Tag Archives: virtual reality

Storage for Interactive, VR

By Karen Moltenbrey

Every vendor in the visual effects and post production industries relies on data storage. However, for those studios working on new media or hybrid projects, which generate far more content in general, they not only need a reliable solution, they need one that can handle terabytes upon terabytes of data.

Here, two companies in the VR space discuss their needs for a storage solution that serve their business requirements.

Lap Van Luu

Magnopus
Located in downtown Los Angeles, Magnopus creates amazing VR and AR experiences. While a fairly new company — it was founded in 2013 — its staff has an extensive history in the VFX and games industries, with Academy Award winners among its founders. So, there is no doubt that the group knows what it takes to create amazing content.

It also knows the necessity of a reliable storage solution and one that can handle the large data generated by an AR or VR project. At Magnopus, the crew uses a custom-built solution leveraging Supermicro architecture. As Magnopus CTO Lap Van Luu points out, they are using an SSG-6048R-E1CR60N 4U chassis that the studio populates with two types of tier storage: the cache read-and-write layer is NVMe, while the second tier is SAS. Both are in a RAID-10 configuration with 1TB of NVMe and 500TB of SAS raw storage.

“This setup allows us to scale to a larger workforce and meet the demands of our artists,” says Luu. “We leverage faster NVMe Flash and larger SAS for the bulk of our storage requirements.”

Before Magnopus, Luu worked at companies with all kinds of storage systems over the past 20 years, including those from NetApp, BlueArc and Isilon, as well as custom builds of ZFS, FreeNAS, Microsoft Windows Storage Spaces and Hadoop configurations. However, since Magnopus opened, it has only switched to a bigger and faster version of its original setup, starting with a custom Supermicro system with 400GB of SSD and 250TB of SAS in the same configuration.

“We went with this configuration because as we were moving more into realtime production than traditional VFX, the need for larger renderfarms and storage IO demands dropped dramatically,” says Luu. “We also knew that we wanted to leverage smart caching due to the cost of Flash storage dropping to a reasonable price point. It was the ideal situation to be in. We were starting a new company with a less-demanding infrastructure with newer technology that was cheaper, faster and better overall.”

Nevertheless, choosing a specific solution was not a decision that was made lightly. “When you move away from your premier storage solution providers, there is always a concern for scalability and reliability. When working in realtime production, the concern to re-render elements wasn’t a factor of hours or days, but rather seconds and minutes. It was important for us to have redundant backups. But for the cost saving on storage, we could easily get mirrored servers and still be saving a significant amount of money.”

Luu knew the studio wanted to leverage Flash caching, so the big question was, How much Flash was necessary to meet the demands of their artists and processing farm? The processing farm was mainly used to generate textures and environments that were imported over to a real-time engine, such as Unity or Unreal Engine. To this end, Magnopus had to find out who offered a solution for caching that was as hands-off as possible and was invisible to all the users. “LSI, now Avago, had a solution with the RAID controller called cachecade, which dealt with all the caching,” he says. “All you had to do was set up some preferences and the RAID controller would take care of the rest.”

However, cachecade had a size limit on the caching layer of 512GB, so the studio had to do some testing to see if it would ever exceed that, and in a rare situation it did, says Luu. “But it was never a worry because behind the flash cache was a 60 SAS drive RAID-10 configuration.”

As Luu explains, when working with VFX, IOPS (IO operations per second) is always the biggest issue due to the heavy demand from certain types of applications. “VFX work and compositing can typically drive any storage solution to a grinding halt when you have a renderfarm taxing the production storage from your artists,” he explains. However, realtime development IO demands are significantly less since the assets are created in a DCC application but imported into a game engine, where processing occurs in realtime and locally. So, storing all those traditional VFX elements are not necessary, and the overall capacity of storage dropped to one-tenth of what was required with VFX, Luu points out.

And since Magnopus has a Flash-based cache layer that is large enough to meet the company’s IO demands, it does not have to leverage localization to reduce the IO demand off the main production server; as a result, the user gets immediate server response. And, it means that all data within the pipeline resides on the company’s main production server — where the company starts and ends any project.

“Magnopus is a content-focused technology company,” Luu says. “All our assets and projects that we create are digital. Storage is extremely important because it is the lifeblood of everything we create. The storage server can be the difference between if a user can focus on creative content creation where the infrastructure is invisible or the frustration of constantly being blocked and delayed by hardware. Enabling everyone to work as efficiently as possible allows for the best results and products for our clients and customers.”

Light Sail VR
Light Sail VR is a Hollywood-based VR boutique that is a pioneer in cinematic virtual reality storytelling. Since its founding three years ago, the studio has been producing a range of interactive, 360- and 180-degree VR content, including original work and branded pieces for Google, ABC, GoPro and Paramount.

