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What are the key roles on a 360 VR production?

Hello friend, and welcome back to Episode 15 of my 31 Day Challenge, where I'm answering your question about creating a career or business that you love.


In today's episode, I am answering the question, what kind of roles are there on a VR production? And by VR production, I'm assuming this person is talking about mainly 360 filmmaking, but we might dive in a little bit into VR experiences as well. Who knows? So if you've got a question, obviously, we're

halfway through now but if you want your question to be featured on one of the other episodes, then please send it to me. You can find me @alexmakesvr across any of the social medias, you can send a longer question if you want to give me a bit more context to alexmakesvr@gmail.com.


This is a full transcription of the podcast episode. Instead, you can listen to it here:


So what kind of roles are there on a VR production? I'm going to be making a lot of references to kind of traditional filmmaking because it is quite similar, but just with some variations. So the first thing that I want to say is, theoretically, you could have just one person on a VR production. You could be wearing all of those different hats and I would say, especially if you're starting out, potentially, that would be a really good place to start or even just getting on a production, just so that you can learn a bit about all those different roles. But really, I find that knowing a little bit about every single one of the roles that you do need for VR production really helps because then, as you scale, as you do work on bigger productions, if that's what you want, as you do work with more and more crew, and you kind of have an understanding about what every person should be doing, and oftentimes, you know, I've been on sets definitely before where, for whatever reason, one of the tech guys… I hate to make it a sexism thing but this never happens with tech women. And by tech, I mean, someone who's working on the camera operating side or the person that's got a quite technical role. They will assume that their particular job role or what they're doing is more complex than it needs to be or something like that. Or they're they labour the point, but I’m very well aware that it doesn't, because I've done it myself, and I know enough about it. That not to say that, you know, you should undermine people and you should patronise them and assume that you know, more than them, because that's absolutely not the case because if someone's dedicated, you know their years of training and learning and having experience and they obviously will have a very specialised skill set and know a lot more than you but it is helpful because sometimes people want to pull the wool over your eyes and be like - yeah, I'm gonna do that but it'll take, you know…let’s say it'll take a week to stitch that footage when it's definitely like a two day job. Anyway, so having said that, let's talk about some of those different roles.


So, again, totally depends on the budget, totally depends on what gear you're using but let's say there’s a fairly standard sized, a small crew but you know, big enough to have people in the different departments but small enough so that, you know, it's not like a massive film set where you've got assistants for assistants. I mean, that's my biggest bugbear with big film and TV, a lot of times you just think, is it necessary to have that many people? What's funny about COVID is the unintentional kind of reevaluating of who is necessary in a crew has been really interesting to watch, because obviously, as we have to think about social distancing, we have to think about having minimal people exposed on a set together, and I don't think it's a coincidence that you're starting to see more and more people to take on a few different jobs for themselves. Whether that is right or wrong, that is open for debate but I mean, I think that's personally something the film and TV industry, definitely has needed to do for a while. But anyway, coming back to VR. So production roles. So the number one person that you need is the director, producer, sometimes they can be separate. Oftentimes, I will produce and direct my own projects just purely because I like to be involved from the very beginning. In those conversations about budget, I like to be in control of the logistics of a project as well but I have worked on projects, where it's just too big, and I can't do everything and you know, so I've delegated out to a producer. So the difference between a director and a producer…the director is looking after the creative vision or project generally, and the producer is looking after the more logistical and kind of I guess they're just a bit more practical on those sides, they can also, depending on what kind of project you're working on, they can also be more of the point of contact for the client. They can be the ones securing the budget in the first place and in the context of a corporate shoot a producer acts, similarly to how I guess a first assistant director would act in film and TV, which is that they're essentially there to keep everything running on time. They are also the kind of the person that asks practical questions, you know - oh, we need a place to PG kit for example or we need petty cash to because one of our wires is broke, that kind of thing. So a producer tends to look after the more practical side of things.


The director tends to look after the creative vision of the project. So they will most likely be involved with a storyboard in the scripting side of thing bBut when you get on set, they are the captain of the ship and they will often be the ones who make decisions about things like where actors are going to sit or subjects depending on what kind of shoot you're doing. What's the kind of look and feel

of the project where are you putting the camera? What is that final thing going to look like? They're essentially tasked with making sure that you capture what you need to capture in order to bring the project to life. That's the best way I can really describe being a director, I mean, essentially, you're just the captain of the ship, If it goes wrong, it's your fault, basically. Which is why I like to be a producer and director because I find it quite difficult to hand off the controls. I mean, I'm a bit of a control freak in general but I find it difficult to hand off the controls for the practical side of things, because I think that they're so intertwined with the creative. And often, especially if you're an independent creator, and you're not working with six, seven figure budgets, you will have to make creative decisions that align with the budget. So much of it is intertwined, so sometimes I just think, yes, you can bring in an extra pair of hands to help produce but oftentimes it's nice to have your foot in and kind of work either really closely with your producer or just to kind of do a bit more of that yourself so that you're totally aware of everything. The biggest thing for me when I work with directors who are purely just directors or on fully original creative projects, they go crazy, go mad, and then the producer kind of works on trying to get you the money to bring that to life, or the exec producers do. In those industries, or in those circumstances, it kind of works the other way around, because the director and the writer build something, they build the vision first, and then you look for the funding retrospectively, but the majority of corporate work, and the majority of independent creators who are getting things like grants from arts bodies or, you know, funding it themselves, it's the opposite way around. The budget does dictate what you can achieve. So they are the main key senior roles.


