What the BBC learned about shooting for VR from a trip to the 'Jungle' in Calais

Zillah Watson, an editor for BBC R&D, talks storytelling, lights, cameras and stitching
BBC's VR tips from a trip to Calais

The BBC wants you to step inside its news stories. The broadcaster just hasn't worked out the best way to do it yet. Experiments so far include a trip to the refugee camp in Calais with a six GoPro rig, a trial outside the Houses of Parliament and a piece shot for VR about an music-making urban beekeeper in London.

Reporters and presenters are getting to grips with Samsung Gear VR headsets, a sound team in Media City, Salford is working on spatial sound and BBC R&D editors like Zillah Watson are playing with ideas of presence, agency and empathy in VR news.

The concept of producing 360 degree video is bubbling away in all corners of the Beeb but there's some major challenges to overcome before it graduates to a day-to-day practice in news departments.

Read this: ABC News experiments with VR reporting on Syria

"Where we are now with 360 degree video is often compared to The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat which was Lumière No. 653," said Watson. "We're not much further on than that but we have the experience of decades of traditional cinema. We have lost two powerful tools for filmmakers in close ups and cutaways. You can lose some intensity but you gain something else."

Inside the jungle

In June, a small BBC News Labs crew decided to travel to the "jungle" outside Calais with diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams, to speak to refugees living in the camps temporarily and use the power of virtual reality to show the conditions there. The team used a Freedom rig with six GoPro cameras which Adams nicknamed The Blob.

"We found ourselves in the midst of a breaking news story as French ferry workers began striking so the port was closed. Some migrants tried to climb aboard the lorries heading for the Eurotunnel terminal. So our reporter was covering BBC Radio news and TV news on the same day," explained Watson. "We went to Calais as it was the closest, interesting foreign news story. Watching the end result on a Gear VR is extremely intense. It gives you a sense of the future of how journalism might be in VR."

The experiment was around the same time that YouTube began to support 360 degree videos so Watson's team uploaded both a short 30 second clip and the longer six minute report below. It includes footage of men boarding a lorry and cutting open the roof to climb in, interviews with a young man trying to reach England and a group who had fled Sudan as well as scenes of cooking in makeshift tents.

It's powerful stuff and much more immediate than a straight shot of a BBC journalist narrating the story in front of tents. Here, you can move your viewpoint around to watch onlookers listening as a Sudanese man talks about how his mother was killed earlier this year. The BBC's Paul Adams, conducting the interview, sounds surprised it was so recent but everyone else has heard it all before.

Watch BBC News' YouTube video embedded above in Chrome and you can move around the 360 degree footage of the camps outside Calais.

The videos can be viewed on a smartphone or iPad with controls to move around the scene with your cursor or fingers but it was also created with consumer headsets like the Gear VR in mind - that meant no jerky camera movements which would make a headset wearer feel nauseous. The BBC sees the potential but doesn't want to produce reports that don't have an audience if hardware sales don't pick up.

"We don't know how many people will use these headsets in their homes as a daily habit to watch news," said Watson. "We don't know which way the audience is going to go. Once we know, we can tailor it better."

With Samsung's new cheaper headset out in time for Christmas and 16 million sales, including Google Cardboard devices, predicted for 2016, there could be a big enough audience with an appetite for serious, factual VR content.

A masterclass in shooting news for VR

"Pretty much impossible" is how Watson describes working on a professional 360 degree video shoot for BBC News. Still, it can be done. Here's a few illuminating tips and tricks pulled from the editor's talk on experimenting with 360 degree video and VR.

  • Don't worry about spatial sound too much - your viewers might be using an iPad and YouTube 360 only supports mono sound right now.
  • Offer different qualities - the BBC's Calais video is available in 1440p but the broadband in viewers' homes may vary.
  • Shoot from above if you don't have a big budget for stitching together the footage, otherwise shoot from chest height.
  • Head to California for good light and a lower chance of rain.
  • Hide the crew and gear, remember you are shooting in 360 degrees. Even ABC News made the rookie error of not blending out the tripod's shadow in the post production of its Inside Syria report.
  • Think 360 degrees from scratch.
  • Choose locations with a sense of space and the ability to look around.
  • Learn from war photography ethics and question when immersing people in a situation might be too much.
  • If anyone says they have a stereoscopic camera that works perfectly and is magic, question them.

Zillah Watson was speaking at a workshop on the future of TV with Nesta's FutureFest as part of RE:WORK's Future of Technology Summit in London.

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