Matt Celia on set for Speak of the Devil.

Because Light Sail VR is a unique but small company, employees often have to wear a number of hats. For instance, co-founder Robert Watts is executive producer and handles many of the logistical issues. His partner, Matthew Celia, is creative director and handles more of the technical aspects of the business. So when it comes to managing the company’s storage needs, Celia is the guy. And, having a reliable system that keeps things running smoothly is paramount, as he is also juggling shoots and post-production work. No one can afford delays in production and post, but for a small company, it can be especially disastrous.

Light Sail VR does not simply dabble in VR; it is what the company does exclusively. Most of the projects thus far have been live action, though the group started its first game engine work this year. When the studio produced a piece with GoPro in the first year of its founding, it was on a sneakernet of G-Drives from G-Technology, “and I was going crazy!” says Celia. “VR is fantastic, but it’s very data-intensive. You can max out a computer’s processing very easily, and the render times are extraordinarily long. There’s a lot of shots to get through because every shot becomes a visual effects shot with either stitching, rotoscoping or compositing needed.”

He continues: “I told Robert [Watts] we needed to get a shared storage server so if I max out one computer while I’m working, I can just go to another computer and keep working, rather than wait eight to 10 hours for a render to finish.”

The Speak of the Devil shoot.

Celia had been dialed into the post world for some time. “Before diving into the world of VR, I was a Final Cut guy, and the LumaForge guys and [founder] Sam Mestman were people I always respected in the industry,” he says. So, Celia reached out to them with a cold call and explained that Light Sail VR was doing virtual reality, an uncharted, pioneering new thing, and was going to need a lot of storage — and needed it fast. “I told them, ‘We want to be hooked up to many computers, both Macs and PCs, and don’t want to deal with file structures and those types of things.’”

Celia points out that they are an independent and small boutique, so finding something that was cost effective and reliable was important. LumaForge responded with a solution called Jellyfish Mobile, geared for small teams and on-set work or portable office environments. “I think we got the 30TB NAS server that has four 10Gb Ethernet connections.” That enabled Light Sail VR to hook up the system to all its computers, “and it worked,” he adds. “I could work on one shot, hit render, and go to another computer and continue working on the next shot and hit render, then kind of ping-pong back and forth. It made our lives a lot easier.”

Light Sail VR has since graduated to the larger-capacity Jellyfish Rack system, which is a 160TB solution (expandable up to 1 petabyte).

The storage is located in Light Sail VR’s main office and is hooked up to its computers. The filmmakers shoot in the field and, if on location, download the data to drives, which they transport back to the office and load onto the server. Then, they transcode all the media to DNX. (VR is captured in H.264 format, which is not user friendly for editing due to the high-res frame size.)

Currently, Celia is in New York, having just wrapped the 20th episode of original content for Refinery29, a media company focused on young women that produces editorial and video programming, live events and social, shareable content delivered across major social media platforms, and covers a variety of categories from style to politics and more. Eight of the episodes are currently in various stages of the post pipeline, due to come out later this year. “And having a solid storage server has been a godsend,” Celia says.

The studio backs up locally onto Seagate drives for archival purposes and sometimes employs G-Technology drives for on-set work. “We just got this new G-Tech SSD that’s 2TB. It’s been great for use on set because having an SSD and downloading all the cards while on set makes your wrap process so much faster,” Celia points out.

Lately, Light Sail VR is shooting a lot of VR-180, requiring two 64GB cards per camera — one for the right eye and one for the left eye. But when they are shooting with the Yi Halo next-gen 3D 360-degree Google Jump camera, they use 17 64GB cards. “That’s a lot of data,” says Celia. “You can have a really bad day if you have really bad drives.”

The studio’s previous solution operated via Thunderbolt 1 in a RAID-5. It only worked on a single machine and was not cross-platform. As the studio made the transition over to PC from Mac to take advantage of better hardware capable of supporting VR playback, that solution was just not practical. They also needed a solution that was plug and play, so they could just pop it into a 10Gb Ethernet connection — they did not want fiber, “which can get expensive.”

The Light Sail team.

“I just wanted something very simple that was cross-platform and could handle what we were doing, which is, by the way, 6K or 8K stereo at 60 frames per second – these workloads are larger than most feature films,” Celia says. “So, we needed a lot of storage. We needed it fast. We needed it to be shared.”

However, while Celia searched for a system, one thing became clear to him: The solutions were technical. “It seemed like I would have to be my own IT department.” And, that was just one more hat he did not want to have to wear. “At LumaForge, they are independent filmmakers. They understood what I was trying to do immediately, and were willing to go on that journey with us.”

