Posted by Zillah Watson on , last updated
The Resistance of Honey, the latest immersive VR 360 film from BBC Research and Development/BBC News Labs, premieres at iDocs in Bristol this week. Directed by Peter Boyd Maclean, it shows how a 360-profile can allow you to enter someone else’s world – in this case the bee hut and beehive of urban beekeeper Byoni Samp. What’s more, Byoni makes music from his bees, and that has enabled us to create an immersive soundtrack.
Director Peter Boyd Maclean said, “The Resistance of Honey is an experiment in using cinematic narrative conventions with immersive sound and vision in order to intensify the experience of becoming fully immersed in a story. I wanted to test constructing sequences and close ups without using fades and particularly using sound to create a more immersive environment.”
The film is a continuation of our work to develop the storytelling potential of 360 films while exploring and developing the emerging technology as it becomes available. The film is intended to be viewed through a VR headset such as a Gear VR. It is work in progress – we may re-cut the film in response to feedback from viewers.
Filming and editing 360 films
A year ago we set out on a mission to explore a new grammar of film-making for 360. The Resistance Of Honey showcases some of the resulting techniques.
The heightened sense of presence experienced by viewing a 360 film in a VR headset challenges traditional filming method. For example, a low angle makes the viewer feel small and a high angle makes them feel tall - this can make the viewer feel uncomfortable and even nauseous. We have to consider audience comfort from the start.
Another big issue in 360 film making has been that changing scenes through cuts has been seen as uncomfortable for the viewer - so fades to black have generally been used. The Resistance Of Honey considerably advances the use of cuts in 360 by carefully positioning shots so that the viewer is looking ahead at focal points to allow transitions.
For example, the film cuts from a close-up of bees in the honeycomb to a close-up of the bees at the mouth of the hive, then to a close-up of bees on a flower. This sequence works because the viewer’s focus is straight ahead and because there is action to keep attention focused in that direction.
It could be argued that this defeats the purpose of 360 because the action isn’t taking place all around you. But most 360 film-makers are now recognising that being forced to look around all the time gives people neck ache. So introducing some shots where you just watch is fine and introduces pacing to the process, while still offering a sense of presence. Such shots need to be balanced with 360 shots that allow the viewer to explore and understand the locations.
Sound for 360
Creating a good sound mix for headphones was our second challenge for The Resistance of Honey. We wanted the sound to contribute to the immersiveness of the experience and use it to help the viewer step into Byoni’s world.
We opted for a voice-over because we hoped it would immerse the viewer in the story more than having Byoni talk to camera. Pieces to camera can work well in 360, but are more immediate; VO helps lead the viewer into the story in a more subtle way. We suggest this is pretty much the same as conventional film making, except it is more intense as a VR experience.
Sound dubber Ben Young created a complex stereo mix for headphones using Byoni’s 3D bee music, recorded sound and effects. The layers of sound and the way it was mixed are designed to envelope the viewer in the same way as the picture does.
To progress any further, we’d need to be able to position the individual sounds in a more sophisticated way and create a dynamic binaural mix - which demands head tracking. We’ll be exploring this further in our next project. Meanwhile another R&D VR project – The Turning Forest – will demonstrate the future possibilities of dynamic binaural sound for VR to help push forward this important work.
Presence/immersion for 360
“The Resistance of Honey” aimed to create a 360 immersive-viewing experience which gives the viewer a sense of “presence” in the beekeeper’s world. We hoped to achieve that through a strong narrative, strong visuals cut together in a compelling sequence, and through an immersive sound track. But it also requires viewing the film through a VR headset, and that currently limits its potential audience. Viewing films as a flat panoramic video (eg on YouTube or Facebook) doesn’t appear to be as immersive or create the intense feeling that a headset does. This still presents a challenge to getting good VR to a broader audience. It’s one of the issues we are starting to explore with R&D’s UX research into 360 films.
Much has been made of VR being what Chris Milk dubbed an “empathy machine" in his 2015 Ted Talk. But does the heightened emotional intensity of watching a 360 film through a VR headset - and achieving a sense of “presence”, VR’s “suspension of disbelief” - always equate to empathy?
No doubt empathy can be used to great effect by 360 issue-raising films (such as the kind we are starting to see from NGOs). But a good conventional film can make people sad, happy or angry too; 360 just has the potential to be made more intense. To suggest that empathy should be the goal for 360 news or documentary seems misplaced. Some subjects lend themselves to empathy, others don’t. Good journalism necessitates showing both sides of the story, thus shedding light on complexity.
Meanwhile we need to be wary about the limited audience for 360 documentary films to date, which may have a particular desire to emote empathy. A 360 film about refugees shown at a documentary festival, with a self-selecting audience who want to “understand” and “feel”, may have a very different impact on a more general audience with less sympathetic views. Comments on our film about the Calais migrants on YouTube certainly support this.
But the potential of 360 for storytelling is in any case far wider. It’s better to describe VR as an “experience machine”. It transforms the way we can tell stories by enabling people to experience what it’s like to be there for themselves – at the heart of the action.