Could this be the future of action sports videography? Step into the booties of Ride Engine founder, Coleman Kinsley Buckley, as he takes you on a virtual tour of his life on California’s northern coast. Click the video and drag to tour his world in the third dimension. Providing a unique user experience, the concept of virtual reality isn’t new, but with the right people behind the lens, it’s improving leaps and bounds, and could eventually set a new standard for how we view media. We caught up with filmmaker, Anna Yelizarova, to learn more about what it takes to film in 3-D and where she see’s the medium going.
How did you get into immersive video?
I did my undergrad in computer science at Stanford and during my senior year, I began getting really interested and involved in virtual reality. I started working at VHIL, our Virtual Reality lab on campus whose focus is to understand the dynamics and implications of interactions among people in immersive virtual reality simulations. They hire a bunch of computer science undergrads to program and 3D model the worlds for the studies — That’s how I started getting involved in VR. From there, I decided to apply for a masters program. I was a little disappointed that I was only discovering this in my last year of college as I was getting increasingly interested in the research that was going on at VHIL. The lab is under the Communication department which led me to start a track in media studies this past spring. As a result I began taking media production classes in immersive storytelling and experimenting a lot with 360 content creation.
I very quickly became hooked. I used to make a lot of videos in high school. At 13, after my dad introduced me to the film editing software he used to for work, I started taking an old school camcorder around everywhere I went. I made a lot of water polo videos and took it to every tournament we had, but also would talk my teachers into letting me turn in a video every time we had to work on an oral presentation. I briefly considered going into film studies but my dad dissuaded me and pushed me to pursue something more rigorous. I was still looking for something to creative to pursue and that’s how I wound up in computer science (it’s an incredibly empowering tool to bring your ideas to life!) and eventually discovered virtual reality.
Now, everything is coming full circle and I am finding a nexus of two of my interests and an incredible creative outlet. Furthermore, I couldn’t have picked a better time to be doing this. It feels like reliving the birth of cinema. All the rules you see in traditional cinema go out the window. We are really witnessing the birth of a new art form. That’s so exciting to me and is definitely something that drives me to pursue this passion.
That’s an interesting GoPro contraption– did you come up with the idea yourself? Is there other ways to film virtual reality or is this it?
I did not come up with it myself. I think it was actually 3D printed at school. They have two rigs like this one at Stanford (that I know of). There are also a lot of GoPro assortments that exist such as 4 camera rigs with modified lenses.
In the VR industry right now you have a couple of options. On one end of the spectrum you see affordable consumer cameras coming out like the Ricoh Theta. It’s around $300, is easy to use and handles the stitching on its own. At that price you’re really sacrificing quality and you end up with bad resolution. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great product, small and easy to slip in you pocket and is super accessible to anyone! Then on the opposite end of the spectrum you have $50,000 professional studio cameras like the Nokia Ozo. Most cinematic VR studios have their own camera setup but it usually involves at least a dozen cameras. Those cameras aren’t accessible to mere mortals like me and aren’t as mobile due to their size (and therefore wouldn’t be ideal for filming sports or moving shots). Somewhere in between you’ll find my setup, which is basically 6 GoPros strapped to a stick. You end up with terrific quality but it’s a lot to deal with when always having to keep track of 6 SD cards, spare parts and the settings of 6 cameras. The workflow is still a pain, but it’s definitely worth it.
What is the filming process like?
You have to ask yourself a lot of questions and always think ahead. You don’t know how the shot will come out because you don’t see it in realtime like you do in photography or regular film. You have to make an educated guess as to what makes a good shot and what doesn’t. You can’t frame something so you have to make sure that there is something mildly interesting to look at in all directions. Also everything gets in the shot so you have to be smart about where you position yourself. With some experience, you start to get a feel for it and recognizing good 360 opportunities. Bear in mind, those might be different shots from what might normally look good in regular 2D video.
Another thing you want to be thinking about is having one of the cameras always facing your subject to avoid having to deal with missing limbs or a floating head in post processing. That’s what I mean by thinking ahead. You also have to manually turn on all the cameras, check their settings to make sure they match and start and stop the recording (I’ve found that the wifi remote drains the battery too quickly). There are a lot of opportunities to mess up and I’ve made a lot of mistakes and had to scrap amazing shots, but it’s helped me develop a workflow.