Say Celia, “I always call hard drives or storage the underwear of the post production world because it’s the thing you hate spending a lot of money on, but you really need it to perform and work.”

Main Image: Magnopus


Karen Moltenbrey is a long-time VFX and post writer.

Satore Tech tackles post for Philharmonia Orchestra’s latest VR film

The Philharmonia Orchestra in London debuted its latest VR experience at Royal Festival Hall alongside the opening two concerts of the Philharmonia’s new season. Satore Tech completed VR stitching for the Mahler 3: Live From London film. This is the first project completed by Satore Tech since it was launched in June of this year.

The VR experience placed users at the heart of the Orchestra during the final 10 minutes of Mahler’s Third Symphony, which was filmed live in October 2017. The stitching project was completed by creative technologist/SFX/VR expert Sergio Ochoa, who leads Satore Tech. The company used SGO Mistika technology to post the project, which Ochoa helped to develop during his time in that company — he was creative technologist and CEO of SGO’s French division.

Luke Ritchie, head of innovation and partnerships at the Philharmonia Orchestra, says, “We’ve been working with VR since 2015, it’s a fantastic technology to connect new audiences with the Orchestra in an entirely new way. VR allows you to sit at the heart of the Orchestra, and our VR experiences can transform audiences’ preconceptions of orchestral performance — whether they’re new to classical music or are a die-hard fan.”

It was a technically demanding project for Satore Tech to stitch together, as the concert was filmed live, in 360 degrees, with no retakes using Google’s latest Jump Odyssey VR camera. This meant that Ochoa was working with four to five different depth layers at any one time. The amount of fast movement also meant the resolution of the footage needed to be up-scaled from 4K to 8K to ensure it was suitable for the VR platform.

“The guiding principle for Satore Tech is we aspire to constantly push the boundaries, both in terms of what we produce and the technologies we develop to achieve that vision,” explains Ochoa. “It was challenging given the issues that arise with any live recording, but the ambition and complexity is what makes it such a very suitable initial project for us.”

Satore Tech’s next project is currently in development in Mexico, using experimental volumetric capture techniques with some of the world’s most famous dancers. It is slated for release early next year.

VR at NAB 2018: A Parisian’s perspective

By Alexandre Regeffe

Even though my cab driver from the airport to my hotel offered these words of wisdom — “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” — I’ve decided not to listen to him and instead share with you the things that impressed for the VR world at NAB 2018.

Back in September of 2017, I shared with you my thoughts on the VR offerings at the IBC show in Amsterdam. In case you don’t remember my story, I’m a French guy who jumped into the VR stuff three years ago and started a cinematic VR production company called Neotopy with a friend. Three years is like a century in VR. Indeed, this medium is constantly evolving, both technically and financially.

So what has become of VR today? Lots of different things. VR is a big bag where people throw AR, MR, 360, LBE, 180 and 3D. And from all of that, XR (Extended Reality) was born, which means everything.

Insta360 Titan

But if this blurred concept leads to some misunderstanding, is it really good for consumers? Even us pros are finding it difficult to explain what exactly VR is, currently.

While at NAB, I saw a presentation from Nick Bicanic during which he used the term “frameless media.” And, thank you, Nick, because I think that is exactly what‘s in this big bag called VR… or XR. Today, we consume a lot of content through a frame, which is our TV, computer, smartphone or cinema screen. VR allows us to go beyond the frame, and this is a very important shift for cinematographers and content creators.

But enough concepts and ideas, let us start this journey on the NAB show floor! My first stop was the VR pavilion, also called the “immersive storytelling pavilion” this year.

My next stop was to see SGO Mistika. For over a year, the SGO team has been delivering an incredible stitching software with its Mistika VR. In my opinion, there is a “before” and an “after” this tool. Thanks to its optical flow capacities, you can achieve a seamless stitching 99% of the time, even with very difficult shooting situations. The last version of the software provided additional features like stabilization, keyframe capabilities, more cameras presets and easy integration with Kandao and Insta360 camera profiles. VR pros used Mistika’s booth as sort of a base camp, meeting the development team directly.

A few steps from Misitka was Insta360, with a large, yellow booth. This Chinese company is a success story with the consumer product Insta360 One, a small 360 camera for the masses. But I was more interested in the Insta360 Pro, their 8K stereoscopic 3D360 flagship camera used by many content creators.

At the show, Insta360’s big announcement was Titan, a premium version of the Insta360 Pro offering better lenses and sensors. It’s available later this year. Oh, and there was the lightfield camera prototype, the company’s first step into the volumetric capture world.

