Common 360° video mistakes and how to avoid them

by Ravi Bajpai
Oct 30, 2018 in Multimedia Journalism

Cheaper technology has led to an explosion of 360° video on the web. You can start shooting Virtual Reality (VR) with a camera costing less than US$300. But just because you can easily shoot 360°, should you?

Here’s a list of five things that are sure to ruin a good news VR piece and how to fix them.

1. How you place the reporter and move the camera

Perhaps the single most powerful feature of 360° video is its ability to teleport audiences to the physical location of your story and let them explore and experience the action. If that were true, do we still need the journalist to be on camera? Will that take away from the immersive experience that 360° videos offer?

The short answer is no one knows. 360° video is evolving and practitioners will tell you to experiment and explore which formats work best. Therefore, an easy starting point is for the journalist to just stay out of the video. Set up your camera and tripod and find the nearest hiding place. Make sure you aren’t caught peeping from around a wall or from behind a pillar while the camera is rolling!

The New York Times’ Daily 360 has tons of videos that illustrate this format. Do check this one here — it’s simple and effective. Not all stories will lend themselves to this format, but looking for scenes that combine a powerful audio and visual experience is a good way to start experimenting.  

That said, nothing stops you from trying out formats where the journalist does feature in the video. There are plenty of good examples like this one with David Attenborough or this BBC News story about a migrant camp. Just make sure you aren’t caught messaging on your phone or yawning while the camera is rolling. No, seriously. For traditional video journalists, it’s easy to forget there’s no such thing as “behind the camera” in 360°.

Try not to move the camera much because that can make viewers nauseous. It can be really disorienting to watch a 360° shot of someone constantly on the move, when your eyes perceive them as standing still. This video illustrates why this can be a problem.

2. Picking the wrong story — or no story at all

Not every story makes for a good 360° video. Always ask yourself, why am I doing this in VR and not in the traditional video format? When starting out, think of your story as an experience as opposed to traditional video where you use sequences to guide the viewer. Think of teleporting viewers to a compelling place or experience and leaving them alone to explore. Here’s an example of this.

Robert Hernandez, a seasoned VR practitioner and associate professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg, has a three-point criteria that’s helpful for picking 360° video stories.

“The most common reaction is about having access to a place that is compelling to look at,” he says. “Maybe it’s architecture, landscape or a unique office. Treat the camera like a human being. Second, use it when you want the viewer to share presence with a character, it establishes a different connection. Three, just because it’s good to look at, there’s no journalism if it’s not a story.”

Whatever you do, just don’t produce a 360° video without a story.

“The visual will always be a great part of the video, but it is the story that really drives the point,” ICFJ Knight Fellow Shaheryar Popalzai, who has produced journalistic 360° video projects, says. “If you find a great visual, make sure there is a story to go with it.”

3. Not mixing up narrative/techniques

360° video has shattered traditional video narratives and techniques. Nevertheless, some typical narrative formats for 360° have emerged.

For example: how would you traditionally film a scene to establish your setting, say, a unique restaurant? In traditional video, you’d stitch together a series of wide, mid and close-up shots. Not anymore. In 360° video, you place the camera at the same level as the human eye in the middle of the scene, then let the viewers explore the setting on their own. Take a look at this New York Times piece on an underwater restaurant.

Then there’s the so-called “Voice of God” narrative technique. Similarly to the example above, this involves long, static shots, but adds audio narration. This format gives journalists more control over how viewers absorb information and makes it easier to put the story into context. Take a look at this example from ABC News.

You could still use traditional narrative and techniques with 360° video. Notice how this video, produced by media company Ryot, uses the main character to convey the story through more conventional audio narration. This format is powerful if planned and executed well. If the viewer is unable to navigate the physical setting early in the video and make sense of the location, you can end up with a really bad experience. You could also have the journalist (instead of the character) speak directly to the audience in this format, but be sure to think twice about whether you really need to do this.  

Feel free to use text cues, subtitles and name plates in all of the above narrative formats (more on using text later in this post).

4. Making audio a big deal

I know purists will be peeved to hear this, so here’s a quick disclaimer. You can never overemphasize the value of good audio in video, but over-obsessing about perfect audio can significantly delay you from getting started with 360°. All the talk about spatial audio (think surround sound) and how to capture it can overwhelm the best of us. Add to that the technical knowhow (and paid software) required to incorporate high-level audio into your video, and you’ll find your enthusiasm deflating quickly.

For starters, it’s best to focus energy on shooting the video right and getting the narrative worked out. For audio, just live with the quality your 360° on-camera mic can provide. You could also attach a good external audio recorder (like this one from Zoom) onto your tripod and mix it later.

If you do end up with horrible video, always remember this really good tip from Hernandez: “Journalists must try and experiment with 360° but refrain from publishing if the end product is not worth publishing.”

5. Misusing text on 360° video

Text is a handy way to guide viewers when producing VR for news outlets. Name titles, subtitles and location credits are crucial to any news video, and VR is no different. But when viewers can explore a 360° degree setting, where do you put your text?

Well, everywhere. The main goal of a 360° experience should be to immerse your viewers by allowing them the freedom to look around and explore. Placing text in one place — or placing too much information in text — can seriously affect this immersive experience. The way to overcome this is by placing text in two or three directions/locations.

As Popalzai says, “You need to place the text in multiple places to ensure viewers don’t miss it if they're looking in another direction.” Here’s a good example.

You also need to use a special plugin to stitch text on your editing timeline so it blends nicely with 360° — Hernandez recommends Mettle’s Skybox.

“The plugin for both Adobe Premiere and After Effects warps your text so they appear correctly when placed in a spherical video,” he says.

One final note — 360° video can overwhelm traditional filmmakers. If it makes you feel any better, even the best news VR practitioners are still trying to make sense of this medium. Just go out there and make a 360° video. You’ll get it right only by trying and failing.

Ravi Bajpai is a journalist with more than 10 years of experience in India's news industry. He specializes in DSLR/mobile phone news videos with a focus on narrative for digital audiences and has reported extensively on politics, urban governance, public health and development issues. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via David Burrows.