What special measures did you take in order to rig Coleman’s setup and did you run into any obstacles while rigging/filming?
I had a hard-duty underwater rig which we could bring in the water without damaging the GoPros. The first time we went out, I had Coleman hold it out in one hand. I do have to say it is incredibly heavy and I was very impressed he was able to pull it off. Everything was a struggle but we ended up with some cool shots. We then decided to build a backpack for it so that he could use both of his hands and do more. That in itself was a whole other adventure. The first time we took it out, it broke on the beach before we even got to the water and we had to improvise. We initially wanted it to stick it out at 45 degrees behind him but had to settle with it sticking out directly above him.
We made some revisions the next time we went out and eventually had it sticking out at 45 degrees out behind him. The backpack was then solid enough, but as a result, all the weight was put on the monopod itself which ended up snapping in half when Coleman landed a big jump. The rig also then flew off and everything exploded, but we had it tied to his harness by a string which was a smart move. I can’t imagine having to look for it in the bottom of the ocean somewhere. It was definitely an iterative process, and some shots didn’t work out, but we had a lot of fun experimenting and wound up with what you see in the video.
What’s the editing/stitching process like? What programs do you use and how long does it take?
It takes ages! First you need to import your 6 mp4 clips (in my case because I use a 6 GoPro setup) into stitching software – the industry standard seems to be Kolor’s software which GoPro acquired. From there, you need to synchronize, stitch, stabilize and do some basic color correction. A lot of it is still manual and you need to go through and correct stitching errors. It’s difficult to optimize for both the foreground and background and it’s hard to get right (sometimes almost impossible without more advanced tools like After Effects).
I stick to 3 programs – Autopano Video Pro for stitching, Autopano Giga to mess around with control points and masks when the Autopano Video Pro doesn’t get the stitching right, and Premiere Pro for editing the individual clips together, adding music and making more customized adjustments.
The stabilization process takes quite some time and so does the rendering when you export. There’s a lot of waiting around for some steps to finish. For a short clip, you can expect to spend around 30 mins on it in the stitching phase. Some more complex ones in motion take even longer, but some of the issues I’ve described will soon become obsolete. Soon the software will get better and solve a lot of existing problems.
To give you an idea of how long this all takes, Coleman’s video had at least 20 different clips in it. I shot more and ended up not using a lot of them. If you spend at least 30 mins on each clip that brings you to 10 hours — That’s just the stitching! Then the editing process begins; this usually takes me a whole day working on-and-off. It’s a more creative process because this is where everything comes together and the storytelling begins.
Do you think this is the future of action sports filmmaking?
I don’t know what the future holds, nobody has figured out 360 degree video yet. A lot of people get it wrong and don’t choose good times to use the medium. Storytelling is difficult. Without being able to frame a shot it’s difficult to keep the audience’s attention where you want them to be looking. They could be looking away at a certain time and completely miss a crucial point of the story. My personal (and somewhat unpopular) opinion is that motion can help control that to some degree, because people tend to want to stay parallel to the plane of motion. When people watch my kiting piece for example they will look around less than in my more static videos. I think action sports have a lot of potential because motion is fun in 360. It gives you the illusion of having more degrees of freedom than you actually have. It also really creates a powerful sense of place and a rich environment that normal video can’t, especially if you watch pieces like this in Google Cardboard, you can take it off and feel like you’ve met the characters in the video!
What are you up to next?
I’m off to see the world. I started a personal project this summer which involves traveling around the globe with a 360 camera and getting creative. You can follow my adventures on my travel blog www.ftwr.world where I will be posting episodic immersive content weekly. The technology is out there but most people don’t know it exists. One of my goals this summer is getting people exposed and excited about virtual reality and hopefully push the medium forward in the process.
Viewing on Cardboard?
Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apqm9kWKjO0&feature=youtu.be
Want to learn more about Coleman and his company? Read the full story of hard work and innovation during the garage days of Ride Engine from Fall 2015 issue of The Kiteboarder here.