Right in the middle of it all: storytelling in 360 degrees
Virtual reality will change journalism: Whether police action at the G20 summit in Hamburg, diving with hammerhead sharks in tropical regions, or as a prisoner in the Stasi prison Berlin-Hohenschönhausen – with 360 degree videos you catapult the viewer into the centre of the action and can accompany him to places he could never enter in reality. The technology for this has long been mature, the costs for the hardware are relatively low. So it’s high time to think about storytelling. Because filming in 360 degrees differs fundamentally from conventional film techniques. So how do you tell a story in 360 degrees? This is a question that we (the Hamburg filmmaker Matthias Sdun and I) also had to face in our project Lostfriesland and in the development of the corresponding apps (available for Android and iPhone). I summarize the experiences made in this article.
- Planning is everything: Think about what story you want to tell. Even a 360 video must not be boring. Try to visualize the film with a storyboard or write it down in a script and discuss it with friends or family. Think about when and where you want to shoot what and if you need permission to shoot.
- Pay attention to the length: The attention span in the net is short: Even with 360-degree videos, the ideal length is between two and three and a half minutes. A strong initial image helps to draw the viewer into the action.
- Slow narrative style: The viewer needs time to orientate himself. The story must therefore be told much more slowly than in a normal film. While individual clips can sometimes only be seen for a few seconds, each panorama shot should be shown for at least 30 seconds so that the viewer can look around in tranquillity.
- Simple stories work best. The medium 360° is relatively young and unusual. The films must not overwhelm the viewer with an extremely complex story.
- Transitions are important. While the classic film editing works as inconspicuously as possible so as not to tear the viewer out of the story, hard cuts in 360-degree videos quickly lead to disorientation. Scenes should therefore be clearly visible. A soft cross-fade helps not to confuse the viewer.
- Avoid camera movements if possible: Fast swings and heavy movements quickly lead to nausea among many spectators. This is intensified when the video is viewed with a headset. If the rapid roller coaster ride, the false jump or a ride with a Formula 1 car is nevertheless to be shown, the spectator needs a fixed point at which he can orientate himself. It is helpful to show the viewer immobile elements in the foreground: Parts of the helmet on which the camera is mounted, the hood of the Formula 1 car or the front section of the roller coaster nacelle give the viewer the opportunity to hold on virtually. In addition, movements should normally only be forward, slow and even. Wherever possible, the camera should be firmly mounted on a tripod.
- Image composition: Also (and precisely because) the viewer can move freely, a deliberate image composition is immensely important in order to draw the viewer’s attention to one point. Otherwise, the actual content of the video fades into the background. Worse still, the viewer feels lost and doesn’t even know what he is supposed to see.
- Choose the start view with consciously: Indicate to the viewer what he can see and where his main attention should be. If you accidentally held the camera upside down while shooting, you can fix it with different apps and programs. With them you can select a different starting perspective than the recorded one.
- Pay attention to the environment: Large differences in brightness are very problematic. A low sun or a bright lamp can quickly lead to burnt-out areas.
- The horizon is important for orientation. He should be straight. A tripod with a spirit level is helpful for alignment.
- Pay attention to the camera level: All-round views from unusual perspectives have their appeal for certain purposes. Shots at an extremely low height, however, give away a lot of space, since the ground makes up a large part of the image shown, as can be seen in this video about leaf cutting ants, for example. Even for mystery series like Lostfriesland it has its appeal to force the viewer into a perspective from which he has to look up or down. A camera “at eye level” is the most natural camera perspective.
- Watch the camera distance: Objects placed very close to the camera are displayed extremely distorted. If a presenter or other people are to be shown, a minimum distance of one and a half meters to the camera is recommended.
- Good sound is the be-all and end-all: even with sound, the viewer’s attention can be directed in a certain direction. Good sound quality is immensely important for this. Therefore, use an external microphone wherever possible. Now models are available on the market that can record sounds from different directions, creating an even more intense spatial experience. How that sounds, you hear in this example (the best experience is with headphones). But even a classic microphone is still far better than any internal microphone of a 360-degree camera.
- Write a voice-over text. It helps the viewer to classify what is happening around him. Consider what background information you personally would like to provide, how you would like to address the viewer. While a pleasant voice explains what can be seen, he can look around in peace. He feels accompanied and not simply placed in the room. Displayed text panels also help with orientation and also make it possible to record information without sound.
- Publish the film on YouTube, Vimeo or any other video platform. If you want to show the film on Facebook, you should upload it there in parallel. Although there are now plugins for WordPress that allow 360-degree video playback, they are more stable on one of the major platforms. Another advantage: Youtube & Co. are social networks that reach viewers who would not otherwise end up on the blog or company website.