Another interesting camera manufacturer at the show was Human Eyes Technology, presenting their Vuze+. With this affordable 3D360 camera you can dive into stereoscopic 360 content and learn the basics about this technology. Side note: The Vuze+ was chosen by National Geographic to shoot some stunning sequences in the International Space Station.

Kandao Obsidian

My favorite VR camera company, Kandao, was at NAB showing new features for its Obsidian R and S cameras. One of the best is the 6DoF capabilities. With this technology, you can generate a depth map from the camera directly in Kandao Studio, the stitching software, which comes free when you buy an Obsidian. With the combination of a 360 stitched image and depth map, you can “walk” into your movie. It’s an awesome technique for better immersion. For me this was by far the best innovation in VR technology presented on the show floor

The live capabilities of Obsidian cameras have been improved, with a dedicated Kandao Live software, which allows you to live stream 4K stereoscopic 360 with optical flow stitching on the fly! And, of course, do not forget their new Qoocam camera. With its three-lens-equipped little stick, you can either do VR 180 stereoscopic or 360 monoscopic, while using depth map technology to refocus or replace the background in post — all with a simple click. Thanks to all these innovations, Kandao is now a top player in the cinematic VR industry.

One Kandao competitor is ZCam. They were there with a couple of new products: the ZCam V1, a 3D360 camera with a tiny form factor. It’s very interesting for shooting scenes where things are very close to the camera. It keeps a good stereoscopy even on nearby objects, which is a major issue with most of VR cameras and rigs. The second one is the small E2 – while it’s not really a VR camera, it can be used as an underwater rig, for example.

ZCam K1 Pro

The ZCam product range is really impressive and completely targeting professionals, from ZCam S1 to ZCam V1 Pro. Important note: take a look at their K1 Pro, a VR 180 camera, if you want to produce high-end content for the Google VR180 ecosystem.

Another VR camera at NAB was Samsung’s Round, offering stereoscopic capabilities. This relatively compact device comes with a proprietary software suite for stitching and viewing 360 shots. Thanks to IP65 normalization, you can use this camera outdoors in difficult weather conditions, like rain, dust or snow. It was great to see the live streaming 4K 3D360 operating on the show floor, using several Round cameras combined with powerful Next Computing hardware.

VR Post
Adobe Creative Cloud 2018 remains the must-have tool to achieve VR post production without losing your mind. Numerous 360-specific functionalities have been added during the last year, after Adobe bought the Mettle Skybox suite. The most impressive feature is that you can now stay in your 360 environment for editing. You just put your Oculus rift headset on and manipulate your Premiere timeline with touch controllers and proceed to edit your shots. Think of it as a Minority Report-style editing interface! I am sure we can expect more amazing VR tools from Adobe this year.

Google’s Lightfield technology

Mettle was at the Dell booth showing their new Adobe CC 360 plugin, called Flux. After an impressive Mantra release last year, Flux is now available for VR artists, allowing them to do 3D volumetric fractals and to create entire futuristic worlds. It was awesome to see the results in a headset!

Distributing VR
So once you have produced your cinematic VR content, how can you distribute it? One option is to use the Liquid Cinema platform. They were at NAB with a major update and some new features, including seamless transitions between a “flat” video and a 360 video. As a content creator you can also manage your 360 movies in a very smart CMS linked to your app and instantly add language versions, thumbnails, geoblocking, etc. Another exciting thing is built-in 6DoF capability right in the editor with a compatible headset — allowing you to walk through your titles, graphics and more!

I can’t leave without mentioning Voysys for live-streaming VR; Kodak PixPro and its new cameras ; Google’s next move into lightfield technology ; Bonsai’s launch of a new version of the Excalibur rig ; and many other great manufacturers, software editors and partners.

See you next time, Sin City.

Behind the Title: Light Sail VR’s Matthew Celia

NAME: Matthew Celia

COMPANY: LA’s Light Sail VR (@lightsailvr)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Light Sail VR is a virtual reality production company specializing in telling immersive narrative stories. We’ve built a strong branded content business over the last two years working with clients such as Google and GoPro, and studios like Paramount and ABC.

Whether it’s 360 video, cinematic VR or interactive media, we’ve built an end-to-end pipeline to go from script to final delivery. We’re now excited to be moving into creating original IP and more interactive content that fuses cinematic live-action film footage with game engine mechanics.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Creative Director and Managing Partner

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
A lot! We’re a small boutique shop so we all wear many hats. First and foremost, I am a director and work hard to deliver a compelling story and emotional connection to the audience for each one of our pieces. Story first is our motto, and I try and approach every technical problem with a creative solution. Figuring out execution is a large part of that.

