Bubble Thinking: 360° Film Design

Linear storytelling is our habit

Planning a 360 story is a completely new challenge for most of the filmmakers. 


Authors, producers and directors are conditioned by habit to project the 3D reality on a strictly limited, rectangular canvas, using different focal lengths to guide the audiences view. 


Secondly, we cut the well defined timeline, mostly limited by the distribution format, into slices of about 4 seconds, which as become a de facto standard for both filmmakers and audiences. There are attempts of breaking both „rules“ by shortening edits down to less than a second as well as directing a whole film as one-shot movie like Sebastian Schipper´s „Victoria“. But these attempts are exceptions. Linear storytelling remains in well defined narrative boundaries, set by our physical ability of perceiving audiovisual information. 


A typical storyline is build like this: Cut by cut, we add snippets of reality, that are well prepared and aestheticized to focus on a maximum emotional impact. But how do we deal with our aim to tell a „story“, that is normally driven by time and not by space, when the timeline just disappears? Not for nothing, many fairy tales (and, in different expressions, even more movies) begin with „once upon a time“, build up tension with „but suddenly“ and end with „and they lived happily ever after“. 


New paradigms for immersive storytelling

For a screenwriter, the paradigm of timeline based storytelling is so deeply anchored in his mind, that it is very hard to change. In fact, the process of „telling“ changes in a 360°-environment to a mode of „presenting“ or „offering“ a space based scenery, limited by walls or the resolution of the camera. But other than the manufacturers of „immersive“ equipment tell us, the process of „immersion“ is still disrupted in a very subtle way, at least in non-interactive programs: You are inside the scene, but not part of it. The fourth wall which, in the beginning of cinema, has moved from theatre stage front to a circle round the camera lens, actually is still there: it surrounds the viewer in a very small bubble. 

In fact, using a 360-camera makes everything different. The way of perception, image capturing, post production and distribution is so different to the rules we have learned, that it needs a completely new approach of storyboarding and screenwriting. In addition, the word „audience“ should be replaced by „viewer“, because in many hardware solutions using goggles, the spectator is a single person standing in the center of the scene, initially without orientation. 


After my first trials and productions with 360 Cams (Ricoh Theta S combined with Phantom DJI, Gopro Cube, Naked Eye),  I am following a different design approach than the above time based idea: The soap bubble method. It looks like this: 

There are four main differences to the linear timeline model: 


1. The timeline as central guide line has disappeared. It is replaced by space bubbles with the 360-cam as circle center. The bubble may move, but only very slowly to avoid vertigo. When designing a 360 project, it is much easier thinking in bubbles than in time units. Imagine the viewer in the center of one bubble per scene and fill the space around him. The size of the bubble is defined by visible walls or by the camera resolution. If you´re using a 4K-System, you may neglect details more than 50ft because they are to small to be seen.


2. The cuts or edit points are replaced by transition areas. As you can see in the picture, there are overlapping bubbles. They are connected to the start bubble by a physical or virtual transition area like a door, window or a virtual element like a trigger point. Depending on the system you are using, this transition area can be entered by click, physical move or any other action the system provides. 


3. In each bubble, points of interest can be placed: digital signage banners, that can be filled with all kinds of content. You can add text as well as stills or video content, adding a second level of information. Other than in linear programs, there is no time limit for the user to watch any content of interest. His active selection influences the reception of the whole program.


4. There is a need for active guidance of the viewing angle to avoid disorientation. In an immersive presentation, especially when you are wearing glasses, you are completely absorbed in an unknown scenery. It is very helpfu to introduce any kind of guide to lead you from one bubble to the next. This can be a presenter, avatar, a graphical animation or - if the hardware allows it - the 3D-audio signal. You will automatically turn your head in the direction of sound, even if it´s only a whisper. The technology of immersive audio like artificial head microphones will revive. 


Getting structure into 360 film design

Using this model helps you defining scenes and transitions. It makes it easier to control the duration of the viewer´s stay in each bubble and to define scenarios of his paths through the labyrinth you are creating. In this process, you get inside the mind of your audience and imagine what and when they are perceiving what kind of sensory stimulus. 

Article by Frank Sidenstein 2018. Copy and use or the text or parts of it requires approval of the author. 

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