360 production tips – what VR camera and when
There is no perfect 360 video camera. There is the right camera for the right job though. Sometimes that’s something simple and GoPro based, sometimes it’s something complicated and high end like a Red or Arri system. There’s a time and a place. Shooting 360 video is very much a game of compromises – making exchanges in quality for stitching or quality for being more dynamic. Here’s some of our favourite cameras and when we like to use them.
First up, lets look at 3D 360 cameras. Should note here that you’ll only see the difference on headsets – not if you’re watching the content on desktop or mobile. This is why it’s often hard to justify the extra costs of shooting 3D – it gives stunning immersive results though and is the best way to produce 360 content for VR headsets.
Also called the GoPro Odyssey, this is a very hard camera to get hold of. We managed to wrangle one and have since modified it to work with single V-Locks (it comes with a battery the size of a car battery (totally unnecessary!)). It also needs a zenith camera jerry rigged on top to fill the hole on top of it.
We use the jump when we have scenes with a lot of action around the camera, because it stitches algorithmically, on the cloud, it means you don’t have any ‘traditional’ stitch lines.
The Jump gives 3D 360 video of dynamic scenes but you’ve got to add in the top and bottom cameras manually. The camera is quite large which means it’s not suited to small areas such as car interiors, especially if you want to add a top and bottom camera on seamlessly. Also, with people getting too close to the camera you start to see strange artifacting, where the stitching algorithms can’t work out what goes where.
The picture on the left shows the kind of error you get on a Jump, when people are too close to the camera. A kind of ghosting and artifacting. You also have a problem with people going in to the ‘dead zones’, at the top of bottom of the shots, very hard to patch out.
Another issue the jump has is with lines/wires/fences in shot, these can all confuse the algorithms if they or the camera is moving, it seems a lot better when still.
The algorithms are constantly being updated by Google though, an email every month or so from their Jump team tells you about all their latest features. My favourite one recently was that you can tell it to ignore a certain camera – brilliant when you’re dealing with 16 GoPros – one is bound to fail at some point!!
The jump also has a tendency to put wavy halos around moving objects in the scene, especially if their background is not moving. This is something we found particularly problematic with the footage we got back from the Falklands when shooting penguins in their natural habitat. There’s a workaround but it involved a lot of heavy patching.
The really good thing with the Jump though is how correct it’s 3D looks, it feels very natural, and if you play to it’s strengths you get some great results. It’s not a simple case of uploading to Google and flinging what you get back straight back up… Well, not if you want it to look great anyway!
This is the camera we all hoped would be a silver bullet but alas there is no such thing in 360 video! As with nearly all 360 cameras though, there is a distinct time and a place for it.
The Ozo has the best set of tools for monitoring and reviewing shoots on set, you can even watch live on a VR headset as it’s recording. Great for directors that are new to VR.
Since starting to write this post, Nokia have released a big firmware and software update to the camera that they think is step change enough to warrant the camera now being called the Ozo+. We’ve not had a chance to test the latest setup so, Nokia, send us one through! The below is written about the older setup.
For us we have to choose between the Google Jump and the Ozo if we’re shooting dynamic 360 scenes. i.e. if the camera is moving or if people or things are moving around the camera. We would use the Ozo if we were in tighter areas, such as moving through a doorway or anything that would make the patched top and bottom of the Jump shot obvious.
However, most of the time we would prefer the Google Jump for dynamic 3D 360 shots due to the quality of the 3D it produces. The lenses in the Ozo are great but the sensors are not on the same level, meaning you really need to flood the scenes with light.
Probably the biggest issue for us though is the dead patch at the back of the Ozo, where there is no stereo and little overlap between the lenses, something that needs to be worked around.
For us though there is a place where the Ozo really shines – live streaming 360, and here it really kicks ass. Nokia have build a brilliant pipeline that makes streaming both reliable and painless, no easy feat.
The footage is stitched on the fly and can be saved, as it is in the live stream or stitched more finely at a later date.
Nokia have provided detailed tutorials and explanation on how to work with their live system. It does require building some kind of super computer to run it though, not for the faint hearted or for those on a budget!
