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Challenges and Opportunities for 360° degree Filmmakers

Dozens of headsets, an audience who had never used the technology, and a short 360° film about the rise of Donald Trump collided in a way that transformed, if only for a few minutes, a normally nondescript room into a screening palace. But the experience raised big questions about how 360° films should be screened and experienced.  If the success of our screening was gratifying, it showed the limitations the format will face outside of carefully controlled environments.  360° video offers filmmakers with a whole new language for filmmaking.  But their presentation and exhibition may require just as much attention to detail as their production.

Exhibiting 360 Degree Films

Before our second screening we paid particular attention to the optics in the room. Fliers with QR code links to the video and a brief synopsis were provided alongside Google Cardboard headsets. Cameras and other filmmaking accessories were on display.

The word cinema, for all its emotive beauty, is starting to feel increasingly anachronistic. As a way of describing film, of implying its artistic merit, it operates beautifully.  It brings to mind long-since shuttered playhouses from one’s youth, the smell of butter popcorn, and the lustre of old broadsheet posters.  It taps into our own memories – and the medium’s rich heritage.  It embraces Star Wars and Casablanca equally.  In other words, it adds a touch of class to the proceedings, explicitly relying upon place to inform and describe content.

Of course, the breaking of the playhouse’s monopoly happened decades ago. Television broke through the prison’s walls, but it was the rise of consumer video (VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, and so on) which obliterated the compound’s highest walls.  The internet and the rise of smartphones have disrupted the medium further – and the coming of 360° degree films continues that trend. The big screen-little screen dichotomy is dead.  Infinite possibility has replaced it.

In that context the meaning of cinema, in a strict sense, has become opaque.  In a world of near infinite viewing opportunities, the experience implied by the word is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down.  Hollywood, of course, thinks it can define it.  We are living in the age of the mega-blockbuster.  The result is spectacle, to be sure, but not necessarily a satisfying emotional experience.

But there are other possibilities to be explored. Several days ago myself and my filmmaking collaborator, Brett Sanders, were able to stage our first ‘virtual screening’, an experiment which was, I believe, as unique for the audience as it was for us.  By combining a new 360° short film with virtual reality headsets, audiences were able to experience our work in a way quite unlike traditional screenings.  There is novelty in this, to be sure.  But also potential – a touch of the theatre, even.  Every audience member experiences the film differently, from their own specific perspective.  Every audience member, in other words, directs their own interaction with the work.

But such freedom, whilst entirely the point of making a film in 360 degrees, can become destructive when extends to delivery and exhibition. Whilst 360° films can be shared and viewed easily enough online, ensuring that audiences view them in the way they were intended to be seen is almost impossible.  When immersion in place, time, and moment is key to a film’s impact, the issue becomes all the more acute.  Viewing a 360° video in an internet browser can be enjoyable – but it is a medium which primarily rewards cultivated exploration.  But it can also create a distance between audience and content, diminishing rather than promoting immersion.  For our piece, the virtual reality headset is essential.  Our short film was made with this type of immersion absolutely in mind – without it, our intended experience is lost.

For the 360° filmmaker concerned with immersion, the control of space and the complete viewing experience must be a key concern. The temperature of a room, the way in which audio is delivered, perhaps even the aroma, might well all be utilised by an imaginative filmmaker to more fully immerse their audience – to confront them with the realities they wish for them to explore.

But therein is to be found an exciting possibility. If the intended experience of a 360° film can only be had through specific delivery, then more emphasis must placed upon achieving that delivery – the exhibition itself must become an extension of the filmmaking process.  Such an approach to distribution reduces the importance of the online space and puts the exhibition of works firmly into a real world setting.  It incentivises imaginative delivery, the creation of a total experience for the audience.  The surrounding space, the ambient atmosphere, can become as important as the film itself. Place (or more accurately, environment) and content are inextricably linked once again.

As a marriage of space and content, cinema is not as outdated as it sometimes seems. Indeed, the special requirements of 360° degree screenings should force filmmakers to consider the complete cinematic experience – film and delivery, place and content.

 

Experiments in 360° Filmmaking – Best Viewed using Google Cardboard headsets:

Created as an appendix to my popular podcast The Artist in American History, this short film is part of a forthcoming lecture series which examines the ways in which art has been used to challenge dominant power structures, from the renaissance until today.  The film preserves a graffiti covered ‘gallery’, capturing the artwork and preserving it ahead of its inevitable demolition.  The academic commentary explores the role street art plays in our society.

 

Making History is a short film about out trip to New York to make a documentary about the rise of Donald Trump.  It is intended to showcase how we create unique and innovative teaching environments for history students, as well as give an insight into how we went about making the documentary.  It premiered on September 10th, 2016.



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