Creator Q&A: Shooting a 360-degree video, drone-style
Filmmaker Ryan Staake isn't satisfied with shooting from just one angle at a time. In his latest music video he used a technique that allowed him to view a scene from all angles, all at once. Read on to see how he and his team at Pier Pictures achieved this epic 360° video effect.
Vimeo Video School: Where to begin! Could you start by giving us a general overview of how this technique works and how you went about shooting it?
Ryan Staake: The technique basically requires that we record a 360° sphere of video. There's no single lens that can achieve the full sphere, and, as a result, it’s necessary to film with multiple cameras simultaneously and stitch [the footage] back together in post.
VVS: How did you rig the cameras?
RS: We collaborated with Michael Kintner at 360Heros, who supplied us with his amazing H3Pro7 GoPro camera rig. It locks seven GoPros into the perfect orientation from which to shoot a full sphere of video. 360Heros had already manufactured the rig, so once we knew what rig we needed, we had it shipped over and purchased seven GoPros to pop into it. We then transitioned to making this camera rig work with our specific requirement of attaching it to the bottom of a Hexacopter UAV and filming an unobstructed sphere of video. We chose to work with the aerial footage team at Octofilms. To get the shot we needed, we knew we'd have to bring the camera rig quite far below the Hexacopter, to get as much of the copter rotors and arms out of the shot as possible. Octofilms contracted a machinist to build an arm extension that would bring the camera rig almost an extra foot below the copter. We tested & tweaked the rig extensively in L.A. before heading out on our shoot.
VVS: What about post? How do you combine the footage from the different cameras?
RS: Once we shot the footage, we stitched all seven shots together using a stitching software called Kolor Auto Pano Video Pro. The first step is to synchronize all of the cameras. When shooting, they're all triggered to record at roughly the same time via GoPro's wireless remote, but this is never a perfect process. They're always off by a few frames, so we used a simple audio "clicker" on each take to give all of the cameras a shared cue we could sync from. Once synced, we move onto stitching, in which Auto Pano Video Pro decides how the shots should stitch together. After this, you're given a flattened 4K "panorama clip". Then, we paint out the copter shadow from the ground, remove the copter blades from the sky, and normalize the exposure of all the cameras (more on this later). I then used a discontinued technology from Adobe called PixelBender, which allowed me to use a Tiny Planet effect I was able to find online. This was the method used to turn the flat panorama into the circular planet, and offered me incredible control in post to rotate, zoom and re-map the projection on the fly. Once the entire piece was stitched, projected, and edited, I stabilized with After Effects. The final stroke was taking it to The Mill for a beautiful color grade, which brought a whole new level of vibrance to the image quality.
VVS: This technique and technology are pretty new. Where did you get the idea and how did you develop the process?
RS: I'd seen Tiny Planet images around and always thought they were pretty cool, but would be even more interesting in motion. I then began looking into applications of this effect in video, and found some early tests around the web. Everyone had seemed to rig their cameras to cars, large helicopters or other devices that would always be clearly in the shot. I wanted to remove any hint of what was holding the camera rig. I brought the idea up to my DP TS Pfeffer and producer Robert McHugh and we quickly realized we were going to need to put this thing in the air to get the effect we wanted. From there, it was a bit of a reverse-engineering process… "We want to make this, so to achieve that we need to do this… and this… and this… and probably this." Like any daunting challenge, you break it into pieces to get your head around it as a whole.
Pier Pictures: Several of our projects together have started with a photo. We saw a still image of a Tiny Planet and instantly wanted to find a way to set it in motion. 360 video technology has been around for a little while, but 360Heros is making it more consumer friendly and easy to use, and the GoPro cameras are a perfect fit for achieving high-end video clarity. From our initial inspiration, we continued to develop the different ways we thought 360 video could be utilized and kept an eye out for a project that could be the right fit until this Booka Shade music video came along.
VVS: How did you choose the shooting locations? What were you looking for?
RS: We were looking for visually contrasting, beautiful natural landscapes. I knew I wanted variance in texture and lots of vertical objects, such as trees or hills, as they'd lend a great sense of depth to the effect. We chose California due to the wide range of landscapes it offers in a relatively confined area — desert, forest, snowy mountains, plains, ocean, rivers, etc.
PP: Ryan told us what he was looking for, so we charted a course of our favorite place in California into a seven day, 2,000-mile road trip with a two vehicle caravan and five crew members. We aimed to make sure we got to about 14 locations, and ended up making over 40 stops with 54 successful flights from the copter and no crashes. The whole trip, we had our eyes out the windows or on GPS maps, looking for potential shots or places to investigate. We just went everywhere we could.
VVS: What was the biggest challenge you faced in doing this project?
RS: There were so many, it’s hard to focus on just one. We grappled with stabilizing the camera rig and isolating vibrations, failing camera cards, a massive rainstorm, high winds, fatigue of being on the road shooting 12-14 hours a day for a week, high temperatures, and low temperatures.
Then, in post, we were introduced to extremely long render times, rotoscoping Hexacopter shadows and copter blades and other VFX touchups. It was a marathon. One of the unanticipated hurdles was the fact that GoPros are inherently automatic cameras — there's no way to set exposure. Therefore, all seven of our cameras had quite different exposure ranges. For example, the bottom-facing camera might be overexposed, while the sun-facing camera would have a very low exposure to counteract the ultra-brightness of the sun. We'd then have to counteract this in post, masking and darkening the footage from a specific camera.
PP: The weather kept throwing us curveballs we didn’t expect. We were in so many different ecosystems during those seven days, and you have to take so many things into account when you’re flying copters. The pilots did a really good job flying in all sorts of conditions.
They're not kidding. Watch this behind the scenes video to see just how much the crew struggled with unpredictable weather pattens and other obstacles:
VVS: What was the greatest reward?
RS: Shooting something in a way very few people have explored so far. With the combination of the Hexacopter and the 360 rig, it felt like we were truly doing something new. I've since used the footage to build an Oculus VR (virtual reality headset) version of the video with media artist James George, and that was hugely rewarding as well. It's absolutely mindblowing. You're put at the perspective of the copter, flying hundreds of feet over the Pacific, or a mountain pass.
Learn how filmmaker Ryan Staake used a drone and seven GoPros to create an epic 360° video.
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