Conor Dowling received a bursary to attend a Virtual Reality workshop in Helsinki in Finland. Read more about Conor’s experience.
“After much interest and research into Virtual Reality Filmmaking and 360 video, I came across a practical VR filmmaking workshop in Helsinki, Finland. I applied for the course and was accepted. Fortunately Screen Training Ireland were able to assist me financially with a bursary that covered my course fee, accommodation and flights.
The workshop, run by NISI MASA and Euphoria Borealis, was held over eight days in the Aalto Media Lab in Helsinki. Forty international participants from all over the world and different professional backgrounds were accepted onto the course. Participants were made up of writers, directors, producers, editors, cinematographers, sound designers, programmers, game developers, graphic designers and motion graphics experts.
On the first day we were orientated with the facility the workshop would take place in; Aalto Media Lab, much like Dublin’s Filmbase. The media lab would supply the VR equipment, all filmmaking equipment and post production equipment we needed to make our films during the week. Here we met the other participants and the organisers of the course, made up of VR filmmakers each with a different speciality in VR filmmaking workflow. After our meet and greet we were taught the basic principles of 360 video and acquainted with the gear we would be using. The rest of our first day was spent using the cameras to shoot exercises designed to utilise the camera’s 360 degree field of view, after which we would stitch the footage together on editing software.
The rest of the week was structured as follows; on the second day all directors were to pitch ideas for VR films they wanted to make, crews would then form around those ideas, the films would be shot and edited over the next two days and screened publicly in a cinema in the city centre on the fourth day of the course.
During the first filmmaking session, roughly 10 VR films were produced by the different groups. Due to my interest in the application of VR to narrative filmmaking, I wrote and directed a short sci fi romance film called Cosmic Legacy. Our team had the chance to try out the Samsung Gear VR while making our film. Unlike cumbersome go pro rigs that have all sorts of production challenges, the Samsung camera shoots two wide angles and produces a 360 video image quite simply. The camera works in tandem with Samsung Android phone that stitches the footage together, provides live playback and comes with it’s own headset which allows you to preview the viewer’s VR experience on set. Though the Samsung Gear VR operates very smoothly, the picture quality is not as good other VR camera rigs.
While we shot the film, I was interviewed by a Finnish TV channel about my experience with VR filmmaking and my thoughts on the challenges and potential of the medium. A journalist for a Finnish tech magazine also chose our film to follow from start to completion, interviewing me about the experience. During the shoot we got the chance to trouble shoot the challenges of; where to hide the crew in a 360 video, how do you light the scene, how do you mic your actors for sound and how do you light a green screen within your shot?!
We spent the following day adding VFX to our film and exporting it in the nick of time for a public cinema screening in the city centre of Helsinki. The screening was like no other cinema screening I’ve been to. We were in a standard, large cinema screen and there was one Oculus Rift head-set, set up at the top of the room. Members of the public then volunteered to view our films individually through the head-set. Their head-set was then projected onto the big screen for the rest of the audience to view. The viewer was then essentially directing the film for the rest of the audience. After each viewing, the director was asked to say a few words about the film and the viewer would share their own experience of the film.
The screening was a success and it was fantastic to see what 10 directors did with the medium and each film was more different than the last. One film placed the viewer in the POV of a mole, one viewer was placed in the shoes of a gang member and another film was a BDSM like experiment in forced feminisation which left the viewer squirming in front of the entire cinema as a character in the film applied make up to his face.
That marked the halfway point of the course and the next day there was a new round of pitches made by the group. This time around I decided to challenge myself in the post production area of VR filmmaking, so I joined a team as editor and post production supervisor. For our next project, Synaesthesia, we used the Kodak Pix Pro camera and a 4K Go Pro rig. The Kodak camera was easily the most superior 360 camera we had the chance to use on the course. The footage looked the best and it was easiest to operate. With only two angles it meant only two stitch lines within the final video, this makes blocking easier on set as when actors cross stitch lines too close to the camera it can ruin the effect.
Go Pro rigs are great in theory, with six cameras shooting 4k images to spread out over your final spherical image, but in practice they can be a nightmare without the time, patience and hard drive space. A Go Pro rig points six Go Pros in every direction. This means, six batteries that need to be charged, six SD cards that need to be offloaded and marked correctly, six cameras means six stitch lines, each take has six clips each at 4K resolution and when you are filming, there is no monitor! Though this is an inventive approach to obtaining 360 video, it’s not feasible if you’re working with actors and under any time pressure.
Throughout the last few days of the course we had more guest lectures in unity, digital set design and how to make our VR films interactive through video game engines. We were also treated to a live demo of the new Nokia Ozo 360 camera. The Nokia Ozo is the €50,000 euro answer to high end 360 video production and it answers a lot of the problems of current VR video production.
We managed to get another round of 10 films together for our next and last public cinema screening. This batch of films had learned from the experience of the first group and made a variety of experimental and entertaining VR films.
Making the films in a short amount of time was a great opportunity to experiment with the technology and shooting methods used in VR filmmaking. Throughout the course there was a strong sense that we were at the beginning of a new era of filmmaking and that everything we did was breaking some sort of new ground for the filmmakers who would learn from our attempts within the medium. There was a lot of question throughout the course about whether or not VR films will take over but after making and watching VR films during the course, I believe that though VR films are going to be a big part of the future, they will never replace traditional cinema and will likely co-exist as individual cinematic experiences.
At times being on the course was a lot like being back in film school for eight days, I spent long days and late night working with groups of creative and experimental filmmakers and artists. Along with the wealth of knowledge I learned from the course itself, being surrounded by a diverse group of creators was where I gained the most new skills and ideas.
Cosmic Legacy and Synaesthesia, along with other films made on the course, will be screened this as part of the Annual Helsinki Film Festival Love & Anarchy.”