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Choosing locations for your VR Film (how to make a virtual reality film)

Updated: Mar 14

Hey friends, and welcome back to the Alex Makes VR podcast. Today we are talking about the very important step in the pre production process, recce-ing your locations. Recce coming from the word reconnaissance but we are not fancy enough to call it that in the VR industry without sounding

like a bit of a twat. For those of you who don't know what that means, that means basically going to a film location before you shoot there, to get a sense of the space to look for certain things. And in this episode, I'm going to tell you what the most important things are that you should be looking for, in a location when creating a virtual reality film, because it's very different to recommending somewhere for a traditional film shoot.

So we'll dive into that in this episode. If you would like to ask me questions, or you've got subjects for future episodes, I would love to hear from you. I've been having so much fun replying to some of your emails, and DM's with voice notes, who knew that I was more of a talker than a writer? She says nearing Episode 100 of this podcast and reach out to me, its @alexmakesvr on Instagram and Twitter and you can sign up to the newsletter where you get direct access into my email address by signing up for alex makesvr.com. When you sign up to the newsletter, I reply instantly with an auto reply asking you questions, which includes an opportunity for you to tell me a bit about yourself, and tell me about what you're working on and if you do have any questions, and then I can just reply directly to you from there. So feel free to sign up for that at alexmakesvr.com.

This is a full transcript of the podcast episode. Alternatively you can sub and listen here:

In 2017, I went to this event and this person was giving a talk about 360 production and I'll never forget the words they said at the end, they said - don't forget, every 360 shoot is a visual effects shoot and that didn't really settle in, I didn't really like fully grasp what that meant until I started doing bigger and bigger productions, where it became increasingly important that we would recce the location and the reason it's so important to recce your location is because if you don't have a massive visual effects or post production budget, you can save yourself so much headache by going to a location in advance and taking notes of the things that are going to impact your post production.

So my aim in this episode is to talk about what some of those things are and I find it difficult to talk about this subject without getting a little bit technical. So I'm going to try and explain what I mean in layman terms as possible. But if there's anything in this episode, that doesn't quite make sense, or you need another example, or something you've never really heard of before, I would highly recommend that you take some notes, and you either email me or message me or do a bit of your own research to kind of understand these elements because they're so important. And even though cameras are getting so smart, they come with such amazing software built almost into them to help with things like optimal flow stitching, and some of them can like magically get rid of the tripod or monopod or things like that, as much as that side of things is improving. It's still so so important that you take the time to understand the things in your location that are going to impact production, but also post production. And unlike in the normal film industry where they say no, you fix it in post in 360 especially, it's very, very difficult to fix it in post and it's very, very expensive to fix it in post. So the more prep work you do, the more kind of well versed you are in the location you're shooting at, the easier everything is going to go and you would rather be over prepared than underprepared.

So recce-ing your locations. Now we've talked about in previous episodes, the fact that locations in 360 shoots are almost like characters in themselves because the audience can look around fully. The choice of location speaks a lot to your film. The place that you choose to shoot a scene can very much affect the atmosphere of a scene if you choose a slightly more closed small space where everything's kind of quiet, you know, everything's quite dark or there's not much lighting a bit like in real life. If you were in kind of like a closer kind of smaller space, you would feel a bit more claustrophobic. It would be have this a little bit more sinister, slightly tense atmosphere to it. Whereas if you were out in the open, there's always this feeling of like vulnerability of being kind of not, you know, being out in the middle not having kind of, like a wall to be up against the the idea of there being lots potentially going on around you. It's a very, very different kind of vibe.

