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Directing 360 vs traditional film: the 3 big differences

In today's episode, I'm super excited to be diving into the three key differences between directing 360 film versus traditional film. This was actually a subject that was requested, and if you want to make a request for future episodes for subjects for me to tackle, then please reach out to me at @alexmakesvr on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Read on for the full transcription or listen to the podcast episode here

So right up top, I just want to put it out there, especially if you're quite new to 360, what I'm about to outline is absolutely my personal opinion. And the truth is when it comes to directing this new medium of 360 video, and when it comes to directing for virtual reality, in general, regardless of the capture format, there is so much that is left to yet to be discovered. We are so early on in this medium and that is one of the reasons what makes it so exciting, right? Because we are literally developing the storytelling language and this is the thing that I've always found fascinating about this medium. But I just wanted to say that up top because my opinion on how to direct 360 and VR is going to be potentially quite different to the way that someone else suggests it. Where I get my information from and how I decide on my directing style is mainly from interacting and showcasing and facilitating a lot of VR events, and cinemas where I am seeing firsthand, new audiences interact with the medium. So bear that in mind, my primary directing experience in directing for an audience that isn't that well versed with 360 or VR.

So that is really important to say because for example, if you looked at an experience that might have, let's say, and, again, there's so many nuances to this, because there's so many different things, but if you looked at potentially a different 360 experience, that was kind of going against all of the rules that I'm going to outline in this episode, you might think ‘well hang on a second, Alex, you use that but this is how you direct 360’ but this is my personal preference. Again, this is because I primarily direct for new VR audiences. And that's the other disclaimer up top, when I'm talking about directing 360 in this context, in this podcast, I am talking about directing 360 video that will be consumed in a VR headset. I could do a whole episode, going into the weeds about why I think it's so stupid, that we have this argument continuously in this industry about the differences between 360 not being real VR. If it's being consumed in a VR headset, it's VR To me. The capture format is 360 video, but it is a VR piece because it's being consumed in a VR headset. So I just wanted to put those disclaimers up top before we dive in to the key differences, just so that you know, that's the context. That's where I'm coming from. Feel free to disagree if you direct your own pieces, you might go about this a bit differently. But this is how I see the three key differences between directing 360 and traditional film.

So number one, is how you direct action in a scene. In traditional filmmaking, directors are using a sequence of shots to basically assemble a scene right? As in, it is very rare, unless you're watching you know, Birdman or 1917 or something where they’re intentionally doing a one shot. So it feels actually funnily enough, a bit more like it could be 360 because there are no breaks in the scene and generally speaking in traditional filmmaking and traditional television or short films, or feature films, whatever it is, a scene comprises of a wide shot, close up, medium, reverse shot, all these different shots, depending on what they're trying to convey. In this shot, they will frame it very differently. In directing, for the most part in film, there is a lot about how they're framing things and how they want to pull together a sequence of shots in order to make up a scene.

Whereas in 360 again, this is my personal preference, I don't think it works very well when you cut around in a scene. If you've got one scene in 360 you're gonna use actors choreography, and choreographing the audiences attention to create the scene - does that that makes sense? So rather than in traditional film, where they will go pull from a wide shot, to medium shot, to a close up, to a reverse shot, that will create the scene. For a 360 scene, all cameras will stay in the same position and we will choreograph the actor around the scene, or we will choreograph the action, or we will choreograph something like the sound or something, to pull the person, the audience's attention around that scene. So that's the key difference. So instead of a medium shot, or a wide shot, or a closer, we might have an actor come closer to camera, or maybe we will have, you know, two performers in the space come together and then come apart to kind of force the audience to look a certain way. Or maybe we will have, if we want to go from having our attention right in front of us to an object and all of a sudden, you know, we want to pull their attention to behind, maybe we'll have a big sound cue that will just make the audience whip their head around to look. Bear this in mind as well, 360 scenes tend to be, and this is generalising, but they do tend to be a little bit longer. And that's purely because when someone watches 360, especially in a headset, and well, mainly in a headset, they have a much longer attention span. And in fact, you kind of need to give that person breathing room especially to start with - to climatized to that scene; to let them have a nosy around the location; to let them kind of settle into this new environment before you then start to pull their attention around. Because the thing is, and this could go down the rabbit hole of just me telling you tips on how to direct 360, which I definitely want to do in in other episodes, but what you don't want to do is create the FOMO effect. You don't want to you know, pop them in a scene and then all of a sudden have five different things happening at once, because it’s too overwhelming. There’s evidence from showing 360 and not just myself but anecdotally from loads of people I know that show 360, people do feel overwhelmed, they don't like it. And unless that's your intention, you shouldn't be doing that, you shouldn't be having too much happening in a scene at once. It does not work. So that's the number one key difference to directing action scene.

