By Sara Bayat, University of Victoria
As a somewhat recent innovation, 360° films are still new territory in terms of production concepts. Given the fact that the camera (or six cameras, to be more accurate) is shooting in the round, there’s little editing that can be done beyond special effects or splicing scenes together, and so the majority of the finished product must be shaped on set rather than in post-production. Simply, the footage cannot be manipulated as readily as it is in the world of conventional—a.k.a. ‘flattie’—filmmaking, and this presents challenges on multiple levels. Take, for example, the extremely low-budget short film, My McGuffin (available in all its glory here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lsa-8HhBqE), in which a man stumbles upon this newfangled 360° camera in the middle of a public square, claims it for his own, and trouble then ensues. I suggest that you watch the four-minute video before reading further, as I’m about to discuss in detail specific elements of the movie in comparison to the traditional film medium.
Okay, so now that you’ve watched the cinematic masterpiece that is McGuffin, you’ll likely understand why this isn’t quite a success with respect to championing a new era of filmmaking. Produced/directed/written by filmmakers Phil Moran and Yilmaz Vurucu (https://ffab360.com/), the film seems less a product of consideration for (or even comprehension of) this exciting new technology, and more a lesson in not what to do. Take, for example, a concept as simple as proximity. In flattie films, which have capabilities such as zoom and close-up, we’re able to see an actor’s reaction to a scenario or line of dialogue, because the filmmakers have control over, and the ability to manipulate, the depth of field. Due to the static range offered by the 360° camera in McGuffin, actors were often outside of the camera’s focus, thus rendering their facial expressions very difficult to see. In fact, when the first guy spots the camera standing below a statue, we never actually get that moment of him initially seeing it because he’s too far from the lens, and we should, considering this moment sets the plot (I use this term loosely) in motion. On a similar note, the actors don’t pay much attention to the seams between camera lenses, often resulting in blurred or distorted characters. This means that lines of important dialogue or moments of tension, for example, are weakened (the woman arguing with the antagonist during the second scene, or running from him through the park).
At one point, two of the actors are turned away from the camera while talking to a third actor, and all we see in the foreground are the backs of their heads (a problem that could be fixed with angles, shots, and editing, but I’ll discuss that later). Had Moran and Vurucu used a dolly, or perhaps gone to the trouble of blocking their actors, the images would have been much clearer and more effective. Another downfall of this film stems from the lack of control that can come with a 360° production. During the first minute or so of the film, there are people (who very obviously aren’t extras) in focus in the immediate background who seem to be wondering what the heck is going on. They look directly at the camera and actors often, react to lines of dialogue, and one of them even appears to look around for some sign of a crew. There’s a moment later on (around the 2.38-minute mark), where one of the actors is clearly visible behind a tree, though it’s obvious that he isn’t meant to be seen yet in the scene. Careful camera positioning within a traditional production, coupled with the shallower scope inherent in standard filming, would have eliminated these people being caught in the shot, and it’s likely that a visible crew on set would have alleviated some of the confusion for those bystanders at the beginning of the movie.
Further—and this could probably just be chalked up to bad acting—if the performers of McGuffin didn’t have a line to deliver, they’d sort of stand awkwardly and look at each other, waiting for their cue. This is fine if you aren’t watching just one person, but since this is 360°, the actors need to be dynamic at all times on the off-chance that a viewer focuses on them. If the characters aren’t interesting, then there’s a likelihood of the audience disengaging from the storyline altogether and paying attention to whatever is going on in other areas of the video. At one point in McGuffin, the main guy—we’ll call him Joe, since none of the characters are named—and a woman—lets says she’s Sophie—are walking down a street discussing the possibilities that this technology can bring to the world. It seems largely improvised, and so the interaction is brief. There’s an awkward pause. Joe then blurts out, “How about this, a strawberry filling with a sweet white wine,” which is said seemingly at random until, after another very awkward, lengthy pause, during with Sophie blinks a lot, the antagonist—Barry—understands it’s his cue to approach them again. This exchange delivers them into the next plot point. The most stimulating part of this interaction is the street they’re walking down, which is unfortunate, because its basically just a bunch of parked cars and bland office buildings. Oh, the agony.
My point is, the entire time in which this conversation occurs, there’s nothing interesting happening either between or around these characters, and this is where viewers start to switch off. In a flattie production, the editor can cut back and forth between actors, utilize different shots of various distances and angles, and inject the scene with interesting shots of landscape/people/things; all of these techniques eliminate awkwardness, speed up pace, and make the picture much more dynamic.
While the concept of 360° filmmaking is certainly fascinating, it has the potential to go very poorly without a lot of careful planning and consideration during pre-production, because there aren’t a lot of ways to remedy issues in post. Sure, it’s interesting to be able to look around the world of a scene, but the main action still needs to be engaging, particularly in narrative film, because whole point is that the audience becomes absorbed in plot and character, rather than distracted by basic flaws. We can only hope that by the time Moran and Vurutu make My McGuffin 2, they’ll have figured this out.