As filmmakers working in virtual reality, the hardest thing we know is finding the story at the heart of the experience. In our last post, we discussed the challenges of tapping into viewers’ empathy in a medium that naturally draws your attention in a million different directions. Matt Celia recently embraced this challenge in a virtual reality promo for Paramount’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. Upon receiving the script, Matt had his work cut out for him: finding a way to work the traditional techniques of good storytelling into 360VR, while also staying true to the heart of the Paranormal Series. We asked him to walk us through his experience. Read on below for his guest blog post.

Photo: Geoff Roseborough

Matt Celia:

When I was asked to direct a short 360 video piece for Paramount’s Paranormal Activity franchise, I was thrilled. Most of the 360 video content up until that point had been more experience-based and lacking in characters and a plot. Although the term “storytelling” was used a lot, I’d felt many of the 360 videos were lacking in precisely that.

As such, my first job in approaching this project was to ensure that every decision I made served the narrative. Here were some challenges for 360 production I saw when I looked at the script:

A long chunk of dialogue. Unlike traditional filmmaking, performances can’t be fixed in post for 360 video. So, you have to have great actors, time to rehearse, and be able to nail it all in one take. While you can cut successfully, it tends to ruin the mood, and it was clear from the script that this was to take place in a single shot. The first 5 pages of the script were brutal to get through and easily took the most time. We spent the first 6 hours on set rehearsing blocking and lines to get the performances feeling as natural as we could in the time we had. Lesson learned: for future shoots like this, I will insist on rehearsal the day before shooting so the cast knows their lines and we can take the time to explore their performances more.

Once we shot the piece and edited the first cut, we quickly learned that it was much too long and boring. I had to find an organic way to cut out some of the fat. So we went back to the universe of Paranormal Activity and looked at the rules of the franchise for answers. We discovered that whenever the demon is close to the camera, technical glitches happen. Back in editorial, we picked several lines from the script that would be good cut points for the “demon” to pass by the camera and cause it to blip out for a second. As a result, we were able to cut down the opening scene in half and consequently the pacing felt much better.

Lots of resets. Shelves crashing, people dying, a mannequin that turns into a witch; it was a lot to choreograph. I decided to bring in a flickering light gag which not only amps up how scary the scene is, but also helped organically give me cut points.

Small spaces. The reality of 360 video capture, at this point in time, is it’s very hard and there are a lot of technical limitations. In our blocking rehearsals, I made the cast aware of the camera limitations and we worked out blocking in a star pattern, so that crossing the cameras would always be done further away.

Dark spaces. You can’t be too close to the camera, as crossing cameras often yields ugly stitch lines, and the cameras are terrible in low light. To fix the light, we brought in a light and hid it behind the garage door opener. We used a fogger to give the space a bit more ambience (and creep factor), which we ramped up when the seance kicked into high gear.

Staging in the 360 space. Our first instinct was to put the camera in the middle of the seance. The problem with this was that we felt people would spend so much time clicking and dragging their mouse, or moving their phone, that they would miss what people were saying. While I would have loved to put the camera a bit closer, we decided to stage the seance in front so that the audience could clearly see the star and the actors. Then we surrounded the world with easter eggs: the rocking horse, the umbrella, etc. The sawdust didn’t read in the video, but it was cool on set. Moral of the story: the stuff we plant needs to work in a wide shot.

What I learned. In hindsight, no shoot is ever perfect and while I’m very happy with how this came out, here are a few things I would have done differently:

Blocking the final moment (where the girl is hiding in the boxes) much closer. I feel she is too far away and you don’t see the cool blood effect and Toby’s hand. As is the case with early 360 video production, it’s not always possible to have a live monitor on set to see what is happening. I spent my time during each take, crouched outside the garage, listening to the audio track and controlling the flickering. I’d also love to remaster this in 3D audio, which is actually something we’re doing. By creating 3D space, the audio cues will help the audience know where to look when the blocking hasn’t worked.

Overall, this was an incredibly fun project to work on and produce. It’s been seen by almost 2 million people on Facebook and YouTube, which is amazing. Without a doubt, seeing people watch it through a 360 headset is my favorite part.

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