360 Video Is More Like Theater Than Film

July 12, 2016

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Phil Nottingham


360 video has forced us to disregard many things we know about filmmaking and start thinking about video production from scratch.

By allowing the audience to define the framing of the camera and change perspective at will, 360 forces us to think of our visual storytelling in a post-shot way. Instead of controlling the viewpoint of the audience, you must build an environment that encourages exploration and allows a story to emerge through a process of user-driven discovery.

This shift represents a seismic change from traditional filmmaking, where skills in photography and a keen appreciation of fine art tend to drive the expertise of the most competent directors. However, it’s my contention that 360 video is, compositionally, more like theater than film.

An innovative ancient art form

In recent years, there have been many innovations in the theater world that represent a 360 or VR experience, but in a physical rather than a virtual space. Companies like Punchdrunk have created many pieces where the audiences have (mostly) free run of a performance space across multiple floors and rooms.

Audience members are able to choose which actors to follow across individual storylines, which occur synchronously in different parts of the space. In Punchdrunk performances, audience members watch the shows behind masks, which turn them into passive observers, rather than actors.

Audience mask from Punchdrunk

On the other end of the spectrum, companies like You Me Bum Bum Train have chosen to create works where the audience is the object. They are spoken to directly by the actors and immersed into a series of worlds where they are the protagonist, forced to react to unusual situations where they are the only non-actor in the space.

dreamthinkspeak, a site-responsive company that works with a lot of mixed media, sit somewhere in the middle of these two approaches. Audiences are usually given free rein of a wide and undulating space, but unlike Punchdrunk, they’re accorded the ability to interact with the performers and scenography by default.

One can imagine 360 and VR video following similar models in terms of the role of the audience and the space. We can be passive observers in a foreign world; we can be present individuals in this world, noticed by the characters; or we can be the main focus of the action, experiencing the narrative through a first-person framework.

More broadly, I think we can learn a lot about how to produce 360 video by taking a deeper look at theater practice.

Think in terms of scenes, not shots

With 360 video, each cut feels like a shift of location for the audience. As with theater, the audience shares the space with the performers, and while they are passive observers, they are still “present.”

Your narrative therefore needs to be driven by “scenes, rather than shots,” in which each scene takes place in a single location, typified by a single placement of the camera for an extended period.

You can’t really do fast-paced cuts or quick perspective changes within a single space with 360. Rather, you have to rely on movement from the performers within a single space to tell the story. Your goal is to encourage the audience to autonomously choose to follow a specific line of inquiry. As with theater, however, it’s possible to have two different pieces of action happening simultaneously, forcing the audience to pick which one to watch.

“You have to rely on movement from the performers within a single space to tell the story.”

This structure enormously affects pre-production, where instead of planning for a sequence of shots that will then be pulled together in post, you instead need to think about building a scene that offers a rich tapestry of visual detail or symbolism.

In practice, this means thinking of each shot scenographically, e.g. the way in which visual elements throughout the environment can contribute to the storytelling. Changes in lighting can be used to denote environmental shifts, the movement of objects and props throughout the shot become very meaningful, and the space that actors occupy in relation to one another takes on amplified symbolic significance when compared with traditional film.

Common knowledge regarding camera shots is also thrown out of the window with 360. No longer can you have wide shots, close-ups, etc… but rather the framing needs to be considered in relation to the overall space and how close the actors are to the camera rig.

With 360, you can choose to craft intimate spaces (e.g. in a closet), wide open spaces (e.g. in the middle of a football pitch) and play with everything in between. Using a wide selection of spaces adds variety to multi-scene shoot and can be used to create dramatic effects. Similarly, having actors change their distances from the camera during the course of a scene is an effective way to shift your audience’s focus.

The audience controls the frame and focus

In regular video, the viewpoint of the audience is limited by the choices of the director, and this has benefits and drawbacks.

The benefits are that you can be highly prescriptive in terms of what the audience sees, and thus structure a very clear message and narrative journey, which is likely to be largely understood. The drawbacks are that this restrictive format tends to leave less room for ambiguity and abstraction than theater, where “experiential” productions are more commonplace than with film.

360 video is more in the theatrical mold here. Because audience members define the framing and perspective, they create a unique journey for themselves, and (as with site-specific theater) no audience member will experience exactly the same thing.

“Because audience members define the framing and perspective, they create a unique journey for themselves.”

The artwork is revealed on a much more individualistic level — the perspectives and intentions that the audience brings to the table will significantly impact the experience they have.

Sound changes according to position in the space

Surround sound — technology roughly 70 years old — now also has its chance to shine with 360 video. In traditional cinema, surround sound can be used to create the illusion of a depth of space, at odds with a 2D image on a 16x9 screen. With 360 video, the aural and visual elements can be in sync.

More interesting though, is 360 sound, where what the audience actually hears can change depending on where they are looking in a space (as with the visuals). This, again, feels far more theatrical than filmic.

London Coliseum

In proscenium arch theater, often an actor may appear on the balcony or in a box and force the audience to turn around to hear and see what’s going on. In immersive site-specific theater, the sound is woven into the fabric of each space — something that shifts according to location as much as the visuals.

Content is likely to be more dialogue-heavy

My expectation is that many narrative-driven 360 videos will end up being far more dialogue-heavy than traditional counterparts. Since you cannot rely on subtext and counterpoint provided by changing shots, narrative and plot need to be created in other ways.

Most theater has traditionally achieved this with dialogue. Since Sophocles, characters often arrive onto scenes with the explicit purpose of explaining what’s happened in a different imaginary space, off stage, and this old device will likely be of equal value in the world of 360 film.

Greek Theater of Syracuse in southeastern Sicily

With 360 video, there’s no guarantee that your audience will see close-up facial expressions, which means that you cannot rely on the subtleties and nuance of acting to necessarily communicate important plot points. For this reason also, I think 360 video will include more dialogue (or internal monologue).

Film script writers may need to start thinking more theatrically than they ever have, and I for one think this holds a great opportunity for the resurgence of the value of traditional theater making skills.

July 12, 2016

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Phil Nottingham


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