For scholars of urban and architectural history, the newly-available 360-degree video platforms on YouTube and Facebook offer innovative and immersive means of sharing local physical spaces with global audiences. 360-degree videos are basically spheres of video with the viewer at the center. Whether viewing with a desktop browser, a mobile device, or a viewer like Google Cardboard, the user can move their point of view around to see any part of the sphere at any given time. This isn’t a wholly new idea (photographers like Jonas Bendiksen have been creating immersive audiovisual experiences for years), but it’s newly available as an open and widely-supported platform.
I recently released the first installment in my series of short documentaries using this technology, a seven-minute tour of Seattle’s Olmsted-designed Volunteer Park (embedded below, and also available via my Facebook page). Though I’m experienced in producing traditional documentaries, the 360-degree format forced me to adjust my approach and do a fair amount of technical problem-solving. In this post, I’ll give a quick rundown of the techniques and technologies I used, as well as a few of the issues I encountered along the way.
I started my project by creating a script and a rough storyboard, based on research done online and at the University of Washington research library. As I planned out my narrative, right away I had to make my first big decision: since the camera (I used a Ricoh Theta S) shoots everything within its spherical range of vision -- in other words, everything around it, including me -- how would it look if I, the cameraperson, was part of the shot? Did I have to set up the camera and then jump behind a bush every time while it captured my desired footage? That seemed crazy (and potentially embarrassing), so I decided from the get-go to include myself in each scene. Sometimes I did set the camera up and walk a few feet away, but more often I ended up simply walking around while holding the camera (the Joby GorillaPod makes a great handhold and also allows you to attach the camera just about anywhere, like the baby swing in my video). In the end, I was very happy with my decision. Including myself and my daughter in the piece gives each shot a sense of scale, as well as providing a relatable human “way in” for the viewer.
Once I had shot everything, editing it together was the next challenge. I recorded the voice-over using a Tascam DR-40, and then used Adobe Premiere to assemble it all and add music and titles. My biggest struggle came in trying to format the still images, which are all rectangular photographs. Viewers need to be able to see them no matter which way they have their point-of-view oriented, so I decided to display them in double, with one on each side of the sphere. Another problem was formatting the images for spherical viewing. It took a lot of experimentation to figure out a happy medium between size and fidelity, since the 360-format view badly contorts the 2D images. Titles were another sticking point for all the same reasons, and I ended up centering most of the titles and adjusting the text kerning so that the words don’t look too squeezed in the spherical view. (As of now, Premiere doesn’t include support for spherical viewing, so in order to preview my work in 360, I had to render it out and look at it using the software that came with my camera, which was time-consuming.)
My final challenge was to post the video to YouTube and Facebook. This requires a simple extra step of using simple, free software to add a little metadata to the file that tells the platform your video is spherical. However, once it was uploaded, I noticed that YouTube displays the video at a different resolution than the software I had been using to preview it, so I recommend uploading a couple of test versions to YouTube early on so you can calibrate your settings and avoid frustrating last-minute adjustments.
As soon as I saw 360-degree videos popping up on YouTube, I knew this format would have enormous potential for my work. It provides a sense of physical space that traditional video simply can’t capture, and it’s now easily accessible for viewers across many devices. There is definitely a lot of room to keep innovating and experimenting in ways that will change up the traditional documentary format, and for me, this is definitely just the beginning.