I should add that there are a lot of studios that do use the Ozo more than us, for regular, non live 360. There is a lot we do like about it but we just lean a little more in the direction of the Jump. I hear that beta versions of the next generation Ozo are out there though and that it is pretty special so watch this space!
AKA Stereo Slicer, this is probably our favourite rig. Also, the most restrictive! As you can see from the pic, it’s a pair of Sony A7SII cameras that are synchronised by a custom trigger. We’ve also rigged the cameras to be powered from V-Locks so we’re not depending on the tiny Sony batteries.
Shooting with this camera gives you great capability in low light and allows us to shoot in ‘S-Log’ maintaining all that beautiful detail in highlights and shadows – the long and the short of this – the content looks beautiful after grading. The kind of quality you get from TV adverts and that we expect from regular video productions.
As the camera only covers around 140 degrees at a go, we have to shoot a number of plates or ‘slices’ to get the full 360 and here is the big issue with this camera system. You can only use it when you can control the scene and when the camera is in a static position. So you need to be very careful of the edges of your frame to make sure nobody or thing moves through and disappears!
For the right scene though, this technique has so many benefits, one of the biggest is being able to have your directors, lighting, DOP, client, whoever, behind the camera – no need for remote viewing.
Check out our project with Google and the FT – Dublin in the Dark to see examples of this setup in action.
Stitching with this system requires either an expert in AVP who is also a whizz at patching in Premiere/aftereffects or, mastery of Cara VR and Nuke for even more seamless results. The 3D needs to be fixed manually near the edge of the lenses on overlap which needs an expert eye, but if done right, the results are peerless.
So, it’s got a lot of reasons not to use it… But when you do, you’ll be grateful you did!
The Jaunt One is a hugely impressive camera. By quality of output and control also perhaps one of, if not the best. However, it’s not without it’s issues.
For starters, it’s the size and probably twice the weight of a very large pumpkin. It’s got 24 cameras, therefore 24 card slots, therefore massively DIT heavy.
Oh, and it’s expensive, so expensive in fact that I can’t find it listed anywhere, always call up to enquire! You can of course rent it from some select places.
On to the positives though, and there are a lot, the quality of the sensors and the lenses is fantastic, I’ve seen footage from it that looks great, even in low light. Very good dynamic range too.
What really blew me away though was the amount of control you have of the camera. You can tweak and manage everything about every individual camera and run previews, iterate settings, test again and really get the perfect looking shot.
It’s also worth noting that the modules are replaceable, so if something happens on a shoot you can easily replace the module and carry on.
I would say though that this is not a camera to be used casually, (and nor could you afford to!) learning the control and getting used will take a significant amount of hands on playing. For the right job though, with the right budget, this could be the best 3D VR Camera.
A lot of shoots don’t require 3D, either for budgetary reasons or because of other constraints. For example, shoots inside very small spaces such as car interiors or from drones, where the scenery is so far away that 3D is rendered useless. Also, for more extreme camera views, such as exterior car or helmet mounted uses.
The Omni is a great mono solution, we still use it on a lot of shoots. Particularly for drone filming or projects with limited budget that need to be dynamic/moving.
Crucially, the Omni is formed of synchronised cameras, something we were waiting for for years in the industry! Having the cameras synced takes out a lot of the pain of stitching and ultimately gives a cleaner looking final 360 video too.
The shape of the Omni, and it’s mounting position on the corner of it’s cube shape gives it some distinct advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, a monopod mounting the camera can be completely hidden, giving the effect of a floating camera with very little work in post.
On the down side though the large number of cameras and tendency to need to be mounted on it’s corner leads to some difficult stitching issues. Stitches are usually best in straight lines, down the horizon and the Omni tends to give diagonal ones, harder to hide.
The picture to the left shows how the Omni was used to hide the pole carrying the camera, in this case it is coming out of the bag being carried by the actor. (Image from our project Fluct)
Whilst the Omni gives high resolution and sharp images, the shape of the camera and it’s mounting on it’s corner tends to make stitching tricky, with diagonal stitch-lines going through seams. So we often mount it on an arm that allows us to move the camera to be level with the horizon and therefore have straight seams – the downside to this being that patching out of the tripod and arm is needed.
