VR – Virtual Reality – Will it Replace the Real Experience?

I just returned from the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show held annually each April in Las Vegas. With 4 huge convention halls displaying the latest and greatest technology and gear used in broadcasting, it’s simply overwhelming. Since I’ve never been enamored with just the NAB 2016gear component of my business (still photography and video), but rather in how I can apply or enhance the story that I’m working on, I spend most of my time attending the conference tracks.

Every year, there seems to be a new buzzword. Two years ago it was all about 4K. Last year it was drones (UAVs) and this year it was all about VR (virtual reality) but not the VR of the 1980’s. I’m talking about VR that provides a totally immersive experience for the viewer. Even though I was a bit skeptical and didn’t really see opportunities beyond the gaming sector, I made it a point to check out the VR Pavilion and take a look at some cameras ranging from Kodak’s PixPro SP360 4 K ($499-$899) to Spericam’s V2 a 360° video camera (actually 6 cameras) no bigger than a tennis ball that records in 4K with automatic-stitching, WiFi and streaming baked right in, making viewing and sharing content easy (around $2500), to the high end Nokia Ozo selling for $60,000! As far as the viewer end, here are some of the headset options out there: Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and Samsung Gear VR

It wasn’t until I attended a session entitled, Being There – VR in News & Documentary that I began to realize the potential and possibilities of this technology. The panel consisted of filmmakers, journalists, and creative directors from news outlets (USA Today and Sky TV) who talked about how they were applying the tools and utilizing the medium. Like any new technology there are plenty of challenges in both the production and postproduction process, but with technology’s fast moving pace in this niche it’s only a matter of time before just about anyone and everyone will be able to create using this medium. One challenge right now is in stitching together the content in post that is created by 6 -10 cameras. It can be cumbersome and slow accompanied by hours of angst if the cameras haven’t been perfectly aligned and in sync with one another. A question was raised about the reluctance that viewers might have with not wanting to wear the necessary headset, which was one of the obstacles that kept 3D TV sets from being ubiquitous in all of our homes. The panelists answered by predicting that in a year’s time the headset will give way to a contact lens worn by the viewer.

As a story driven content creator, I needed to know why I would want to deliver a story in VR. After this session the light bulbs went off. Because it’s an immersive experience for the viewer, it can also be an incredibly empathic and emotional medium. Imagine the possibilities – red carpet events, concerts or documentaries where you want the viewer to have a truly immersive experience. VR also provides an opportunity for authenticity because it removes the layers between the journalist and the viewer as opposed to 2D, which could have been created on a sound stage.

Even though the principles of storytelling haven’t changed this is a medium that requires a new language or lexicon with new rules. For instance, there is no cropping in VR. There are two important considerations when creating VR. One is proximity and you have to get the camera in close – no more than 2 feet from a subject that the camera may be following. The other component is to have a narrator or presenter – a kind of tour guide that can direct the viewer through the experience. Usually it’s the journalist rather than a voiceover talent, which can be a bit unnerving in this medium or like the voice of God coming out of nowhere. An alternative to using a narrator would be to use graphical overlays that guide the viewer visually. All the panelists agreed that because it’s such an authentic experience for the viewer it’s a medium that’s conducive to creating empathy and moving people to take action. Some said because it is so authentic it may mislead people inadvertently to disconnect because they have no sense of danger and we run the risk of viewers becoming numb to the experience but only if the filmmaker doesn’t provide the opportunity for a call to action. Live streaming in VR is a game changer because now filmmakers can influence in real time.

I’m not yet convinced that it’s a medium for me or if I’m ready to be a pioneer and deal with what comes with that. The rewards and opportunities are there, as they usually are for frontrunners. That is if it isn’t just a passing fad and you’re willing to take that risk. There is already a trade association for VR creators, IVRPA (The International Virtual Reality Photography Association) so my guess is it’s more than a passing fad. In a world of couch potatoes or those stifled by fear, there may be plenty of people who will choose VR over the real experience.

Check it out for yourself.

