Turn It Up to Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees

This weekend, I attended the fourth VR challenge here in Seattle. It was at a private residence known as the Birdhouse and it was not what I want to be talking about here, specifically. I want to talk about what it’s like to film for VR and to experience content in 360º.

My first experience with this emerging medium was about a year ago when a guy I knew through a friend on Facebook sent out an invitation for people to participate in an experiment shooting a video with a 360 camera. I ended up on the team writing the script and I also acted in it.

*takes ironic bow, realizes how awkward that was, apologizes*

When the idea of 360 was first described to me, my very first thought was “Wow, that sounds exactly like doing theatre in the round, only backwards.” So before I launch into my diatribe on 360, I want to talk a bit about my experience with theatre in the round.

I’ve done a fair amount of acting and neither of the two stages that I have done most of my acting on can be described as “conventional”. One of them, the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater in Asheville, NC, where the Montford Park Players stage their Shakespeare performances every year, is an outdoor venue that has two available levels, so that Shakespeare’s stage directions “enters above” and “enters below” actually make sense on that stage (though I’ve never noticed anybody actually following them). The other theatre in question is Carol Belk on the campus of UNCA, which, as indicated earlier, is in the round.

To be clear for those not familiar with theatre parlance, a theatre in the round is a stage that is completely surrounded by audience. On all sides, the actor is visible to someone, but no one is going to be visible to everyone in the audience from the same side. There is a saying in theatre that you never do the same show twice, between the rotating audience and the minutiae of the performances night to night, but in the case of theatre in the round, no two members of the audience on any given night see the same show, certainly not if they’re on opposite sides of the room.

My favorite example of this from my own experience was when I assistant directed Jose Rivera’s Marisol in 2005. There is a scene in the play where the title character comes upon a man with bandages all over his face and once she’s won his trust, he lets her take the bandages off. If you were seeing this scene from Section 4 at Carol Belk, you would see the bandages coming off and the wonderful (i.e. horrifying) makeup of the burn wounds covering his face. But when I saw it from Section 6 (approximately 150º around) I saw a very different story: first, I saw Marisol’s reaction to the horror, far more satisfying when I could see her face, and then I saw the very edges of the make-up as the unbandaged man told the story of how he’d gotten these scars. I liked it better, but it was pointed out to me later by a friend that from that angle, you could barely see the make-up at all. One side got poetry, the other horror–two very different performances.

Some consider this a challenge when working in the round–they ask themselves how they can avoid it. But if the show is going to be different every night anyway (as is the nature of theatre) then why not embrace the fact that it is the nature of theatre in the round that the audience will get a very different picture of every moment, depending on where they sit?

Now I find myself having the same argument when talking about 360. At the pow-wow Friday night, one of the mentors of the group advised us that “even though you’re shooting in 360, you’re going to want to frame all of your action in 180 degrees, just like a regular movie.”

I call bullshit. I keep seeing footage online nowadays of “360” video and images that I click and drag on for more, only to find that I can’t scroll past 180º and it makes me livid. I find it wasteful. But then they try to say “Well, if you’re at home and you’re sitting on the couch wearing your VR goggles, you’re not going to want to turn all the way around.”

First of all, most of the time, when I look at 360, I’m looking at it on a screen where I can drag the field of view, so I wouldn’t have that problem, but more importantly (and I cannot stress this enough) if you are experienced VR while sitting on the couch, you’re doing it wrong and I will not be made to cater to your comfort or laziness.

If you are shooting a 360 film using only 180 of the available degrees, then WHY BOTHER? This is expensive equipment, this is specific equipment and for the sake of the R&D that’s gone into it, it deserves to have its full potential exploited.

The question is, how do you control where your audience is going to be looking?

Don’t. This is my answer. Your audience is going to look where your audience wants to look. Especially at this stage in the development of the medium and the training of the audience, it’s still new to people, so they’re going to be looking around the moment they put on the goggles, just to take in their surroundings and it is your responsibility as the artist in this exceptional medium to make every direction they look in both exceptional and specific. Just as every person in the audience at a play in the round deserves to see a good show, every one of your three hundred and sixty degrees deserves the attention that will be lavished upon it by appreciative fans. To ignore any of it would be like staging the entire action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on only one level of Montford’s Amphitheater. Why did you even bother?

About Polypsyches

I write, regardless of medium or genre, but mostly I manage a complex combined Science-Fiction/Fantasy Universe--in other words, I'm building Geek Heaven. With some other stuff on the side. View all posts by Polypsyches

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