Lessons in 360 Thinking From the Team Behind New Generation
Throughout music video history, so much of the medium’s innovation has happened on the distribution side. Back in the halcyon days of 1981, a fledgling cable network played its first music video, fittingly the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and ushered in a golden age for a form of entertainment that had previously been relegated to screen filler and promotional films.
The next watershed moment wouldn’t happen for another quarter century, when an online video hosting service – YouTube – upended the topdown control of the music business, allowing audiences thirsty for new content to drink directly from the fire hose. These milestones, and the influence that both MTV and YouTube had on popular culture, paralleled much of what was happening in the broader media industry, as the disintermediation of distribution forever changed how content was discovered and shared.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been breakthroughs on the creative side too. From John Landis’ “Thriller,” cinematic in its narrative, six figure budget, and thirteen minute length, to the groundbreaking use of CG and rotoscoping in Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” to Spike Jonze’s nostalgic time warp “Buddy Holly,” which splices Weezer into historic footage of Happy Days, technology has influenced storytelling for as long as music videos have been around.
So it should come as no surprise that VR is quickly becoming a transformative force in shaping a new future for the music video; a future where barriers between artists and audiences are broken down, where passive viewers are transformed into active participants, empowered to explore immersive environments and layers of stories, all on their terms.
A New Generation
At the forefront of this brave new world is a new class of creative collaborators – artists like Galvanized Souls, a Southern California indie band with new media cred, filmmakers like Matthew Gratzner, an award-winning visual effects supervisor and director, producers like Brandon Zamel, known for his digital and interactive work for Jonny Depp’s production company, and digital imaging pioneers like Immersive Media, the big brains behind the IM360 technology.
Together, these visionaries brought to life one of the first live action narrative VR music videos with “New Generation,” an ambitious experiment in multifaceted storytelling that develops characters and action across time and space, and drops the audience right into the middle of the cinematic action as it unfolds. The concept pays homage to – and takes a playful jab at – pop genres, from boy bands to medieval times to 70’s cop dramas. There’s serious stunt work, sword fights, gunplay that includes a bazooka and fireballs, and at least one car crash.
Narrative in this context requires a whole new filmmaking language. But it’s clear that Gratzner’s New Deal Studios, run in partnership with co-founder Shannon Gans, and Zamel’s Springbok Entertainment, an emerging multimedia production shop, are fluent in the unique syntax and grammar of 360film. Because they’re creative risk takers, they approach what others – particularly those who view the medium through a traditional film theory lens – consider limitations as opportunities to think big, experiment, and break a few rules. Don’t move the camera? Not only did the “New Generation” creators use continuous floating camera moves, but they also mounted one on a speeding car.
With additional layers of story come additional layers of complexity in the production process, as much of what we’d consider directing and editing, like angles and cuts, is controlled by the viewer’s head movements. So the idea that the creators can cover the shot with multiple cameras, and construct the story later in the edit, is out of the question when it comes to people watching people in a circular system. Like staged theater or old cinema, they have to conceptualize from the audience’s point of view, and know exactly where their camera, talent, and action are well before shooting starts. What’s more, they have to stitch together rough cuts on the fly to view the takes and make sure they got the shot before moving on. Sound complicated? That’s because it is.
See, if VR has its own language, then the music video has its own calculus. The fixed element in this equation is the song, and the variable is the action, making it a very different exercise than a film or commercial, where the music can be scored or remixed to fit the edit. So if VR is like a stage play, then the music video is more like a ballet, with every movement meticulously choreographed to every note and beat.
One thing becomes clear as Gratzner, Gans, and Zamel, along with band members Chris Traylor and Matt DeMartini, walk through the production workflow for “New Generation.” With a project of this size and scale, one that mashes up an established storytelling format like the music video with an early stage technology like VR, careful planning and precision execution – and more than a little bit of trust between the players – are the only things standing between control and total chaos. And that starts at the very beginning, with a shared vision and creative compatibility between the collaborators.