VR Stories by USA Today Network

Immerse Yourself in Stories of America 

Google Play
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.gannett.vrstories&hl=enand

iTunes App Store
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vr-stories-by-usa-today/id975006820?mt=8

Condition One*
Experience a Perilous World with At-Risk Species, and at a Factory Farm

Google Play
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.conditionone.vrplayer_cardboard&hl=en

Platform agnostic streaming with or without Cardboard:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3VWeehBnL_VL-92K6VImiw

Ryot – VR
Go Around the World to See New Perspectives, Regions, Cultures and People

Google Play
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.apto.ryot_vr&hl=en

iTunes App Store
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ryot-vr/id1046058227?mt=8

Platform agnostic streaming with or without Cardboard:
http://www.ryot.org/virtualreality/the-second-line-a-parade-against-violence
(This piece is a RYOT and AP collaboration. Go inside New Orleans, one of our nation’s most culturally rich cities in a socially, politically, and emotionally potent moment in time.)

Google Cardboard
Launch Your Favorite VR Experiences, Discover New Apps, and Set Up a Viewer

Google Play
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.samples.apps.cardboarddemo&hl=en

iTunes App Store
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/google-cardboard/id987962261?mt=8

Platform agnostic streaming with or without Cardboard:
youtube.com/360

 

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10 Tips to Nowhere

I realized recently that I had succumbed to the prevailing trend in editorial writing – the “top ten” syndrome – the top ten places to see in a lifetime, 10 tips on how to be more productive, 10 tips for taking better photos, the 10 best towns to live in – you get the picture.

Train tracks, Mississippi
Train tracks, Mississippi

Seems like we want our info and we want it fast and easy to digest. The problem is we tend to lose sight of the things that aren’t on the top ten lists and lose focus on who we are.

I spent my summer redesigning our company’s website, editing a new motion reel and strategizing with my partner on marketing ideas. I am grateful for whatever outside forces motivated me creatively to have such a productive summer. I learned some of the pitfalls of following just the advice of “top ten” check lists when it came to editing our new motion reel. For example, these tips:

  • Pick music that sets the tone for your brand and footage.
  • Select only your best clips.
  • Cut on the action.
  • Cut to the music – to the beat
  • Have an opening that hooks the audience – gets their attention.
  • Include your company’s logo and/or info.
  • Pace it like a story with lows and peaks.

That’s not 10, I know, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had lost sight of the most important thing of all and that was I hadn’t shown our company’s vision. After months of work, I had picked the right music, culled through hours of footage and selected the very best clips, came up with an opening that I thought was intriguing and did my very best to cut to the beat of the music. I had shown what we have done, but I hadn’t shown who we are. So, I went back to the drawing board and re-edited the reel.

I realized that there are no short cuts to doing really good work. Good work comes from lots of trial and error and learning from our own experiences. It’s the journey that has its rewards.

By the way, we’re very close to launching the new site.  Stay tuned.

10 Mistakes Photographers Make When Shooting Motion

1.  They forget about the story – it’s not your camera that tells the story – it’s the person using the camera. Pretty visuals, slapped into a motion timeline with music, doesn’t necessarily tell a story.  Video is a story telling medium – don’t forget that.

2.  They think they already know how to shoot – if you think because you are a professional photographer and all you need to do is get a camera with a “video mode” on it, you are mistaken. Shooting in motion is far different than shooting still images. An experienced motion shooter can spot a video shot by a still photographer with little know how, right away.

3.  Thinking audio isn’t important – audio is more important than the visual when producing video.  Hire a sound person to do it right, but don’t discount it.

4.  Thinking the DSLRcamera is all you need for video productions – this is a biggie.  How are you going to go after professional video jobs if this is the only tool in your kit?  Sure you can rent a RED – but make sure you are as proficient with this tool as your competition is before hanging out your “motion” shingle.

5.  Positioning themselves just as DP’s or Directors and thinking you’ll maintain ownership of your work. If you assume the role of a camera operator, DP or even a director – you will be in a work for hire position in most markets.  Position yourself as a producer – shoot if you want to – and direct – but realize that you’ll be just one rung on the “content ladder”.

