360 Degrees of Wonder

A pre-wrap 360 Panorama of Schnepf Farms
A “pre-wrap” 360 panorama of Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, AZ.

Mesa, Arizona has some truly breathtaking and adventurous vistas. Labelling the epic-level scenery and legendary landscapes as “a modern-day desert urban retreat”, Visit Mesa endeavours to tantalize future intrepid guests with a taste of the Mesa experience from the comfort of home.

Those wishing to temporarily extricate themselves from the daily grind can indulge in any one of three “virtual previews” showcasing steamboat trips in the shadow of 100ft canyon walls, horseback riding through rivers, and Mesa’s “Fresh Foodie Trail” which offers authentic farm-to-table experiences with a focus on locally grown food.

So how do you “bottle” adventure? In collaboration with Hapi, a Phoenix-grown branding firm, we took a route that continues to gain steam and dove right in with 360-degree videos.

Also called “immersive videos”, “spherical videos”, “virtual videos” and “VR video”, 360 videos differ from true virtual reality in that the environment isn’t interactive. At least, not yet! Capturing these videos currently requires using either a special rig of multiple cameras or using a single camera with multiple integrated camera lenses. We opted for the Freedom 360 mount using six GoPro cameras.


Our Freedom 360 mount at Papago Park in Phoenix, AZ
Our Freedom 360 mount at Papago Park in Phoenix, AZ

Recording in true 360° can be tricky as all crew and gear have to be carefully hidden away (Hello, tripod shadows!). A glitch in one camera out of the six will ruin an entire shot, and there’s currently few cost-effective ways to preview your work until you get it back in the edit bay. Syncing sound and motion for all of the cameras is crucial for saving hours of work and headaches for the editors back in the studio.  The beautiful irony in this is that we as creative and filmmakers have come full circle to many of the production techniques that fell by the wayside when cameras became smaller and film gave way to digital.  It’s a humble nod to the many facets of this craft and a true testament to the fact that good techniques are never obsolete.


When making spherical videos as little as four months ago, we had to use as many as seven different programs just to get the video out! One program to stitch all six videos together into a panorama, another program to adjust the videos to correct any stitching errors, another to preview the video in its intended “spherical” form, our current non-linear editing program to cut footage down and adjust color, After Effects and Photoshop to mask out the tripod, and a final program to inject metadata so that online video players know to treat it as a 360-degree video instead of a panorama. Now, just a few short months later, the popularity of these videos and advances in software have dropped the program count down to three. But there’s still a lot of work to be done!

AutoPano video syncing
Syncing all six clips into a panorama of the Dolly Steamboat at Canyon Lake in Apache Junction, AZ.

When recording immersive video footage, the one thing that stops absolute nightmares in the editing bay is, believe it or not, proper file naming. Every camera on the 360 mount is numbered and those numbers relate to each other when stitching them together. Even on one take, matching unnamed videos to their proper order would be a herculean task for even the best editor; now imagine 10 takes and the resulting 60 videos! So, a good rapport between the editors and camera crew is essential to success. “Shoot to edit” has never been truer.

AutoPano Giga anchor points.
The many anchor points that it takes to accurately stitch just two of the six shots together.

Even though all six cameras are mounted to the same rig, each camera has a slightly different perspective, which forces stitching issues.  To tell a good story in 360, the editor has to direct the attention of the viewer in yet another way as we assign priority to each element.  With aspects of the scene sitting at varying distances from the viewer, a choice between getting a better match on closer items or those further away is a consequence of current equipment and software constraints.  To resolve this, hundreds of anchor points are used between one image and each of its four neighbors.


To get our virtual video online, we aren’t quite finished after editing.  Metadata has to be added to “wrap” our video panorama into a true, spherical video.  “Spherical” is an apt descriptor as we are placing the viewer in the center of a sphere.  This isn’t much different from the video game concept of a skybox.  This can have some very weird side effects.  For instance, any text or graphics added to the upper or lower areas of our video are going to be severely distorted when the image is “wrapped” around the interior of our virtual sphere.

Papago Park test shot
This is how a test panorama looks with text in the editing bay.
Papago Park 360 test shot final
This is how the text looks to the viewer in their 360 app.

Graphics also have to be smaller than we may be used to as looking at the video in 360 degrees enlarges the section viewed dramatically and can cause graphics and text to stretch out of the viewer’s field of view, making our message very hard to read.  Luckily, these issues can be addressed and compensated for in post; but advanced planning is important and we have to keep in mind that it may be difficult for clients to conceptualize how the finished product will look.  This is one of those times where inviting them into the editing bay can really help everyone as export times on virtual videos can be triple what we usually expect.


Cardboard virtual reality headset.
Hayden uses his cellphone and a cardboard VR headset to preview a 360 video.

Each week, it seems there is a new VR headset to try.  The Oculus Rift ($499) and the HTC Vive ($799) provide immersive experiences to make them literal “dream machines”.  But, thankfully, such high-end pieces aren’t our only options. Increasingly more smartphones and “phablets” are being made with high-resolution displays that have virtual reality and 360° videos in mind.  The Google Cardboard app and just about any of the growing number of cardboard headsets can turn the phone you probably already have into a perfectly good viewing experience.  These cardboard head-mounted displays can range from $9 to absolutely free depending on where you get them.  Many companies are printing their own cardboard with different logos and themes, making these headsets a part of their advertising platform.

Is a 360° video a right fit for my project?

It essentially depends on the story we want to share.  Immersive videos are about an experience.  We are moving past the time where these are used as the latest “fad”.  Virtual videos are now a known asset in many marketing plans.  Creatives and innovators are pushing the envelope and experimenting with fresh ways to show clients new perspectives and bring viewers on adventures that they actively participate in and long to share with others.  And that, more than anything, is the appeal of this technology – to reach out to the public and entice one person to turn to another and say, “Hey, check this out!”

Speaking of which, check out these virtual previews for Visit Mesa!




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