So firstly, you want to think about the locations that are going to match your scenes atmosphere, you're going to want to pick locations that, that say something I guess about that scene and obviously, when you're working on a budget, that can be really difficult. So a lot of a lot of that atmosphere can also be created by your props and your production design. And even if that just means you know, dressing up the set a little bit, if you've not got much budget, you know, bringing in extra props to make a space feel the way you want it to feel, or even taking stuff out of a room to make it feel a certain way if there's kind of too much going on. So this is why it's really important for you to record your locations before you shoot there and I would recommend, you know, recce-ing almost before you decide on your final version of your script. Because like with Keyed Alike for example, I originally set that with a love lock kind of gate in mind that I'd seen in Paris. Well, technically, it was the kind of set on this place. I was like, literally writing the script for which was sorry, that didn't make sense. I originally wrote the script whilst sitting by a Lovelock gate in Vancouver. I was living out in Canada, but it was kind of in my head, I kind of had this Parisien kind of inspired like it's a bit grungy and it's like, they're these locks are just like overflowing off the gates and it's like a bridge. So there's like water, I had this very particular image in my head of where it was going to be set but then when it became kind of like, when it came to the practicality of it, the crew, the main talent were all based in London, it was becoming increasingly apparent that I couldn't really afford to bring everyone up. Well, definitely couldn't take everyone's Paris, even just like the level of gates available in the UK, would have cost quite a bit to move everyone there, given that everyone was kind of given their time for free. So we ended up finding, well, Chloe, the director of the piece ended up finding this brilliant little place on I don't even know what it's called now, but it's near the o2 in London and from there, I basically, I didn't change much to the actual script itself, but it definitely changed...things like where the action of the main character action was playing out, and also what those sub plot characters were doing. It also meant that we had a bit more space to kind of play with, it meant that when we kind of like had like extras and supporting actors in mind, we now had to kind of change what it was they were doing, because of the space that we ended up using, because of the location change, basically. And so that's why I think recce-ing locations can be really helpful to do before you've 100% set a script in stone, before you go into like the storyboarding phase, as the director before you start to put real meat to the bones. And really think through like the prop list and things like that. It's really important that you go and see your locations, which obviously can be quite difficult during a pandemic, but fingers crossed, that won't be a problem soon.

So when you're at your locations, there's some key things that you want to be thinking about. Now, the number one thing like I kind of mentioned is visual effects, anything that's going to impact your visual effects budget is going to be quite important. So let's have a look. For example, lighting. What are the lighting conditions in this location? Is it quite a well lit space? We all know that especially if you're working with a smaller 360 camera, you need a very well lit space unless you're going to have quite a lot of budget to put into a nice lighting package. 360 cameras are terrible in low light unless you've got a really big camera sensor, which most of them don't, even like the Insta 360 Titan which is probably one of the only all in one 360 camera rigs that has a decent sensor size, even that can sometimes struggle with mixed lighting conditions aka you know if you've got really bright lighting coming in through a window, but it's not lit on the inside that kind of thing. So you want to kind of first look at what lighting is available to you. What is the practical lighting in the room, like oh that overhead lights do you have control over those lights to turn them on and off? Or like for example, there's a location that we're looking at for Bad News, where they have like three different lighting setups, and you can luckily control all three. So there's like these lovely kind of boozy lucking like hanging kind of bulbs that look very Shoreditch, and then you've got strip lighting, just like classic office, like lighting above it and you've got like these kind of like lines of spotlights around the corners of this kind of cafe and that's great, because there's like three different opportunities to live naturally there. But at the same time, if we couldn't control all three, if like, you turn the switch on, and they all came on, that obviously changes what your lighting might be like, that changes how I would maybe see the scene, it would maybe make me lean more towards - okay, well, I don't want to use their practical light. So let's find a way to light ourselves, how can we do that? Let's look at the windows. Where's the sun? Like, where's the kind of sun going to be during the time that we're filming? That's a massive thing to think about..which way are you facing? Especially like deciding as the director of a piece where ideally you would want to put the camera remembering that the camera becomes the person that puts on the headset, thinking about which way are they going to be facing and then where is the sun going to be when you're shooting. So if this is a morning scene versus an evening scene versus all of these things like thinking about where is the sun going to be and what direction is your you know, is the building you're shooting in north/east/south/west facing, understanding that so you can understand what the lighting situation is going to be like with windows, how many windows has it got? If it's got too many windows, then that also becomes a visual effects problem, because you might have to do what we call plating. Which means, you know, having to basically do a whole shot of the room with the...let's say, you turn the exposure on the camera right down so that you can really see the detail outside the windows but then when you shoot on the inside, you might you turn your exposure back up, which means the windows are blown out, but you can actually see what your actors are doing and then what you would have to do in post production is then obviously, comp those composition, I say those the two together? And what complications does that make? You know for example, if I have an actor facing a window, if I want to do what I've just described, then I'm going to have to like rotoscope, around the actor's head to make sure that you can see both the scene outside and it looks natural. But it's not, you know, it doesn't look really weird with the actor kind of in two different states of lighting, depending on where they are in the scene. Does that make sense? I feel like that was a lot of words that I just threw at you and that's obviously an example, though of a creative choice where it's like -I would highly recommend, no one does that, especially with a 360 camera. Use your window lighting to your advantage. So you want the windows if you are going to use natural lighting, use the lighting from the windows to create a key light. So you want your actors, you know standing on the opposite side to the window. So the light from the window kind of comes in and lights up their face, it acts as your key light or even like enhances the light if you're going to add artificial light in as well. Does that make sense? Again, if there's topics or if there's things that I'm covering here, that you want to learn more about, just let me know.