6.  They don’t learn interview skills – this is what separates the pros from the still shooters who have DSLR cameras and think that’s all they need.  I’d say about  70% of my work includes on camera interviews.  Even though I ask the questions- I’m not on camera, my subject is.   I not only need to know how to ask the right questions and get great audio, but I need to produce a usable interview clip for an editor. That means knowing how to get great soundbites. This is one area I excel in – it’s all about rapport with your subject.

7.  They try to compete in “old business model” markets – Everyone wants to shoot broadcast spots and feature films (or short films) so they think that after shooting motion for only a few months – or even a year – they will be able to compete in the high end business of video production.  First, this market, like the still photography market,  has changed drastically, mostly marginalized by still photographers who are just starting to shoot motion,  shooting jobs for next to nothing because they have no understanding of this “business”.

8.  Learning the “how to’s” in terms of gear – but nothing about the business – this is also a biggie.  There are so many “how to shoot motion” workshops and roadshows out there but no one seems to be teaching the business end of things.  Still photographers think they already know “the business” but quickly realize that they don’t, and they put themselves out of business in this medium – before they’ve barely started.

9.  Teaching “how to” workshops in video with little or no experience – I can’t tell you how many photographers have called me for technical advice about some pretty basic stuff in terms of video,  and four months later they are teaching workshops. Please don’t become part of the problem and send more shooters out into this field without teaching them something about business. And if you are considering taking a workshop – do your homework and take the workshop from someone who is accomplished in this field and has done something.

10. They forget about the story – I know that’s #1 but it needs reinforcing.

 

2014 NAB Wrap Up

Still photographers and motion shooters love to get a “first”  look at “new gear”. Here are a few interesting items I saw last week at the NAB Show (National Association of Broadcasters):

Cameras

  • Black Magic Ursa A 4K camera 2014 NAB Showat an affordable price (around $6,500) that will be shipping in July. They’re calling it the first user upgradable-camera because you can change the sensor and the lens mount. It looks like this will be a great camera for filmmaking and documentaries.
  • Sony A7s Sony’s latest mirrorless camera features a wide-dynamic-range sensor and amazing sensitivity. With this camera, Sony didn’t jump into the megapixel competition against other camera manufacturers, but instead concentrated on image quality at staggering ISO’s. I would use this camera more as a still camera, but it’s small and it also shoots 4Kvideo.
  • GoPro  This company continues to innovate and make products that provide shooters with the tools that allow them to come up with incredibly creative solutions, especially in sports/action content.

Storage/Monitors

  •  Atomos has created the Ninja Star, a tiny ProRes Recorder for theGoPro Hero 3 that has an HDMI-out port and allows you to loop the signal through the Ninja Star and out to a monitor for composition or review. Atomos also debuted their Shogun, a combination seven-inch monitor and recorder with 4K capability.
  • G-Speed Studio by G-Techology This product, a hardware RAID 4-Bay Thunderbolt 2 storage solution, won the “Best Storage of NAB 2014 Award.” The G-SPEED Studio is a storage device with room for four hard drives and is configurable to RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, or 10. You can bring the total storage up to 24TB; at a lesser amount, the sustained 660MB/s transfer rate will get your files going quick.

Sliders/Stabilizers/Helicopters

  • Kessler Unidrive This is a motion control system (slider) that’s automated to enhance your production values.
  • Shape ISEE 1 Camera Stabilizer for GoPro A very cool device to stabilize your action GoPRo footage. The SHAPE ISEE I is a handheld gimbal-based stabilizer for GoPro cameras and smartphones. The powered, self-calibrating ISEE I enables steady shots with the GoPro and features a joystick for up/down tilting of the camera.
  • DJI’s Phantom 2 Vision Plus with Gimbal and GPS The latest addition to DJI’s quadcopter lineup gives you stunning images at a super affordable price ($1,000, or $1,099 for a version with extra battery). The copter has a 1080P camera that supports Adobe DNG RAW, which is great for workflow. There are also features that allow you to stream video to your smartphone in real time and to synchronize your phone with the quadrocopter through WiFi up to 700 meters away.
  • Syrp Genie Time Lapse & Magic Carpet Slider This is a motion controller coupled with a simple slider that provides a relatively low-cost solution for great time-lapse photography.
  • GimbalGunner A new device designed for run-and-gun video shooting. It’s essentially a cross between a two-axis gimbal and shoulder-mounted rig.