In addition to the production side, I also carry a lot of the technical responsibilities in post production, such as keeping our post pipeline humming and inventing new workflows. Most recently, I have been dabbling in programming interactive cinema using the Unity game engine.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I am in charge of washing the lettuce when we do our famous “Light Sail VR Sandwich Club” during lunch. Yes, you get fed for free if you work with us, and I make an amazing italian sandwich.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Hard to say. I really like what I do. I like being on set and working with actors because VR is such a great medium for them to play in, and it’s exciting to collaborate with such creative and talented people.

National Parks Service

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Render times and computer crashes. My tech life is in constant beta. Price we pay for being on the bleeding edge, I guess!

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
I like the early morning because it is quiet, my brain is fresh, and I haven’t yet had 20 people asking something of me.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Probably the same, but at a large company. If I left the film business I’d probably teach. I love working with kids.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
I feel like I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I could walk. My parents like to drag out the home movies of me asking to look in my dad’s VHS video camera when I was 4. I spent most of high school in the theater and most people assumed I would be an actor. But senior year I fell in love with film when I shot and cut my first 16mm reversal stock on an old reel-to-reel editing machine. The process was incredibly fun and rewarding and I was hooked. I only recently discovered VR, but in many ways it feels like the right path for me because I think cinematic VR is the perfect intersection of filmmaking and theater.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
On the branded side, we just finished up two tourism videos. One for the National Parks Service which was a 360 tour of the Channel Islands with Jordan Fisher and the other was a 360 piece for Princess Cruises. VR is really great to show people the world. The last few months of my life have been consumed by Light Sail VR’s first original project, Speak of the Devil.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Speak of the Devil is at the top of that list. It’s the first live-action interactive project I’ve worked on and it’s massive. Crafted using the GoPro Odyssey camera in partnership with Google Jump it features over 50 unique locations, 13 different endings and is currently taking up about 80TB of storage (and counting). It is the largest project I’ve worked on to date, and we’ve done it all on a shoestring budget thanks to the gracious contributions of talented creative folks who believed in our vision.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My instant-read grill meat thermometer, my iPhone and my Philips Hue bulbs. Seriously, if you have a baby, it’s a life saver being able to whisper, Hey, Siri, turn off the lights.”

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
I’m really active on several Facebook groups related to 360 video production. You can get a lot of advice and connect directly with vendors and software engineers. It’s a great community.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
I tend to pop on some music when I’m doing repetitive mindless tasks, but when I have to be creative or solve a tough tech problem, the music is off so that I can focus. My favorite music to work to tends to be Dave Matthews Band live albums. They get into 20-minute long jams and it’s great.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
De-stressing is really hard when you own your own company. I like to go walking, but if that doesn’t work, I’ll try diving into some cooking for my family, which forces me to focus on something not work related. I tend to feel better after eating a really good meal.

Rogue takes us on VR/360 tour of Supermodel Closets

Rogue is a NYC-based creative boutique that specializes in high-end production and post for film, advertising and digital. Since its founding two years ago, executive creative director, Alex MacLean and his team have produced a large body of work providing color grading, finishing and visual effects for clients such as HBO, Vogue, Google, Vice, Fader and more. For the past three years MacLean has also been at the forefront of VR/360 content for narratives and advertising.

MacLean recently wrapped up post production on four five-minute episodes of 360-degree tours of Supermodel Closets. The series is a project of Conde Nast Entertainment and Vogue for Vogue’s 125th anniversary. If you’re into fashion, this VR tour gives you a glimpse at what supermodels wear in their daily lives. Viewers can look up, down and all around to feel immersed in the closet of each model as she shows her favorite fashions and shares the stories behind their most prized pieces.

 

Tours include the closets of Lily Aldridge, Cindy Crawford, Kendall Jenner  and
Amber Valletta.

MacLean worked with director Julina Tatlock, who is a co-founder and CEO of 30 Ninjas, a digital entertainment company that develops, writes and produces VR, multi-platform and interactive content. Rogue and 30 Ninjas worked together to determine the best workflow for the series. “I always think it’s best practice to collaborate with the directors, DPs and/or production companies in advance of a VR shoot to sort out any technical issues and pre-plan the most efficient production process from shoot to edit, stitching through all the steps of post-production,” reports MacLean. “Foresight is everything; it saves a lot of time, money, and frustration for everyone, especially when working in VR, as well as 3D.”

According to MacLean, they worked with a new camera format, the YI Halo camera, which is designed for professional VR data acquisition. “I often turn to the Assimilate team to discuss the format issues because they always support the latest camera formats in their Scratch VR tools. This worked well again because I needed to define an efficient VR and 3D workflow that would accommodate the conforming, color grading, creating of visual effects and the finishing of a massive amount of data at 6.7K x 6.7K resolution.”

