How Battlefield Conquered 360-Filmmaking
Nicolai Fuglsig & Scott and Jake Friedman get under the skin of their new 360 bank heist film for Battlefield.
Last week we brought you news of FCB West and EA Games' new campaign for video game, Battelfield Hardline; a 360-degree interactive film showcasing an all-action bank heist from every angle.
The three-and-a-half-minute film [which you can experience yourself by clicking here] was directed by MJZ's Nicolai Fuglsig with LA-based digital studio, Wildlife, on board to help oversee the complicated technological aspects of the project.
Below, Fugsig and brothers, Jake and Scott Friedman, co-founders and owners of Wildlife, explain the thinking behind the film, the difficulties in getting it made, and why interactive filmmaking is here to stay.
What was the brief you received for this project and what were your first thoughts when you got it?
Fuglsig: For a very long time I saw CG versions of 360 worlds and thought it would be more interesting to take it to a real life setting with real actors, locations and stunts and pull something off that is completely immersive.
"There is so much competition among content that brands can’t afford any barriers to access."
The Friedmans: FCB West came to us very early in their process, with a vision of delivering consumers a bank heist in 360-degrees, witnessed from the perspective of a bag of stolen cash. Along with it were a few mood boards and some references to other recent 360 video experiences.
Right away this concept distinguished itself from those examples, which featured a static camera and required an app to be downloaded in order to experience it on mobile or tablet devices. That doesn’t really cut it in 2015, when an overwhelming number of users are watching video on their phones. There is so much competition among content that brands can’t afford any barriers to access.
So, the question quickly became, can we finally deliver a true interactive video experience via the mobile web browser, and let people experience this just by clicking one link? In many ways the project hinged on it, and while we didn’t have the answer that minute, we were eager to find out.
Have you done anything like this project in the past?
The Friedmans: We’ve built all kinds of interactive video experiences in the past, and have been fortunate to be involved in very unique and cutting edge projects. However, if mobile was supported at all, it was a more limited experience, and it never lived up to the desktop version, whereas the 360 heist is arguably better on your phone or tablet.
It feels like we’re finally catching up to consumer behavior in which mobile is king, and we see this as the beginning of a new era for interactive experiences. If you’ve ever watched a video on iPhone from within the mobile web browser (Safari, Chrome Mobile, etc.), you’ll notice that clips automatically launch fullscreen in the native Quicktime player for iOS. It completely locks you out from overlaying any graphics or functionality on top - you can play the video, or you can close the video.
"It feels like we’re finally catching up to consumer behavior in which mobile is king, and we see this as the beginning of a new era for interactive experiences."
So in the past we’d get by with short image sequences to recreate the feeling of video, but it doesn’t compare to full 24fps streaming content. Thankfully, with the release of iOS8 and its support for WebGL technology (Android has supported it for a couple years now), the web is becoming a blank canvas again, and VR/360-video is just one possible form it can take. It’s a tool we’ve been dying to have at our disposal, and the stars finally aligned with a high enough user adoption rate, and a brief that was otherwise impossible.
Fuglsig: No, this was the first time.
How much/what type of pre-planning was involved before the shoot?
The Friedmans: Before anything could move forward, we had to prove that we could deliver this experience on mobile and tablet devices without requiring an app download. Understandably, anything less rendered the concept unworkable for the brand. So we got to work on a prototype, leveraging the accelerometer on iPhone to control a camera in 360-degrees.
It was exhilarating to discover this was indeed possible just within your mobile web browser, and even our temp video content came across beautifully. Then, we had to overcome audio sync issues and other various roadblocks, but it was clear that all of the pieces were in place. Next, we just needed to shoot a bank heist on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster…
Knowing that the viewer would be able to see 360 degrees of the screen, how did that impact on the way you approached the film?
Fuglsig: This is a completely new approach to filmmaking. It was a challenge for the crew to understand there would be no hidden angles, that there would be no crew present during these elaborate action takes – that everyone had to hide.
Also, with the writing of the script, it wasn’t just stuff coming from this way or that way, it was a story element that can be discovered and rediscovered over repeated viewing of the film. And that is very exciting.
"This is a completely new approach to filmmaking."
This has really opened up a door to a world of exciting possibilities and has really taken me by surprise. So much so that I’m already deep into writing what I think would be the world’s first 360-action thriller. It’s a huge challenge, not only for the filmmaker but also for everyone involved. On a normal set, you give an actor a certain amount of takes then you move on to another actor. Here, when you’re doing 360, it is everybody’s take: it’s the main actors take, it’s the stunt actors take and it’s the extras take in the background. So, if someone misses their line or their action mark, you have to do it all again. It’s everybody’s take.
There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on everyone involved. We definitely felt that. We did extremely long takes. This involved a lot of action marks – some of it was quite dangerous, with little room for error. It was so exciting; everyone was into it, especially the actors because there was no sight of film crews, no sight of lighting. It was almost like doing the real thing from real life.