Speaking of lighting, what practical lighting is there in the scene? Is there kind of you know, do you want to have lamps? Are you going to add...could you add some like fairy lights? With Bad News, I very much want to lean into that idea of like dystopian futuristic kind lighting with like heavy blues and greens contrasting with reds and oranges. Like that's the kind of vibe I want to go for. For this piece. that's going to mean for us that we have to really, really, really understand our location and our lighting, you know, we're going to have to close down a lot of our windows so that we have complete control over the lighting conditions, which means I'm going to have to think about - okay, well, where are we going to set up all these lights so that we can do the least amount of post production to get rid of them and this is why just to let you in on my thought process. I think I might have talked about this before but this is why I'm potentially leaning towards using something more like 180 rather than 360 for Bad News. Because I do want to really lean into that lighting setup and you can do so much more with 180. Because you don't have a constrictions of, well...I need to be able to pay someone to, you know, erase all of this camera stuff out of the scene, because I don't want it there for when the audience sees this piece and if I don't have that money, or if I don't want to spend the budget on that, you know, how much is it going to impact the piece if I turn it into a 180 piece rather than 360. So I can hide all of the lighting behind the camera, which obviously, you don't have the luxury of with 360. But also even with your camera, like you need to think about where are your plug points? Like where are your power points going to be? Are you going to have to run an extension cable in? How many are you going to need? Practical things like this that I don't think many people think - oh, i'll just rock up, and I'll just shoot and it's gonna be great. These are the things you need to be considering.

For your sound engineer, I mean, I always try and bring my sound person along to the shoot to the recce