 

The Post
“The post production process began by downloading 30 Ninjas’ editorial, stitched footage from the cloud to ingest into our MacBook Pro workstations to do the conform at 6K x 6K,” explains MacLean. “Organized data management is a critical step in our workflow, and Scratch VR is a champ at that. We were simultaneously doing the post for more than one episode, as well as other projects within the studio, so data efficiency is key.”

“We then moved the conformed raw 6.7K x 6.7K raw footage to our HP Z840 workstations to do the color grading, visual effects, compositing and finishing. You really need powerful workstations when working at this resolution and with this much data,” reports MacLean. “Spherical VR/360 imagery requires focused concentration, and then we’re basically doing everything twice when working in 3D. For these episodes, and for all VR/360 projects, we create a lat/long that breaks out the left eye and right eye into two spherical images. We then replicate the work from one eye to the next, and color correct any variances. The result is seamless color grading.

 

“We’re essentially using the headset as a creative tool with Scratch VR, because we can work in realtime in an immersive environment and see the exact results of work in each step of the post process,” he continues. “This is especially useful when doing any additional compositing, such as clean-up for artifacts that may have been missed or adding or subtracting data. Working in realtime eases the stress and time of doing a new composite of 360 data for the left eye and right eye 3D.”

Playback of content in the studio is very important to MacLean and team, and he calls the choice of multiple headsets another piece to the VR/360 puzzle. “The VR/3D content can look different in each headset so we need to determine a mid-point aesthetic look that displays well in each headset. We have our own playback black box that we use to preview the color grading and visual effects, before committing to rendering. And then we do a final QC review of the content, and for these episodes we did so in Google Daydream (untethered), HTV Live (tethered) and the Oculus Rift (tethered).”

MacLean sees rendering as one of their biggest challenges. “It’s really imperative to be diligent throughout all the internal and client reviews prior to rendering. It requires being very organized in your workflow from production through finishing, and a solid QC check. Content at 6K x 6K, VR/360 and 3D means extremely large files and numerous hours of rendering, so we want to restrict re-rendering as much as possible.”

Behind the Title: Start VR Producer Ela Topcuoglu

NAME: Ela Topcuoglu

COMPANY: Start VR (@Start_VR)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Start VR is a full-service production studio (with offices in Sydney, Australia and Marina Del Rey, California) specializing in immersive and interactive cinematic entertainment. The studio brings expertise in entertainment and technology together with feature film quality visuals with interactive content, creating original and branded narrative experiences in VR.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Development Executive and Producer

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I am in charge of expanding Start VR’s business in North America. That entails developing strategic partnerships and increasing business development in the entertainment, film and technology sectors.

I am also responsible for finding partners for our original content slate as well as seeking existing IP that would fit perfectly in VR. I also develop relationships with brands and advertising agencies to create branded content. Beyond business development, I also help produce the projects that we move forward with.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
The title comes with the responsibility of convincing people to invest in something that is constantly evolving, which is the biggest challenge. My job also requires me to be very creative in coming up with a native language to this new medium. I have to wear many hats to ensure that we create the best experiences out there.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
My favorite part of the job is that I get to wear lots of different hats. Being in the emerging field of VR, everyday is different. I don’t have a traditional 9-to-5 office job and I am constantly moving and hustling to set up business meetings and stay updated on the latest industry trends.

Also, being in the ever-evolving technology field, I learn something new almost everyday, which is extremely essential to my professional growth.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Convincing people to invest in virtual reality and seeing its incredible potential. That usually changes once they experience truly immersive VR, but regardless, selling the future is difficult.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
My favorite part of the day is the morning. I start my day with a much-needed shot of Nespresso, get caught up on emails, take a look at my schedule and take a quick breather before I jump right into the madness.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
If I wasn’t working in VR, I would be investing my time in learning more about artificial intelligence (AI) and use that to advance medicine/health and education.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I loved entertaining people from a very young age, and I was always looking for an outlet to do that, so the entertainment business was the perfect fit. There is nothing like watching someone’s reaction to a great piece of content. Virtual reality is the ultimate entertainment outlet and I knew that I wanted to create experiences that left people with the same awe reaction that I had the moment I experienced it.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I worked and assisted in the business and legal affairs department at Media Rights Capital and had the opportunity to work on amazing TV projects, including House of Cards, Baby Driver and Ozark.

Awake: First Contact

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
The project that I am most proud of to date is the project that I am currently producing at Start VR. It’s called Awake: First Contact. It was a project I read about and said, “I want to work on that.”