And number two, is there are no cuts. So actors have got to be always on. So again, for a film director, they are purely focusing on what is in that rectangle frame, anything else happening is completely irrelevant. It's completely irrelevant. As long as everything in that frame is perfect. As long as that you know, we've got the right depth of field, as long as we've got the right lens, as long as that person and that person are on a close up. As long as that person's face is doing what I want them to do, I couldn't care less what their body's doing. Is that kind of thing, right? It doesn't matter if it's not in the 16:9 frame. It doesn't exist in the director's mind in traditional film.

In 360, everything is in shot all the time, so now you are not only directing that actor's specific face, or specific body language or when they are delivering a line, all of a sudden, everyone in that shot is always on. Everything. So everything is on, every object in that scene is considered, every light, every practical light in shot is considered. Everything about that scene in 360 could always be focused on by the audience, and although as the director you specifically want them to be looking at them, in some way, at a certain thing, you have to account for the fact that the audience has free will. And they have the choice to look around if they want to. So if your actor that's delivering their lines are perfect, but you look slightly to the left, and the other actor looks bored, or maybe they're like, they forgot a line, so they're kind of like stumbling and really, obviously, you know, not, it's, that's no good. You have to cut then you can't use that take. And that's the thing, right? There are no cuts, especially if you're following my mantra, which is that you don't cut within a 360 scene, because it's jarring. Again this is my personal opinion, but you can't curve, so therefore, every actor or every performer or every object, everything in that scene needs to be perfect. And so you're not just directing that one actor who we're focusing on, you're directing everything. So it's a lot more like theatre that way,

every person who is in that scene, whether they come in certain particular time, and that timing needs to be perfect, or their expression needs to be right, even if they're kind of like a supporting actor, so when I've done productions where I can, off the top of my head, think of a scene where we use probably about 50 extras in a scene, every single one of those extras, every single one of them, even though they're not speaking, even though they're not, you know, they're not like a kind of a lead role, they are just as important to that production, because they need to sell, they need to sell what they're doing, you know, they need to kind of look convincing, they need to be always on, it's again, it's not just when the camera is happens to be focused in on them, they are always on because everything in a 360 shot is is fair game in terms of whether the audience could be looking at it.

Number three are the technical considerations. Now, of course, there are technical considerations with traditional filmmaking as well and, and there will be some directors both in traditional and 360, that they are either going to be a little bit more or a little bit less technical. You know, sometimes directors like to lean on their DP or their visual effects supervisor to kind of guide them. Like it's you know, it's my job as the director to set the vision and get it how I want it to look. But then, you know, it's up to the technical people to come in and say - ‘oh, actually, that's not a great idea, because x, y and z’.

