By Mike McCarthy
VR headsets have been available for over a year now, and more content is constantly being developed for them. We should expect that rate to increase as new headset models are being released from established technology companies, prompted in part by the new VR features expected in Microsoft’s next update to Windows 10. As the potential customer base increases, the software continues to mature, and the content offerings broaden. And with the advances in graphics processing technology, we are finally getting to a point where it is feasible to edit videos in VR, on a laptop.
While a full VR experience requires true 3D content, in order to render a custom perspective based on the position of the viewer’s head, there is a “video” version of VR, which is called 360 Video. The difference between “Full VR” and “360 Video,” is that while both allow you to look around every direction, 360 Video is pre-recorded from a particular point, and you are limited to the view from that spot. You can’t move your head to see around behind something, like you can in true VR. But 360 video can still offer a very immersive experience and arguably better visuals, since they aren’t being rendered on the fly. 360 video can be recorded in stereoscopic or flat, depending on the capabilities of the cameras used.
Stereoscopic is obviously more immersive, less of a video dome and inherently supported by the nature of VR HMDs (Head Mounted Displays). I expect that stereoscopic content will be much more popular in 360 Video than it ever was for flat screen content. Basically the viewer is already wearing the 3D glasses, so there is no downside, besides needing twice as much source imagery to work with, similar to flat screen stereoscopic.
There are a variety of options for recording 360 video, from a single ultra-wide fisheye lens on the Fly360, to dual 180-degree lens options like the Gear 360, Nikon KeyMission, and Garmin Virb. GoPro is releasing the Fusion, which will fall into this category as well. The next step is more lens, with cameras like the Orah4i or the Insta360 Pro. Beyond that, you are stepping into the much more expensive rigs with lots of lenses and lots of stitching, but usually much higher final image quality, like the GoPro Omni or the Nokia Ozo. There are also countless rigs that use an array of standard cameras to capture 360 degrees, but these solutions are much less integrated than the all-in-one products that are now entering the market. Regardless of the camera you use, you are going to be recording one or more files in a pixel format fairly unique to that camera that will need to be processed before it can be used in the later stages of the post workflow.
The simplest and cheapest 360 camera option I have found is the Samsung Gear 360. There are two totally different models with the same name, usually differentiated by the year of their release. I am using the older 2016 model, which has a higher resolution sensor, but records UHD instead of the slightly larger full 4K video of the newer 2017 model.
The Gear 360 records two fisheye views that are just over 180 degrees, from cameras situated back to back in a 2.5-inch sphere. Both captured image circles are recorded onto a single frame, side by side, resulting in a 2:1 aspect ratio files. These are encoded into JPEG (7776×3888 stills) or HEVC (3840×1920 video) at 30Mb and saved onto a MicroSD card. The camera is remarkably simple to use, with only three buttons, and a tiny UI screen to select recording mode and resolution. If you have a Samsung Galaxy phone, there are a variety of other functions that allows, like remote control and streaming the output to the phone as a viewfinder and such. Even without a Galaxy phone, the camera did everything I needed to generate 360 footage to stitch and edit with but it was cool to have a remote viewfinder for the driving shots.
One of the big challenges of shooting with any 360 camera is how to avoid getting gear and rigging in the shot since the camera records everything around it. Even the tiny integrated tripod on the Gear 360 is visible in the shots, and putting it on the plate of my regular DSLR tripod fills the bottom of the footage. My solution was to use the thinnest support I could to keep the rest of the rigging as far from the camera as possible, and therefore smaller from its perspective. I created a couple options to shoot with that are pictured below. The results are much less intrusive in the resulting images that are recorded. Obviously besides the camera support, there is the issue of everything else in the shot including the operator. Since most 360 videos are locked off, an operator may not be needed, but there is no “behind the camera” for hiding gear or anything else. Your set needs to be considered in every direction, since it will all be visible to your viewer. If you can see the camera, it can see you.
There are many different approaches to storing 360 images, which are inherently spherical, as a video file, which is inherently flat. This is the same issue that cartographers have faced for hundreds of years — creating flat paper maps of a planet that is inherently curved. While there are sphere map, cube map and pyramid projection options (among others) based on the way VR headsets work, the equirectangular format has emerged as the standard for editing and distribution encoding, while other projections are occasionally used for certain effects processing or other playback options.
Usually the objective of the stitching process is to get the images from all of your lenses combined into a single frame with the least amount of distortion and the fewest visible seams. There are a number of software solutions that do this, from After Effects plugins, to dedicated stitching applications like Kolor AVP and Orah VideoStitch-Studio to unique utilities for certain cameras. Once you have your 360 video footage in the equirectangular format, most of the other steps of the workflow are similar to their flat counterparts, besides VFX. You can cut, fade, title and mix your footage in an NLE and then encode it in the standard H.264 or H.265 formats with a few changes to the metadata.
Technically, the only thing you need to add to an existing 4K editing workflow in order to make the jump to 360 video is a 360 camera. Everything else could be done in software, but the other thing you will want is a VR headset or HMD. It is possible to edit 360 video without an HMD, but it is a lot like grading a film using scopes but no monitor. The data and tools you need are all right there, but without being able to see the results, you can’t be confident of what the final product will be like. You can scroll around the 360 video in the view window, or see the whole projected image all distorted, but it won’t have the same feel as experiencing it in a VR headset.
360 Video is not as processing intensive as true 3D VR, but it still requires a substantial amount of power to provide a good editing experience. I am using a Thinkpad P71 with an Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU to get smooth performance during all these tests.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we focus on editing 360 Video.
Mike McCarthy is an online editor/workflow consultant with 10 years of experience on feature films and commercials. He has been working on new solutions for tapeless workflows, DSLR filmmaking and multi-screen and surround video experiences. Check out his site.