Shooting a VR documentary

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For the past six months I’ve been working on developing a Virtual Reality(VR) multimedia project titled “Elders of Our Forest”. The project uses photographs, film, text, sound, and interactivity to create an immersive experience of being deep within the Malaysian tropical rainforest. The first two components focused on the Royal Belum State Park and the newly minted Taman Tugu.

For the third component, I decided to produce a short documentary on the Batek tribe in Taman Negara, shot and presented entirely in 360. This is me throwing myself into the deep end. With a small team, I travelled to Taman Negara and stayed with the Bateks, hoping to document as much as possible about their way of life, customs, and relationship with the forest. What I learned from them deserves a post on its own.

The technology to capture and present visuals in 360 is advancing rapidly, and yet its practical utilisation as a medium to tell stories demands a huge learning curve. Here are some thoughts on using 360 video as a medium for documentary filmmaking.

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There is no frame

With traditional cinematography, the act of pointing a camera towards a subject creates a conscious, well-defined parameter to work in. Lights, camera, action; everything that unfolds within that frame serves as a building block towards the final assembly of the narrative. That rectangular frame (sometimes 4:3, 16:9, 2.35:1 or even 1:1) exists as a fantasy for the filmmaker, and a temporary-reality for the audience.

In the edit, these blocks are split, shaved, trimmed, coloured and polished, before being linked together to tell a story. Close-up, wide, inserts, long shots were all tools filmmakers (specifically the director, cinematographer and editor) used to convey meaning.

With 360 degree video, it’s back to basics. The format demands a complete rethink in the way stories are told, and instead of relying on cuts to convey meaning, it puts an emphasis on how stories and scenes feel. Perspective and meaning is no longer contained with a rectangular frame, but is stretched to envelop the viewer. Composition is now about relationships between viewer and subject, viewer and space, and so forth.

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No more run and gun

For the recent shoot, we used an Insta360 Pro which shoots 360 degree video in glorious 8K. The footage looks amazing, with a markedly improved dynamic range and resolution compared to the Xiaomi MiSphere we had at the beginning of the project. Absolutely amazing, as long as you plan your shots well in advance to account for the almost five minute start-up time, and the constant demand for battery juice and storage space. These were all luxuries we couldn’t afford while filming indigenous people in the jungle.

Compounded with the challenges I listed earlier, I found myself planning the scenes extremely carefully. I had to imagine how the scene would unfold for the viewer, how it transitions to the next scene, and even what is being shown behind the viewer. There was no chance of simply shooting something as it unfolded naturally, and instead everything had to be pre-planned, positioned and directed to perfection. If the scenes are enacted based on reality, but presented for the camera, then is it truly a depiction of reality? Is it documentary?

I wonder what impact this way of working has on the unpredictable nature of shooting documentaries. The moments we all live for, when something completely unexpected happens, and you end up with amazing footage that would be impossible to plan for. All good documentaries have it. The element of surprise. Magic. A tiny miracle.

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Where are you looking?

How do we guide the viewers gaze? How do we say “this is part of the narrative and that isn’t?” From past experience of guiding viewers through the VR experience with a headset, they were far more excited about the technology itself than what was being presented. With a 360 film, the scenes are varied. Some are meant to be experienced by simply looking around, while some might demand a little bit more focus.

The idea of looking also directly touches on credibility and context. Is the filmmaker absolved from bias-ness by presenting the entire frame and everything in it? Instead of saying “This is what I saw”, the filmmaker says “Here, this is what I experienced”. It is up to the viewer to explore the scene on their own accord.  I can only imagine what John Berger would say about seeing and consuming in the age of perspective-less visuals.

Almost a week after the shoot, the files are still being processed. Interviews which were conducted in the Batek language will need to be transcribed and translated before the edit can even start.

As far as I know, this will be the first 360 documentary to be produced in Malaysia.
Feels good to be swimming in the deep end.

On a related note, I am happy to announce that I have been invited to attend the American Film Showcase programme at the South by Southwest Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas. I will be there from March 8 – 14. 

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