The next big role is obviously going to be your camera person, and in cinema, you would call them a director of photography. They are in charge of creating the look that the director wants. So often, that will be things like the lighting that they want in a scene, the kind of lens that you use on a camera to get a certain feel. There'll be in charge of taking what the director envisions and then actually making it possible with cameras, but the thing is, with 360 cameras, is that role is a lot more technical, and that person needs to be a bit more technically minded. And of course yes, it's phenomenal, If you can work with a you know, a trained DLP in 360, where they can bring that knowledge of lighting and getting that cinematic feel to the production but because you've got less options with that, because lighting can often be a massive headache in 360. So not a lot of productions have the budget in post production to be able to use a lot of lighting other than just kind of practical lights on the location, to have a dop and also things like you know… your 360 camera has fixed lenses, it has a fixed focus so you can't create things with shallow depth of field. I remember once actually doing a keynote and someone who was speaking before me said he used 360 cameras, like a DLP would use lenses. So it's like you use a different 360 camera for a different shot to get a different feel to have different kind of spec and I really agreed with that. So what he meant by that is in traditional film, you know, you might use an I don't know, because I'm not a DLP by any stretch of the imagination, but you might use a wide angle lens to create a feeling of distortion. A lot of YouTubers use it to create that kind of feel and then your focus is kind of drawn to the centre of the frame. It's got a really nice look to it, a very signature log, but you wouldn't use that necessarily for an emotional intimate scene. For that you would probably use something more like a 50 mil lens or something so, so depending on what the scene needed but also what kind of feel you wanted to create with it. But in 360 because they're fixed focus and because you can't do that with lenses, you might for example, maybe more like on a technical note, but you might think…okay I really want an up close shot where we completely change perspective and we're like, you know…crawling on the floor or something. I want to give the sensation of being small, like a mouse and crawling along the floor. Well all of a sudden you're not going to be able to use and enjoy 360 Titan for that shot, so that DLP or that camera operator, whatever you want to call them, that person is going to have to know to achieve that kind of shot, we're gonna have to go to more of a two lens setup, perhaps and you know, we need to kind of watch out for things like stitch lines and things like that. So we're gonna need XYD and in terms of getting it to move we use something else…etc etc. Anyway, you get the point.


Another example is on a client shoot, I’ve done and we are using a phenomenal professional camera, the quality is absolutely insane it's massive, it's got loads of lenses and it's a real problem. When the client wants to shoot in a really small room, it creates a massive headache. So actually swapping over to something like a Kandao Obsidian or an Insta 360 Pro, you know, a smaller body camera that's got slightly less lenses, slightly less quality, but you're not going to have to worry about all those decisions in post production. This is a an example of why you need to know a little bit of everything because if I was working with a DLP, and I didn't know any of those things it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing because you’re delegating out to that person but I just feel way more secure that I know that knowledge in my head. So I can make those decisions ahead of time, it speeds everything up on set. I already know what shots I want, I already know the complications that are going to come with it and so I can make those decisions on the fly, without having to wait for someone else to give me their expertise and tell me why that's not possible, if that makes sense.


So key roles so far, producer, director, and camera operator or director of photography, whatever you want to call them.


The next key piece of the puzzle is obviously and sound is massively overlooked. I admit that it's the area that I know the least about. I work with a phenomenal sound engineer, Luke Harris, he's such a lovely guy, we worked together first on Keyed Alike. We somehow miraculously got introduced to him and he came and worked on that and gave his time to come and work on that project just because he was curious and passionate about 360 in spatial audio. Over the years, we've worked together on several projects, including a lot of the big, big budget kind of commercial work thatI've done and the thing I like about Luke is, he can really translate a lot of the technical audio stuff into layman's terms. So I've managed to learn a lot about the stuff that I need to know about audio from him. When it comes to spatial audio, obviously, that is a massive consideration for projects. I have next to zero knowledge in the post production side for spatial audio, which is why I would never take on a project by myself without having budget to bring someone in like Luke to do that. But on the audio side of things, and again, because I kind of started in the TV industry as a filmmaker with a filmmaking background, I kind of knew enough about audio, enough so that the average person wouldn't know the difference. I knew how to capture basic audio, and although I wouldn't be able to mix it in post production, to make it spatialise, I know enough about that to kind of have an idea of when a production will need that kind of high quality audio. So the next piece of the puzzle is is an audio engineer, someone that comes on and they look they just look after the sound. I use Luke who does not only the recording on set, but also in post production. But you might, you know, you might end up using kind of two different people for those roles and you just want to make sure that the process or the kind of fluidity of that process between one person working on it and on production and in post production. Just make sure that those people communicate really well with each other and they both understand what needs to happen. Make sure that your audio person, or if you are going to go into audio, make sure that you really label your takes. One of the biggest headaches is if they're not labelled properly, and then you get into the edit and trying to because obviously, the audio capture on the 360 cameras is shocking. So to try and line up the right shot, with the right audio can sometimes be a headache, if you've not labelled it properly. So that's a big one.