I am in incredibly proud that I get to work on a virtual reality project that is pushing the boundaries of the medium both technically and creatively.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My phone, laptop and speakers.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
Yes, especially if I’m working on a pitch deck. It really keeps me in the moment. I usually listen to my favorite DJ mixes on Soundcloud. It really depends on my vibe that day.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I have recently started surfing, so that is my outlet at the moment. I also meditate regularly. It’s also important for me to make sure that I am always learning something new and unrelated to my industry.

Tackling VR storytelling challenges with spatial audio

By Matthew Bobb

From virtual reality experiences for brands to top film franchises, VR is making a big splash in entertainment and evolving the way creators tell stories. But, as with any medium and its production, bringing a narrative to life is no easy feat, especially when it’s immersive. VR comes with its own set of challenges unique to the platform’s capacity to completely transport viewers into another world and replicate reality.

Making high-quality immersive experiences, especially for a film franchise, is extremely challenging. Creators must place the viewer into a storyline crafted by the studios and properly guide them through the experience in a way that allows them to fully grasp the narrative. One emerging strategy is to emphasize audio — specifically, 360 spatial audio. VR offers a sense of presence no other medium today can offer. Spatial audio offers an auditory presence that augments a VR experience, amplifying its emotional effects.

My background as audio director for VR experiences includes top film franchises such as Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema’s IT: Float — A Cinematic VR Experience, The Conjuring 2 — Experience Enfield VR 360, Annabelle: Creation VR — Bee’s Room, and the upcoming Greatest Showman VR experience for 20th Century Fox. In the emerging world of VR, I have seen production teams encounter numerous challenges that call for creative solutions. For some of the most critical storytelling moments, it’s crucial for creators to understand the power of spatial audio and its potential to solve some of the most prevalent challenges that arise in VR production.

Most content creators — even some of those involved in VR filmmaking — don’t fully know what 360 spatial audio is or how its implementation within VR can elevate an experience. With any new medium, there are early adopters who are passionate about the process. As the next wave of VR filmmakers emerge, they will need to be informed about the benefits of spatial audio.

Guiding Viewers
Spatial audio is an incredible tool that helps make a VR experience feel believable. It can present sound from several locations, which allows viewers to identify their position within a virtual space in relation to the surrounding environment. With the ability to provide location-based sound from any direction and distance, spatial audio can then be used to produce directional auditory cues that grasp the viewer’s attention and coerce them to look in a certain direction.

VR is still unfamiliar territory for a lot of people, and the viewing process isn’t as straightforward as a 2D film or game, so dropping viewers into an experience can leave them feeling lost and overwhelmed. Inexperienced viewers are also more apprehensive and rarely move around or turn their heads while in a headset. Spatial audio cues prompting them to move or look in a specific direction are critical, steering them to instinctively react and move naturally. On Annabelle: Creation VR — Bee’s Room, viewers go into the experience knowing it’s from the horror genre and may be hesitant to look around. We strategically used audio cues, such as footsteps, slamming doors and a record player that mysteriously turns on and off, to encourage viewers to turn their head toward the sound and the chilling visuals that await.

Lacking Footage
Spatial audio can also be a solution for challenging scene transitions, or when there is a dearth of visuals to work with in a sequence. Well-crafted aural cues can paint a picture in a viewer’s mind without bombarding the experience with visuals that are often unnecessary.

A big challenge when creating VR experiences for beloved film franchises is the need for the VR production team to work in tandem with the film’s production team, making recording time extremely limited. When working on IT: Float, we were faced with the challenge of having a time constraint for shooting Pennywise the Clown. Consequently, there was not an abundance of footage of him to place in the promotional VR experience. Beyond a lack of footage, they also didn’t want to give away the notorious clown’s much-anticipated appearance before the film’s theatrical release. The solution to that production challenge was spatial audio. Pennywise’s voice was strategically used to lead the experience and guide viewers throughout the sewer tunnels, heightening the suspense while also providing the illusion that he was surrounding the viewer.

Avoiding Visual Overkill
Similar to film and video games, sound is half of the experience in VR. With the unique perspective the medium offers, creators no longer have to fully rely on a visually-heavy narrative, which can overwhelm the viewer. Instead, audio can take on a bigger role in the production process and make the project a well-rounded sensory experience. In VR, it’s important for creators to leverage sensory stimulation beyond visuals to guide viewers through a story and authentically replicate reality.

As VR storytellers, we are reimagining ways to immerse viewer in new worlds. It is crucial for us to leverage the power of audio to smooth out bumps in the road and deliver a vivid sense of physical presence unique to this medium.


Matthew Bobb is the CEO of the full-service audio company Spacewalk Sound. He is a spatial audio expert whose work can be seen in top VR experiences for major film franchises.

Making the jump to 360 Video (Part 1)

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.

Affordable cameras

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.

Pricier cameras

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.