because I don't really know what they're listening for. I know that we need to make sure that it's not noisy. Again, thinking about one of the locations we're using for Bad News, potentially, it is this massive, open air kind of aircraft hangar that's been turned into a skatepark and if we end up using that place, the number one thing I know is going to be a problem is how kind of the sound is just, you know, there's a very particular sound that you get when you're standing in the middle of a giant, open space. It's very echoey, it's very, didn't know what the word is....but, you know, it's not that same nice, cushioned, soundproof environment, you kind of lose the voice, the voice kind of just dissipates into the distance. The way that you shoot, the way that we kind of mic that, the way that the sound is gonna work in that place can be very different to the way that the sound works in something like a home, like in a kitchen or something. Even thinking about that...if you're going to kind of...if you're going to lapel or radio mic your actors, which is absolutely the route that we go on all of our 360 shoots just because it's pretty much impossible to boom, a 360 shoot again, without having to do heavy post production to remove the beam mic from the shot. Thinking about what are the sounds, is that going to pick up? Is there like a loud refrigerator in the room? Is there an air conditioning that's always on? Are you in a place that is quite popular? You're going to hear like loads of like just traffic and voices like in the background? Does that matter? Like because it's 360, so technically, if they wanted to, they could turn around and see all of those things. Again, that's something that we tackled with Keyed Alike actually because we ended up accidentally filming under a flight path and I think we got away with it, because in 360, obviously, you can look up and you can see the planes. So that's actually quite a nice little extra kind of like, you know, leaning into the VR medium but do is there like construction work nearby? All of these things you need to have think about from a practical point of view as the producer, how easy is it going to be for your crew and your talent to get to this to the location? Is there plenty of parking? Is there a space nearby for people to bring the kids obviously, ideally, you need somewhere where you can unload all the gear rather than having to like traipse through. You know, parks and also I've been on shoots where literally we had to walk for about 20 minutes back and forth to the car to unload the car because the location was just so far away. How much time is that eating up of your production day? These are the things that we need to think about. Again, something that I learned from Keyed Alike we were shooting in an open space in London, and our base, our back production office essentially where everyone could like chill,

get food, go to the loo but also makeup and costume was happening where like everyone was kind of stationed or the kit was stationed. It was a good kind of five or so minute walk, maybe even a little bit more to this base from where we were shooting. So every time someone needed to go back there, we were losing 10/20 minutes every single time, which really, really ate into our day and honestly, I mean that shoot was probably the most stressful day of my life to date, by far for many reasons but that's one thing that I never even considered. Especially now we're going into this era of being COVID compliant on productions. Do you have space? Do you have enough space in a location for your crew and talents to be socially distance when you're not shooting? Or do you have like, places that are going to be almost like designated height hygiene stations? I mean, to be fair, I wonder if it'd be interesting to do an episode about that, because my producer on the project, Charlotte, she has had to do a full on in depth COVID compliant production course, to kind of learn all these things that make a production secure. So I wonder, let me know if it would be interesting for me to do an episode with her talking about all the things that are going to go into doing a production, now we have to be COVID secure.

Think of the point of view of the producer, pulling that schedule together, if your locations are really far apart, then that's going to really drag your production day, you can be so surprised with how much time you will lose in what we call a company move, which means that you know, everyone in the crew and talent moves to the new location. I remember filming a comedy pilot air comedy pilot, where it was like a kind of mini, yeah, I guess it was a pilot was kind of like a little mini series that was made up of lots of different kind of episodes that became like this pilot and again, that we filmed in three different locations in Cambridge. But every time we moved, it would take us about two to three hours to like set up for three hours might be extreme...but between one and two hours to set up for the next shot. Because Cambridge is a nightmare in terms of parking and so that was literally the sheet where we had to drag stuff back and forth from a park. But also the fact that you like to move locations, so you've got to wait for everyone to get there and then everyone's kind of in that different mindset. So then you've got to get back into the shooting mindset, then the cameras are got to be set up again, all of the lighting is got to be set up, you got to do tests, you've got to get everyone you know, you've got to like test the sound, you want to do all of the bits and bobs, and you have to do that every time you move location. So thinking about that, from a producer point of view, like where are these locations in relation to each other? How will that will dictate your production schedule? So that's another big thing that kind of goes into a recce.

