LOS ANGELES — How does a cinematographer navigate the burgeoning world of shooting for virtual reality? As the audience was told at a panel at the VRLA trade show (www.virtualrealityla.com) in LA in April, presented by the International Cinematographer's Guild (www.icgmagazine.com), there were several common themes.
One was that DPs would like to be called in early on a project, and kept involved enough to help post production do the best job it can. The need for collaboration throughout the process is even more important in the VR world.
“There should be conversations between myself, the DP, the VFX supervisor, the producer and the director,” said Dane Brehm, digital imaging technician. “This is a collaborative art, but there's even more collaboration in VR because the technical accuracy has to be much higher.”
Moderated by the ICG's Michael Chambliss, four filmmakers with experience in VR talked about how it's changing the art of cinematography — and what needs to stay the same.
Photo (L-R): Moderator Michael Chambliss, Andrew Shulkind, Dane Brehm, Evan Pesses and Eve M. Cohen.
ALL IN THE PREPARATION
Chambliss often asked the participants to compare their VR work with what they do in traditional filmmaking. In VR, where your entire environment is in frame, one of the most basic technical requirements is to not show the joins (we've all seen those weird Google Earth effects where photos don't quite line up).
Called 'stitching,' it's the joining together between the end of one camera's field on the image and the next, and it's not an automatic process even if you're using a VR-ready camera rig. Effects shots, for example, all have to make sense against live-action backdrops.
Effective stitching also needs sufficient overlaps between cameras, and if you don't have enough to work with and the director decides to center the action right where there's a bad join, it can cost time and money on reshoots or post production to paper over the cracks.
There's also prep stitching, check stitching (a quick and dirty method that produces footage we might think of as VR rushes), and the final, high-quality production stitching.
And the cinematographer is the one who'll notice the variables that can affect technicalities like stitching — like how close you can get the camera to the action. "If you shoot too close to a chain link fence, that part of the shot won't stitch and it's garbage," said Brehm.
THE NEW VR DP
Andrew Shulkind is a cinematographer known for the seamless integration of visual effects, and he says there's something to be said for keeping the set traditional in as many ways as possible. "Everyone comes at it with a different set of experiences and because we're always trying to move the needle in different ways, the more we click into understood, fixed concepts, the better," he said.
He added that having a first AD, assistant AD, camera operator, etc. has worked well for a century, so even though you might need a digital imaging technician (DIT) or VR tech, established roles are important.
In fact, DP Eve M. Cohen said she likes to appoint a VR operator the same way a traditional project employs camera operators. "[You need] somebody who's in charge of that camera — not necessarily from a creative standpoint but a technical understanding of the idiosyncrasies of that particular camera. They'll be in charge of making sure is has power, it has media, it can record.
"On VR, you have to think much more about post, and I like to have somebody who can share that post-heavy work. I need somebody that takes on a higher role than just a tech or an assistant, one I'm going to rely on when it comes to operating a VR set up."
It's a good point — VR cameras comprise a lot more lenses, hard disks and other tech than the most complicated traditional hardware. Each shoot might use several rigs, all of which needs handling, rigging and interaction with the grip, art and almost every other department.
Evan Pesses, also a DP on the panel, mentioned a project that needed nine rigs — 65 individual cameras, all of them with chips, media and data pipelines to manage. And, as the end-user platforms get better, capture resolutions will get higher, the number of chips and the amount of data right along with them.
If you've taken any notice of gaming or advertising lately, you'll know VR isn't going anywhere. And, as a new generation of DPs figure out how best to wrangle it, they'll be some of the creative gurus of a new movement.