Recently the S1, see below, has stolen the march.
Made up of two, modified, GoPros, with 220° lenses, this remarkably simple camera captures the full 360 sphere with only one stitch line. You could think of it as a posh Gear 360 or Theta!
You can get the best out of this setup by having the cameras on 2.7k resolution and 30FPS, this gives you a sharp and relatively high resolution output. You can only do this in the right conditions though, sometimes you’re forced to shoot at lower resolutions and higher frame rates. This is where the quality of the setup starts to fall short.
The image to the left is a screen grab from our project for Waitrose, showing line fishing on a boat in the Maldives. Shot on 2.7k it allows for a sharp and above 4k video.
Also, as there was just one seam there was more room for the fishermen to move around naturally without us having to worry about any blocking.
The weight and size of this 360 video camera makes it a great option for head mounts (if you have to!!!) we’d usually prefer to mount on an arm, over the shoulder for POV, but on wing suits you won’t have that luxury!!
Do you get it?! The Stanley is made up of 4 Sony A7SII cameras with 8mm lenses. The pic to the left shows the system with it’s V-Lock power, hidden from view of the lenses, behind that is a switcher to change preview out of the cameras for framing shots.
It’s also got an adapter for our ambisonic microphone, which is also hidden from view of the cameras.
We used the Stanley in the opening scene of Tempel, here.
The Stanley has great cameras, lenses, practicality of use, however, there is a major drawback. Parallax. The cameras are too big to get them close enough, meaning that stitching is very problematic. You certainly can’t have someone moving between seams anywhere near the camera or they will momentarily disappear. As a result we actually hardly ever find a time to justify it. Favouring instead the single camera version below.
Like the stereo slicer (Johnny Five) but just one camera, this gives perfect stitching. Technical reason for that is that you are taking every shot from the exact same point of light, by rotating around the lens and not the camera body. Just as you would to do a 360 panoramic still.
Of course, you need to heavily control the scene to make sure nobody moves in to or out of frame but the results are fantastic, even in the smallest of spaces. We used this technique for the interior of the car on our Tempel project and for the small interior space of a passenger seat view on our Norwegian Airlines project.
So this setup will give you the ultimate in quality but at the price of how dynamic the scenes can be. As with all these rigs, it’s a matter of horses for courses.
The picture on the left shows a simple mono slicer setup from Tempel.
Note the camera mount being at the front of the lens, allowing the camera to rotate around the ‘nodal point’. It’s this old panoramic photography trick that makes the post on this so simple!
Z-Cam have come out the blue for me and stolen a march on the 360 video camera market. The S1 is a stunning piece of kit – lenses close together, metal case for cooling, ethernet for remote control, full synchronisation. The only thing it doesn’t do is 3D.
This is our new go-to mono solution.
Other VR Rigs
This post is meant to highlight our favourite 360 video cameras and those that we use day in day out. It’s by no means an exhaustive list of all the cameras, I wouldn’t even know where to start!
There are a few others not mentioned here that I would really like to get my hands on for a test:
Z Cam S1 Pro
The S1 Pro would essentially replace the GoPro Omni if it is everything it is made out to be and would become our go to VR camera for mono shoots. It is metal, meaning heat dissipates from it, has HDMI out for monitoring, can have individual camera control, potential for ethernet tethering to a computer for fine control and media management. We want one!
Z-Cam V1 Pro
This is the most tantalising of all the new 360 video cameras – it’s lens setup looks like it allows for 3D VR capture, although details have not been allowed.
Close lens positions, high quality lenses and sensors, this could be the ultimate setup.
Yi-Halo (Google Jump V2)
Google are jumping ship from GoPro and have designed and built the next generation of the brilliant jump system with Yi. Happily for all us creators they have added a top camera as standard!! No more ‘zenith patching’. No supply as yet so we’re wringing our hands in anticipation.