And in 360, given the context that most of us are doing things on much smaller budgets than a traditional, so we don't have the option to be technically ignorant, you have to be aware of the technical considerations that are going to affect the creative. So for example, stitch lines. It's hilarious that for five years that one of the biggest issues with 360 filmmaking is still stitch lines. And it's getting better, like the technology has come on leaps and bounds since I first started directing 360 but it's still a consideration. Especially if we've not got loads of time to do like prep and to do test shoots in that location or we don't have a mass amount of time with the actors to run the shot, how I want it and then preview it back on set. In fact, that's actually another key difference. That's like a bonus key difference which I'll quickly slip in here I guess because it's typically a technical consideration. A film director gets to see what they're shooting, they see it exactly as it will fit, as it will end up basically. That shot that they're looking at on their monitor, their 16:9 rectangle, is how they will make sure they can see everything. With 360, there is no current way to preview in a headset, exactly what you're looking at. So there's obviously two ways to go about that, for me because I've directed it so much now I can kind of know from looking at the panel, the stretched out kind of like panoramic 360 clip, I can kind of see in my head how that will look like in a headset just based on experience. And or, again, if you've got a little bit longer, the ideal scenario is that you run a little test and then you get the file from the camera and then you look back at it in a headset. But the problem is with that is we all know that the quick stitching on most cameras is pretty shocking. And actually, it would take far too long to do a neat stitch of that shot to look back in a headset on most sets.

So for me, it's kind of like I would always rather stay on the side of caution when it comes to stitch lines. And so I will maybe look back at a kind of a quick stitched version, I'll see where the stitch line is and say, - ‘okay, right, I'm going to choreograph the action to happen a little bit further that way’ just so that we really avoid that stitch line. I'd rather be safe than sorry, because that would be a nightmare to deal with in post. And you've got things, like considerations about where to hide the crew because 360 captures everything. Whereas on a traditional film set, you are surrounded by your crew, you can be in there, having those kind of conversations and it can feel very special, kind of like intimate, whereas 360 can feel a bit bare when you're directing. I’ll never forget when we shot Keyed Alike and I wasn't directing the actors on that set. Chloe Thomas, a friend of mine was and she literally had to sit underneath the tripod. And it was just her sitting under the tripod and the two main actors were out in the middle of this London Riverside. The rest of us were all hiding behind the bushes. And that's so funny, right? In traditional film, there is so much set up around the director. You've got lights, you've got like wires everywhere, you've got crap, you've got the catering table, you've got loads of crew standing around, whereas in 360, you can't do that, you have to hide everyone.

And so as a director that can feel sometimes quite exposing and it can be used for that reason as well, you have to have a technical sense of, okay, that actor walked in there, but I know that we're going to have to plate that window. So actually, I'm going to redo that shot and move that actor to the other side of the room because what I don't want is to up our post production budget, because they've just walked past that window that I know, we're gonna have to play with it afterwards, to make it not overexposed. Does that make sense? Same thing goes for like personal space with the camera, like those technical skills of understanding what that's going to feel like and look like in a VR headset for that audience. You have to create that technical understanding, again, I would say is a really important part of 360 directing that yes, you do have to have technical considerations. As a film director, of course, I'm not saying you don't but I'm also saying that it just so happens that it is imperative that you have that knowledge as a 360 director. Because ultimately, there are so many technical things that go into every creative choice into 360, that you kind of have to be a little bit of both, rather than I'm just having a creative vision and thinking everyone around me will kind of make that happen, because everything is kind of possible, because we've had 100 years of traditional filmmaking. Does that make sense?

So those are my three key differences as I see them, between directing 360 and traditional films. So to run through them again, just quickly. So number one is directing action in a scene, so choreographing audience attention, rather than creating a sequence of different shots to make up a scene. Number two is that there's no cuts. So as you're directing, you’re directing literally everything in that 360 environment, there are no cuts, it’s more like theatre, in that way. You're not just making that 16:9 rectangle look beautiful. Everything has to be on point, every actor that isn't even the focus of that shot needs to be on always. And number three is technical considerations, there are so many technical considerations that can affect a 360 video or film. So you have to be a lot more technically aware.

And those are my three key differences between directing 360 and traditional film, I would be curious to hear from you. If you direct some 360 yourself, I would love to hear whether you agree with this or whether there's anything else that you would point out is different. If you haven't, even if you've not started directing your 360 films yet, but this has been helpful, I would love to hear from you to please please reach out to me.

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