Indie cinematographer Eve M. Cohen thinks viewers are ready for the next chapter in virtual reality experiences: immersive movies with plots, actors and dialog. "I've always been interested in what the next thing is and how using different cameras can open up different ways of seeing the world," says the UCLA-trained DP. "I found out you actually don't need millions of dollars to do narrative VR—you just need a really good idea and off-the-shelf gear you can put together yourself. And investing in the right storage is just as essential as choosing a camera."
Cohen is also the Head of Creative Operations at Seed&Spark, a crowd-funding and film distribution platform that helps to facilitate digital distribution worldwide for the most followed/funded films on its site. When Cohen and director James Kaelan, editor-in-chief of Seed&Spark’s print magazine Bright Ideas, began brainstorming about narrative VR content for the site, they turned to Venice-based VR developers and post facility WEVR. "We really wanted to come at this first project from a story perspective," says Cohen. "People understand VR from an experiential way of looking at it, but to have a viewer enter into a space and have a story unfold around them in multiple ways is just fascinating to me, and we want Seed&Spark to help others try it too."
The kit for Cohen’s inaugural VR project — Acido Dorado, a.k.a. The Visitor — was assembled around two arrays: a four-camera GoPro array designed by WEVR, and an eight-camera stereo array from a rental house. "It's the easiest rig to work with, and it kind of blew my mind. I thought, ‘Can we really make VR with just four GoPros?’ With the right kind of lenses and the right kind of angles, yes we can. And did." Because the cameras only record to "tiny little internal cards," removed carefully with tweezers, Cohen insisted on immediately ingesting footage to G-Technology's G-DRIVE ev RAW 1TB drives that can be used with or without the G-DOCK ev with Thunderbolt. "Having the G-Technology drives on set means everything gets backed up right away and the workflow continues; WEVR could take a drive for post and we can take one to back up and send onto sound." Since the GoPro media is significantly smaller than files coming out of the competing Codex Action Camera, Cohen says a similar VR production could even get away with creating a master and a backup on two G-DRIVE ev drives without having a G-DOCK ev on set. VR arrays with more sophisticated, higher-res cameras would require a larger DIT station on set and replacing the G-DRIVE ev drives with G-Technology's 4TB or 8TB G-RAID with Thunderbolt.
For Cohen, footage never stops at the drive. A long-time user of G-Technology storage gear, she says the Thunderbolt-enabled G-DOCK ev made for lightning-fast backups to the production's longer-term archive, a 16TB G-SPEED Studio with Thunderbolt storage array. "G-Technology is one of the only drives that I've never had a problem with on set," she adds. "I back up everything in three places, which I think is ideal for any production. When somebody tells me their drive went down and they didn't bother to have a backup, I feel sorry for them. That's the dumbest thing you could do during production!"
Higher transfer speeds on a VR set also mean footage can be assembled in rough cuts much faster, keeping the production on schedule and budget. "We had an on-site stitcher from WEVR who would stitch the first take as we were still filming take after take to make sure we got it," says Cohen of her production. "We would watch it to make sure the blocking looked good. Without that step, we'd be lost."
Having the right equipment is essential to any shoot, but how does one, creatively, begin to tell a linear tale within a format known for unlimited perspectives?
Always ask, "Why VR?" — Before you do anything else, Cohen advises, think long and hard about why a story should be told in virtual reality in the first place. Why do you want or need to bring the viewer into a particular space?
Map it all out in storyboards — Cohen always storyboards her projects before filming, and it's a particularly critical step before shooting in VR.
Direct from four directions, not just one — For this project, says Cohen, "I started by drawing an overhead and I outlined four quadrants. I think about virtual reality in four compass directions: a north quadrant, south quadrant, east and west. Each of these is its own viewing space that you have to treat as self-contained layers of the same story. As a director, you need to understand that each quadrant can have its own direction and elements. Someone may come into the story and only watch what's going on in front of them or in a single quadrant; others may scan from left to right. You have to figure out how the story unfolds if they do. You could still film a crowd but you need to direct every angle to guide your viewers to the main storyline playing out."
Think like a theater director — Cohen believes directing VR involves leaving enough elliptical threads to encourage repeat viewing. "You want them to come back again and again and get a different experience every time. Directors who come from an immersive theater background get this concept instantly. If you're an independent filmmaker and you want to try VR, start by researching how theater is staged and produced."
Keep innovating — Cohen thinks of her first VR effort with Kaelan, Acido Dorado, which was shot on location in the desert, as "one giant master shot, since we shot it as a single take without any cuts. But even as we were doing it, I was thinking ahead about other ways you could shoot narrative VR. If I had total control over the space and I was lighting the set, I could shoot one camera angle out at a time, staging each direction separately. I don't have shutter angle control with the GoPros, of course, so that wouldn't have worked for this film," now in the final stages of post at WEVR. "Once you get a handle on where the camera overlap is, you can start to play with that seam line. As long as you know where that is and you keep the action consistent, anything is possible."
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