So those are the three key components to any production. If you were just going out by yourself, you would wear your producer/director hat to kind of get the project off the ground to make the the timeline for it, to get the budget for it, somehow to accept the creative visions, have the idea, you would then have a camera with you. To capture it, you would know enough about that camera to know the limitations to know things about lighting, to understand stitch lines, that kind of thing, and sound. But obviously, mainly if you're capturing something that actually needs sound, and you'll understand about capturing sound, those are the three key roles on any production.


As you start to work on bigger productions, or as you kind of expand out or as you get more budget, the next key person, in my opinion, is a visual effects supervisor. So this only really became apparent to me when I started to work on bigger productions, where the people working on the production side were not necessarily the same people that were going to be working on the post production side. For the most part, the crew I bring in to do the production, tend to also be the people that do the stitching and do the kind of the compositing and the editing and that side of things. But when that isn't the case, having a visual effects supervisor on set is so important if you're going to do things like compositing out lighting rigs, or plating a shot. For example, if your crew are in the shot plating, in post production, you basically composite them out and that's really important. It's really important to have a visual effects supervisor on set to be able to say - okay, well, if you want to be able to get that shot, then you're gonna need to be over there, you're going to need to step back there, you cannot cross that line and obviously, these are the considerations that are so different in 360 versus traditional filmmaking. So having someone that I call a visual effects supervisor, but they could just be like a post production supervisor, they need to be someone that is going to be involved with the post production, who can kind of safeguard some of the decisions you're making on location to say, that's going to be a problem in post. Unlike film where the classic saying is - oh, well, we'll fix it in post, that is 10 times as harder and 10 times more expensive in 360, generally, so you absolutely don't want to try and fix it in post. You want to account for it before you've even started shooting. So things like if you're shooting a narrow window, making sure that your action is on the other side of the camera so that you can easily plate out the window. Again, having lighting and set crew. It's funny, I remember that same keynote, the same guy that said about how we use 360 cameras as like a traditional DLP uses lenses. That same guy said that every 360 shot is a visual effects shot and it's so true because even if the smallest kind of effects that you're doing is, is stitch lines and making sure that people aren't crossing stitch lines, too close so that they're not like splitting in half even something as simple as watching a stitch line. Because that is a visual effects, that's a post production job. Right? That's something that a visual effects supervisor would be picking up on.


Generally speaking, we'll need to make sure that we've got enough of an overlap from another lens to make sure that we can go in and in visual effects composite around the clip, so that when they move past the stitch line, you're actually swapping between the two images to make it look as if there's nothing kind of wrong, so you don't see the seam line. So that would be my other key person.


From there, it's kind of like, well, you could just keep on expanding depending on how big you want your crew but, you know, you could have a script supervisor, you could have production runners to help out with the production assistants who kind of look after the crew basically and do the menial things which is so important though…I say menial, but I don't mean that in a degrading way. Because there's such a key role on on making things run smoothly and to make sure that everyone's kind of not stressed, not hangry, looking after kit, you could start to go down the road of like camera assistance, clapperboard holders, you've got di T's, which I think stands for digital imaging technicians, they're the ones that can be looking after your media files. So once you've done a shot, they can take the SD cards from the camera, and they can backup all the footage and you know, they kind of look after that side of things. They are the person that connects what you've shot on set, to what gets to the post production house, so quite a key role.


You could just keep expanding out really as much as as much as you want, you can have makeup and hair on set, you could have grips on set, that's whole job is to rig things like tripods and cranes and jibs, and, you know, all of these fancy pieces of equipment that realistically, you probably don't need on a 360 shoot. So yeah, I mean, obviously, it's never ending but in general, let's recap the key roles on a VR production.

By VR, I'm talking specifically about 360 production are a director, producer, a camera operator, a sound engineer, and then a visual effects supervisor. I mean, I started by doing it all myself. So I know how to stitch and I know how to edit, I know a little bit about after effects to know enough how to do basic compositing but mostly I use my brother for that because my little brother is a visual effects and an after effects. He's a wizard basically. So I know enough of that to kind of know my way around that if I needed to but you could break it down like as much as you want, really. But realistically, you need someone to look after the stitch, someone that looks after the edit. So one looks after the colour grades on the looks after the audio post production. But again, that can all be one person really, it depends on how much budget you've got, and whether you want to delegate out those roles.


I think the other big thing about keeping it all quite tight and having a smaller crew as possible, is I quite like that then there's not as many breaks in in the links of the chain, if that makes sense. The more people I found, the bigger productions that I do, the more things go wrong, and it often comes down to miscommunication. Or, you know, there's just more complications with working with more people. So obviously there's a time and place for it but if you can try and keep it as concise and small, I often find that it creates a more collaborative environment but also it's just a lot easier to get the job done and to kind of oversee everything and make sure that you know there's not as many, breaks in the chain.


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