Trying to think, obviously, there's the obvious one, which is the creative side as well, recce-ing your locations, not only for that kind...of that field, but also thinking about, again, that production design, what props would would kind of like complete that? But also like, what can you imagine the action playing out? I mean, in an ideal world, you would rehearse with your actors in the location before the day. But I mean, I've literally never gotten to do that, because that would be very expensive but like, even just as the director, kind of think about...okay, let me think about plotting out the action, where are the marks gonna be? And for several shots, in a few of my pieces we have pre marked out with exes on the floor, where the talent are going to need to be standing. where they're going to be moving to, we've pre done that. So on the recce, we could do a test with the camera to make sure that we weren't going to have any problems with, you know, stitching errors, or anything like that but at the same time testing it with this action in mind. So if character a moves from point, you know, one to two, are we going to have any problems with the stitch and we could kind of recce that. We could test that on the recce rather than waiting until the day and losing again another hour by doing the test and then having to render out the stitch shot and then getting onto a headset and then playing back the image. You know, all of the pain that comes with the primitive nature of 360 shooting. So that would be a really good tip as well as to kind of pre mark out your action or at least think now that you're in the space, block that action, block that storyboard like whilst you're there and if you need to do any test shots, I would highly recommend you do them on your recce rather than waiting until the production day.

So we've covered lighting, we've covered what else we covered, we covered practicality for the production schedule, we've covered action, we've covered that creative kind of side of making sure it actually suits the purpose of the scene, and then when it comes to the the last bit of like visual effects stuff, obviously, we kind of covered it a little bit with the lighting and about like, if you're going to use, you know, a lighting package rather than the lighting that's naturally in the scene, how you're going to think about using visual effects to remove that, or at least place it where it's going to be the least amount of work as possible.

But even things like for example..if you want to have any of your crew in the room, whilst you're shooting something, this is a big one, you're probably going to want your director in the room. So if that's you, you definitely want to be in the room whilst it happens. Ideally, you want the sound pass? Well, I don't know, it's really, really dependent on the location, but maybe you want the sound person, although the sound person generally speaking can monitor from anywhere, just because obviously, they're just hearing everything. So it's not as important for them to see what's going on. Ideally, you want your DLP or your camera operator in the room with you, but again, because of the nature of 360 cameras, they can monitor from an iPad, but you know, sometimes it's safer to have them in the room with you, I tend to like to have a script supervisor in the room with me as well. Because, again, it takes us so long, usually, especially working on not necessarily original projects, because as the directing, you can kind of and the writer of the piece, you can kind of like take a bit of liberty with the script and if it works, it works, you can allow that ad lib, you can allow that improv, you can allow that change in vocab slightly, but when you're working on like a corporate or commercial shoot where the script has been signed off, and you know, a script supervisor is in valuable to be able to keep track of where you're at, make notes on what takes are usable. Just so that when you get to the process of like, getting into post production and choosing the shots that you're going to use, you've got all of those notes available to you have, you know, which shots are usable which ones you like, we tend to always shoot one kind of hero shot and one safety shot. So realistically, you want to take care of every scene that you're really, really happy with.

So, you know, don't just leave it so that you've got one take. I know I'm getting into kind of like production advice at this point, but yeah, so anyway, coming back to the point crew in the room. So having, if you're going to have crew in the room, then you need to make sure obviously, that you are on the side of the camera where the action is not happening again because that will that will dictate your post production, your visual effects. The other things think about is all there is there anything in shot that you wouldn't can't remove physically, but will need to be removed in post production.

So for example, if there is a wall, sorry, if there's like a clock mounted to a wall that can't be moved, but the time on, it is not going to be the right time for your piece. Or maybe like there's a bit of art that you can't move, but it just doesn't fit the the aesthetic that you're going for pre planning that pre planning, that's something that's going to have to be removed in post, you know, we're gonna have to paint that out.

Anything like that, it's just, I mean, I feel like you get the point. Now, I'm nearly half an hour into this episode, so I'm gonna shut up in a second but I feel like from this, you can start to see the level of detail you need to go into when you're looking at wrecking your locations. Because again, all of these things will just make the production and post production of your piece so much smoother. So I could not recommend highly enough, although it's funny because you think about things that like for example, if your actors really tall, you know, and you're in a location that's got a really low roof, like just things like this that you would never necessarily really think of, until you're kind of in the space and have a feel for it. But yeah, anyway, you're gonna save so much time if you follow these things. Let me know if this was useful?

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