With Gratzner and Zamel playing the role of conductor, that made Traylor and DeMartini the orchestra. No strangers to being on camera, and even behind it, they’d produced myriad music videos, web series, and social promos, not to mention being prolific live performers with countless shows under their belts. And that certainly made it easier to push them through a tight twoday shoot with the kind of faith in process and players needed to pull something like this off. Neither knew how to drive, but had to crash an old car into barrels of sawdust.
After spending time with each of the members of this collective, a number of common themes emerged. Here are five takeaways to help guide creators who are ready to take the leap into the world of 360 film:
1. Find your True North.
In this case, everyone agreed upfront that they weren’t creating for themselves, or for other hardcore techies deep into VR, but rather for mainstream audiences. All of the key players, from the band to the director and producer, aligned behind the shared vision of making the medium more accessible to the masses to help build the marketplace. The thinking was simple: casual fans are still pretty clueless about 360video, but if you can blow their minds with an entertaining concept that takes advantage of the full immersive space, they’ll buy into the future possibilities.
2. Think Art + Science.
Technological advancements in VR hardware and software aren’t going to drive meaningful demand generation in this space without compelling content. So unless a critical mass of people seek out stories in VR, and are at some point willing to pay for them, the medium simply won’t live up to its potential. It was important to all of the creative stakeholders involved that the experience be built around familiar and resonant narrative elements like character and story.
3. Know your story.
At every stage of the process, from initial concept through preproduction, rehearsals, walkthrough of all scenes, and on thespot improvisation, the action should come to each performer like muscle memory. Everyone involved must have the story transitions etched into their frontal lobes, so they can think two or three steps in advance without slowing the action or derailing others.
4. Know your talent.
In this case, the band had their lines down cold, were naturals at action scenes, picking up sword fighting and stunt driving techniques in less time that it takes most of us to iron a shirt, and perhaps most importantly, were able to hit their marks consistently, getting the action right with multiple takes from multiple camera positions. That kind of performance from musicians is probably the exception, rather than the rule, so know what your talent is capable of early in the process while you’re still concepting.
5. Be aware of your surroundings.
Understand how production design fits into shooting and directing in VR. How sets and props interact with the actors and the story in the camera. To the state the obvious, the viewer can see everything with 360, so blocking the action, down to where the crew and director are hiding, where the lights and grip equipment are, will help reduce the elements you need to paint out later in post.
As with any production – successful or otherwise – there are things that the team would do differently next time. In this case, they got overzealous with the cop drama scenes, eating up a lot of game clock in a limited shoot schedule; time that the other scenes would have benefitted from. It happens. There were also a few quicker cuts that they didn’t love in the end. Also happens. And if they had to do it all over again, they’d consider shooting some of the key scenes with two rigs, getting in closer to the actors, and then painting out the second camera. But in all, what was so interesting about talking with each of these stakeholders was how complementary, even effusive they all were about each other. It’s clear that they trusted each other, had a ton of fun with the experience, and put everything into the finished product, which naturally reflects the chemistry of the team and their collective vision.
It also serves as a needed reminder that you don’t have to be the award-winning visual effects team behind Interstellar or Inception (although in the case of New Deal Studios it certainly didn’t hurt) to get off the sidelines and start creating short-form content that audiences can connect with quickly and continually, rather than waiting around for auto-stitching technology to become available or dropping some serious cash on a massive VR tentpole event. In this case, the music video is the perfect vehicle to inspire others – it’s familiar, accessible, and about the perfect length of time that a newbie wants to spend in the goggles.
To that end, this team’s collaboration didn’t end with the expected wrap party; the band has been working tirelessly with Zamel and Gans to serve as ambassadors for VR filmmaking. They have been working with their partners at The Foundry, who provided the VFX team with alpha access to its groundbreaking Nuke software, to push narrative storytelling with the tech community. And Traylor and DeMartini have been stumping for the cause at industry events like VRLA and Digital Hollywood, introducing the video individual by individual to people who have never experienced VR.
Whatever this team does next in VR, you can be confident that it’ll involve more experimentation, using even more of the depth and breadth the experience has to offer, and like “New Generation,” will serve as a beacon for others to get out there and start hacking together their own stories to accelerate the medium. And maybe, somewhere down the line, kill the video star.
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