You only have the 360 camera present with no one hanging around. It’s a whole new way of thinking, which I think is super-exciting. And quite frankly, it is the thing closest you can get to being in a real life scenario. We don’t have close ups or jump cuts in real life. Here, you’re in the moment and it feels as innocent as if you are there, turning your head left or right or up or down. I think it’s definitely something that everyone has to get use to.
How closely did you need to work with Nicolai to work out what could be done and how?
The Friedmans: We worked closely with FCB, Nicolai and MJZ from the outset. It became clear in very early pre-pro meetings that finding the optimal camera rig would be difficult. With the amount of talent, action and movement close to frame, not to mention a camera that is constantly being passed through buildings, speeding vehicles and city blocks, many of the existing solutions out there just weren’t up to it.
There is a lot of snake oil in the VR space right now, but we’re fortunate to have some prior experience as we guided the team around potential landmines. The team eventually identified a single-lens rig that, paired with our interactive tech, could effectively support Nicolai’s intense action and story.
"On set, you had the normal challenges of coordinating several massive action set pieces, multiplied by a new camera that was yet to hit mass production."
What was the hardest part of putting the film together?
The Friedmans: For us, the biggest challenges were up front, before production even began. While WebGL afforded us many of the tools to create this experience, there were still limitations on iPhone and Android. Essentially, we’re rendering a normal HTML5 video to the browser, but then have to take this unwrapped 360-footage and project it as a video texture on the inside of a 3D cylinder object.
It’s no simple feat on a mobile device, between software obstacles and the reality of processing power on a phone. Then came the task of syncing a separate audio track to picture, since iPhone wouldn’t pull that data from the video file itself. It was certainly nice to have all of this worked out in rough, functional form ahead of the shoot, and know we could support what was to be captured.
On set, you had the normal challenges of coordinating several massive action set pieces, multiplied by a new camera that was yet to hit mass production (we had the few prototypes that existed in the world, and the inventor himself on hand), a brand new workflow for playback and review on-set, and of course an entirely new language for visual storytelling in 360-degrees where everything is in play and there is no cutting to a close-up to hide mistakes.
Fuglsig: For me the hardest part of the project was the fact that I had to accept a lesser quality than what I’m use to working with but we’re working hard now on getting to a much better picture resolution for the next time.
The advancement of this technology is what we’re fighting at the moment, we still have a long way to go. Also, rehearsal time and shooting time is crucial when dealing with 360. But then again you save time on doing coverage so it’s almost more exciting to do more takes instead of just doing coverage. It has a very steep learning curve.
Unlike other people’s approach - they normally shoot these 360 where they stitch 8-14 cameras together - we went for a whole new approach which is one single camera that sees 360 all the time. This means no stitching whatsoever. We needed to have the actors interact with the camera very close up. A multi-camera approach doesn’t allow for that because of parallaxing and too much overlapping of the plate. I already now know what I would do different the next time I shoot a 360 project. You learn very fast when you do a 360.
"For me the hardest part of the project was the fact that I had to accept a lesser quality than what I’m use to working with."
How significant do you think online interactivity for campaigns such as this will become?
The Friedmans: We started Wildlife with a vision of bringing the high-end production values of broadcast and film together with interactivity, and it’s only going to become more important moving forward. Passive viewing is no longer good enough. Viewers want to be users in control, and technology is making it all possible.
Moving forward, there has already been an increasing need for some layer of interaction and engagement with content, whether that means dictating the path of a story directly, or just an opportunity to connect socially around a campaign. A few years ago, we wouldn’t have been brought into this project until after it had already been shot. Now, the industry is recognising that digital is not an afterthought, it’s a critical piece that can make or break a project and campaign, and embracing it opens amazing possibilities.
Fuglsig: I absolutely think it will explode. I've done a couple of jobs since the 360 approach and I almost found them boring and too conventional. It’s almost like when we went from silent films to films with sound. It’s hard to go back. I definitely think it’s here to stay.
A disadvantage is you wouldn’t want to do a comedy with a 360 approach. It only lends itself to certain types of executions. Another major disadvantage is you can’t really show this in the cinema unless each movie-goer is moving their seats individually. But then again, the future is on these platforms like iPhone, tablets and virtual reality 360 headsets.
"I absolutely think it will explode. I've done a couple of jobs since the 360 approach and I almost found them boring and too conventional."
What do you see as the next level of online interactivity?
The Friedmans: Now that we’re moving past the infancy of mobile interaction and have opportunities to deliver rich and truly compelling experiences on any device, the next few years are going to be a blast. We’ll get back to using the browser window as a blank slate for ideas, not just a grid for memes and hashtags, and combine that with all of the benefits of physical devices that tell us where we are in the world and measure what’s happening inside of us and all around us. This is going to lead to some very special experiences in and out of advertising, as content becomes more and more alive.