Assimilate and Z Cam offer second integrated VR workflow bundle

Z Cam and Assimilate are offering their second VR integrated workflow bundle, which features the Z Cam S1 Pro VR camera and the Assimilate Scratch VR Z post tools. The new Z Cam S1 Pro offers a higher level of image quality that includes better handling of low lights and dynamic range with detailed, well-saturated, noise-free video. In addition to the new camera, this streamlined pro workflow combines Z Cam’s WonderStitch optical-flow stitch feature and the end-to-end Scratch VR Z tools.

Z Cam and Assimilate have designed their combined technologies to ensure as simple a workflow as possible, including making it easy to switch back and forth between the S1 Pro functions and the Scratch VR Z tools. Users can also employ Scratch VR Z to do live camera preview, prior to shooting with the S1 Pro. Once the shoot begins with the S1 Pro, Scratch VR Z is then used for dailies and data management, including metadata. You don’t have to remove the SD cards and copy; it’s a direct connect to the PC and then to the camera via a high-speed Ethernet port. Stitching of the imagery is then done in Z Cam’s WonderStitch — now integrated into Scratch VR Z — as well as traditional editing, color grading, compositing, support for multichannel audio from the S1 or external ambisonic sound, finishing and publishing (to all final online or standalone 360 platforms).

Z Cam S1 Pro/Scratch VR Z  bundle highlights include:
• Lower light sensitivity and dynamic range – 4/3-inch CMOS image sensor
• Premium 220 degree MFT fisheye lens, f/2.8~11
• Coordinated AE (automatic exposure) and AWB ( automatic white-balance)
• Full integration with built-in Z Cam Sync
• 6K 30fps resolution (post stitching) output
• Gig-E port (video stream & setting control)
• WonderStich optical-flow based stitching
• Live Streaming to Facebook, YouTube or a private server, including text overlays and green/composite layers for a virtual set
• Scratch VR Z single, a streamlined, end-to-end, integrated VR post workflow

“We’ve already developed a few VR projects with the S1 Pro VR camera and the entire Neotopy team is awed by its image quality and performance,” says Alex Regeffe, VR post production manager at Neotopy Studio in Paris. “Together with the Scratch VR Z tools, we see this integrated workflow as a game changer in creating VR experiences, because our focus is now all on the creativity and storytelling rather than configuring multiple, costly tools and workflows.”

The Z Cam S1 Pro/Scratch VR Z bundle is available within 30 days of ordering. Priced at $11,999 (US), the bundle includes the following:
– Z CamS1 Pro Camera main unit, Z Cam S1 Pro battery unit (w/o battery cells), AC/DC power adapter unit and power connection cables (US, UK, EU).
– A Z Cam WonderStitch license, which is an optical flow-based stitching feature that performs offline stitching of files from Z Cam S1 Pro. Z Cam WonderStitch requires a valid software license associated with a designated Z Cam S1 Pro, and is nontransferable.
– A Scratch VR Z permanent license: a pro VR end-to-end, post workflow with an all-inclusive, realtime toolset for data management, dailies, conform, color grading, compositing, multichannel and ambisonic sound, and finishing, all integrated within the Z Cam S1 Pro camera. Includes one-year of support/updates.

The companies are offering a tutorial about the bundle.

Red’s Hydrogen One: new 3D-enabled smartphone

In their always subtle way, Red has stated that “the future of personal communication, information gathering, holographic multi-view, 2D, 3D, AR/VR/MR and image capture just changed forever” with the introduction of Hydrogen One, a pocket-sized, glasses-free “holographic media machine.”

Hydrogen One is a standalone, full-featured, unlocked multi-band smartphone, operating on Android OS, that promises “look around depth in the palm of your hand” without the need for separate glasses or headsets. The device features a 5.7-inch professional hydrogen holographic display that switches between traditional 2D content, holographic multi-view content, 3D content and interactive games, and it supports both landscape and portrait modes. Red has also embedded a proprietary H30 algorithm in the OS system that will convert stereo sound into multi-dimensional audio.

The Hydrogen system incorporates a high-speed data bus to enable a comprehensive and expandable modular component system, including future attachments for shooting high-quality motion, still and holographic images. It will also integrate into the professional Red camera program, working together with Scarlet, Epic and Weapon as a user interface and monitor.

Future-users are already talking about this “nifty smartphone with glasses-free 3D,” and one has gone so far as to describe the announcement as “the day 360-video became Betamax, and AR won the race.” Others are more tempered in their enthusiasm, viewing this as a really expensive smartphone with a holographic screen that may or might not kill 360 video. Time will tell.

Initially priced between $1,195 and $1,595, the Hydrogen One is targeted to ship in Q1 of 2018.