Software

  • There were hundreds of booths demoing software, but perhaps the most impressive of the bunch for me was the iZotope RX 3 2014 NAB ShowThis audio postproduction software will take away your fears about working with sound. I saw a demo in which it fixed substantial audio issues with the push of a button. Technology continues to make our lives easier. There is an incredible deal on the software until May 1, with prices slashed from $749 to $249. I don’t advocate capturing bad audio, but you’ll want this repair tool if you do.

Lighting

  • Litepanels This company launched its new Hilio series, versatile panels that emit a raw, narrow beam that provides high-intensity light for long throws.

Commitment

Commitment is everything.  It’s what makes us get things done.  It’s what makes relationships work.

Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand
Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand

It’s what makes us not give up, no matter how bleak it may look at times. It’s what gets us to stay focused on “the story” and be true to ourselves.

To some people, commitment can be frightening.  Their heads are filled with negative “what if” thoughts of failure that hold them back.  So, they plod along through life letting things happen to them instead of going after what they want. Those are the people who let resistance win.

I’ve always been a determined and committed person – if I say I’m going to do something, you can count on me to do it.  It’s tough sometimes though, to stay committed to myself and to what my true purpose is – it’s far too easy to get caught up with the regular flow of work and life.  But every now and then I get an idea for a creative project that just won’t go away.   When I finally decide to stop ignoring the idea and do something, I have a mechanism I use to help me make the commitment – I tell someone about it.  I’m the type of person that feels, once I’ve told someone I’m going to do something, then I have to do it – just to save face.  I call it “forced accountability.”

Seth Godin writes today about commitment: “One way to play in the digital age is to appeal to those that browse, the window shoppers, the mass audience that can’t and won’t commit.  The alternative is to focus on impact, not numbers and impact comes from commitment. “ He says: “ price is more than an exchange of coins. Price is a story.” Essentially, Godin is saying that in our noisy digital world, where ideas and content are free – we’ve got to be better, to make an impact.  In order to connect with the buyers on an emotional level, we’ve got to be “better than free”.

Every commitment that I’ve ever made has come with tremendous personal growth.  When I traveled around the world a couple of years ago making a feature length documentary, Opening Our Eyes, I not only challenged myself physically and creatively, but spiritually as well and I feel that I became a better person because of it.  I would not have been able to endure the hardships of that journey, nor the intense workload of post production had I not been committed to the idea.

What are you willing to commit to?  Commitment may be frightening, but without it, you may be spending your later years wondering, “what if I had”

10 Tips For Getting GOOD Audio When Using a DSLR

If you’re like most of the professional still photographers I know, you have either expanded your business and offer videomicrophones (in addition to your still photography) to your clients, or have plans to.  If you do have future plans to offer video to your clients, then you are either learning the particulars of that skill set, or you are collaborating with others who are in the know, or both.

Perhaps, one of the most daunting components of video, for still photographers is audio. Capturing audio is totally foreign to a still photographer, yet it is the most important component of all, in video production.

Here are a few tips for getting good audio:

  • You’ll never get good audio using the camera’s built in microphone, – at least not for interviews. Don’t turn the camera’s audio off however.  You can use it later for reference audio when syncing sound later in post-production.
  • Use external microphones for capturing audio interviews.  Ideally, you should record your interview audio using a digital recorder like the Samson Zoom H6 or the Tascam DR-60D with XLR connections.  I usually place a “lav” microphone on my subjects. I will also use a shotgun microphone, mounted (with shock mount) on a boom pole that’s on a fixed stand.  I rely on the microphone on the fixed stand, as opposed to hiring a boom operator, especially if I don’t have the budget for a big crew. If you should decide to use an amateur or assistant as a “boom operator”, rather than hire an experienced operator who knows how to capture “consistent” audio, you’ll most likely end up with poor audio captured at inconsistent levels. The shotgun microphone should be about 12-18 inches away from your subject. You can sync the sound with the video, later in post- production, using the software Plural Eyes.
  • Don’t cross your audio cords with your electrical cords. This causes a hum that you will detect if you are wearing headphones.
  • For run and gun” situations, you can probably get away with using a microphone mounted on the camera, as long as you are close to your audio source. You can either run a microphone (with a mini plug) directly to the camera OR you can run a microphone with an XLR adaptor through a pre-amp like a JuicedLink or a Beachtek, which will yield a cleaner audio capture. This works well for capturing ambient sound for b-roll or live action, and your audio will be recorded to the same card as your video. If you do want to capture your interview audio using a microphone mounted on the camera, make sure that you get your camera in close to your subject (not more than 18 inches away), and that you us a mixer or a pre-amp.
  • Microphones – Use an omni-directional or cardiod microphone when you are in a more controlled situation and you want your sound coming from more directions – like on a sound stage.  “Lav” microphones can be used for interviews, either hard wired or with a wireless kit. Be careful when you attach it to your subject and position it to avoid any unnecessary noise coming from hair or jewelry rubbing up against it. A good camera mounted microphone is the Sennheiser MKE 400 (compact shotgun). For interviews I use my cardiod Sennheiser ME66 with K6 powering module.
  • Use a wireless system only when you NEED to. In cities like New York you can get a lot of interference on various frequencies. Always go wired when you can. A great and affordable hard-wired “lav”, is the SonyECM44B And if you find yourself needing a wireless system, spend the money to get a system that has a good range.
  • Use a good windscreen or “dead cat” when outside. Even if you’re inside, on a windy day, with windows open, you can pick up wind noise.
  • Use headphones. Don’t just look at your meters.  Your meter may indicate that you are recording sound, but it may not be good sound – it could be you are picking up interference or getting distorted and clipped audio. Wear headphones and make sure that you are getting quality sound.
  • Always consider that you will be using the audio – even for your b-roll.  You will need clean usable audio for b-roll, even if it’s only intended as ambient, background sound.
  • Pay attention to audio. Start by letting your ears do more of the work. Every room and situation has its own sound. Listen up. Be quiet and tell your crew to be quiet as well. You never know when you’ll want to use the audio – even if you think you won’t need it.

You can read more about what I brought with me in the way of gear, when I literally circled the globe, creating my first feature length film.  The film is now available on DVD.

If you’d like to know more about “moving into motion”, check out my book, The Craft and Commerce of Motion and Video.

The Biggest Mistake Photographers Make in Video Post-Production

English: High end linear editing suite, 1999.
English: High end linear editing suite, 1999. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll make it simple and provide a quick answer to the title statement  – “What is the biggest mistake photographers make in the post production process, when they are just starting out?  They think they need to do it all them selves.

Photographers are independent creatures by nature. Most are solo entrepreneurs who create visual content for a living. But when they enter into the business of video production, unless they have decided to work solely as a hired camera operator, they will have to deal with a lot of other creative needs and variables – producing, lighting, shooting, sound, editing, music, motion effects, sound mixing, and color grading to name a few.  Unless you are pursuing a career as a backpack journalist, which I have the utmost respect for; you can’t possibly do it all.  If you try, you will either go broke, or you will put limits on the quality of your product.

I know how to edit – meaning I know the editing software.  But that doesn’t make me an editor.  I realized early on, how the craft that a good editor brings to a project could greatly raise the bar on what I produce.  Generally, I try to look at all my shot footage and do a very rough first edit.  This not only familiarizes me with my material, it helps me keep costs down. I did that on my film, and with 150 hours of footage, it was a long and tedious process.  But it also made me intimate with what I had shot so I was helpful to my editor and it made the collaborative process very creative and focused on the story.

Too many photographers stop them selves from getting into video because they think they have to learn how to edit and that it would be another huge software program to learn.  Don’t let that be a stumbling block.  You can delegate that task to someone who already knows how. More than likely you won’t be composing music for your videos or creating complex motion graphics. You don’t need to learn and do everything and in fact, working with an editor frees you up to start working on another job.  It’s a more profitable use of your time, especially when you are invoicing the post-production costs as part of the job.

There are times when I love to work in a solo style or with a very small crew.  I love the intimacy it brings to the production.  But when it comes to post-production, working in a collaborative way with other professionals is one of the things I love most about video production.  It has been a very powerful and creative force in my life and has challenged me in wonderful ways.