you might notice that it’s not as busy as Page 2 – the production phase. Formatting might have dictated this, but in truth it’s emotionally relevant. In this phase, some space is required. You need to be creative here. This is the time to push the boundaries on your concept. You need room to try things out, experiment, failures are okay, then with all that you will learn, build, find inspiration and create .
The philosophy is simple. Doing this now will prepare you for the pressure of production, “on the day” (a film term for a shooting day) your world is limited by your work hours, whether it’s crew expense, or the need for daylight.
Pre-Production in this diagram deals with the development of the idea. There are 3 deliverables and a test phase that are primary to developing a VR film. This is different from a typical film shoot because the language has yet to be understood and defined. With a traditional narrative experience you have landmarks that you take to prepare yourself for a principle photography (script writing, schedule, etc).
What is different, I believe, is how you might begin to “frame” your story. As I write a VR narrative, I think about the details differently, I ask different questions. I do this because I know can’t completely lean on traditional visual narrative techniques like editing and framing. This has been discussed in many various papers and articles about VR, so it’s no surprise. The focus of an idea or ideas are layered and might be used to direct the audience to and from various visual story telling elements. To this end, a traditional script doesn’t quite work well for a VR narrative. I ended up developing my own, and is much like the scripts I write for video games. I’l have more on a later date.
Most importantly, where you can rely on a script to frame your story for a traditional narrative, with VR you must use different methods to express your intent on the page. In a traditional narrative film, you can layer in a process that will help you understand how things will be shot on the day. In VR at this point, it’s important to understand the shot pretty early on and at the same time develop what you’re characters are doing to move the plot. It’s a creative dance, a push and pull of image, performance (or blocking in film terms), and pace. The exercise isn’t all that different than a traditional narrative, but your limits with editing, staging, timing and movement are significant enough to really dig into how to “block” a shot. So prototyping is going to be an important aspect of developing a project. To this end a script will evolve from a prototype/previz phase (with any UI needed) that will inform any rewrites for a shooting script.
So thats the first third of the pre-production workflow that ends with an actual prototype. You might have some creative cycles in there to change things around and review the results – all that depends on your need. The next steps then become about defining the needs that have been explored in the prototype and thus developing a spec.
- Shooting Script
- Shot List
- Final Previz
- Final UI Design
- Spec Document
No onto the next step…
VR FILMED RODUCTION WORKFLOW PAGE 2:
Shooting days are critical, time dependent and the world can run by the minute. So all your hard work up to now will pay off here. This will be most important when things go wrong on set. And things will often go wrong, that’s the way of things on any level of production (from small to large multi million dollar productions). How you deal with those challenges can only be aided by the rigorous thinking and planning you’ve done before hand.
The main steps left in the workflow are:
- Principle Photography
- Quick-stitch /Edit / Post
- Picture Lock
- Image Stitching
- Final Post Elements
The linch-pin in VR production is how the shots flow and that often requires stitching multiple cameras into one 360 moving image. Since stitching 360 video requires seat time, a quick stitch of shots should be done of all the takes (or the selects at least) to help editorial understand what has been captured and what are the best parts to use to further story flow.
On set quick stitching can help make sure any creative assumptions about a shot are met or are working as expected – things that work in a pre-viz may not always play well on set.
What I haven’t discussed so far are the sweetening aspects of a VR narrative, like color correction, sound and music (and if you have it haptic feedback). If those indicators have not been expressed in the pre-production than bringing in your other post departments in on the process early can benefit the final story experience. You are creating a world for the viewer, and many textural elements help build a convincing world.
The standout element, as stated before, is the stitching process. If your elements are well framed and appropriately lit then stitching shouldn’t be an issue. There are times however where exposure, and or color might need to be adjusted from one set of cameras to another, this might be a correction, or a creative grade and the final approach can be done on a individual camera level and or after a final stitch.
The rest of the post production process is mostly similar to a traditional narrative, but every project is different, and each project should evaluate how the post production will flow. My diagram provides a general process, steps and deliverables that are needed to make a master, but in this VR development process this is still open and variable to the needs of the project.
In short, this is not the end. There’s plenty of room for improvement in my chart, and my intent is to updated as I go.
All this is to day that this is the rigor we should expect (and respect) in such a creative and developing medium. Workflow can be king and without planning you are likely to be cornered into some less than ideal situations. So to make sure mistakes do not rule your decisions you must own it, before it owns you.
I’d love to hear from you! If you have things to add or ideas, let me know!