A trio of San Francisco State University film students, led by director Christopher Coppola, made a big splash at CES 2016 with their 360-degree video of pop singer Noa Neal in the first worldwide performance of her new single, Wildheart.
The three students — Max Serwitz, Jacob Phillips and Diego Murga — recently won a PAH Fest award for their “San Francisco in 360 Degrees” video based on Neal’s new hit.
That video won them a trip to CES 2016 in Las Vegas and a new assignment: create a 360 video of Neal performing Wildheart live at the Intel booth.
The idea for it all came after Coppola talked with long-time acquaintance, Mike Gendimenico, a technical marketing manager at Intel and a seasoned photographer, along with Intel’s Jerry Elkins, Kurt De Buck and Mike Rivet, who worked with Neal to create the innovative 360 video for Graffiti.
Most people are getting their first look at this new video format on YouTube, Facebook or mainstream media news sites. What makes 360-degree video so unique is that the perspective can be controlled by viewers.
By touching the left or right side of a tablet, smartphone or computer screen, viewers feel like they’re standing in the location of the camera with the ability to look around.
Viewers can have the same interaction by moving a handheld or Google Cardboard mounted smartphone left, right, up or down or by moving their heads while wearing a VR headset. Unlike true virtual reality experiences, however, these immersive 360-degree videos can be enjoyed without VR headsets.
“It’s a fantastic technical and artistic achievement that can be watched over and over and you still discover a new element each time you watch,” said Neal, describing her first 360 video for Graffiti.
While the new format is becoming increasingly popular, Coppola warned that narrative 360 film making will take a little while to go mainstream, because the format takes a while to learn. But, he believes that the technology will inspire new creativity.
The students not only needed to learn how to configure a rig fitted with six GoPro cameras, but to understand the difference between Motion Synchronization and Audio Synchronization. Since the cameras capture everything around them, the SF State students needed to learn how to place their camera rigs in the right spots to get the best shots.
Capturing footage on the move was another challenge. Then there was the stitching, editing, final output and uploading of the finished video.
“It’s constantly changing and moving around,” said Coppola. “You might have an actor in the front doing something then you might feel something behind you. You have to steer your audience and figure that out and make it fun.”
Coppola said that the students had to assess everything around them before they decided on their shot. The process reminded him of a technique that the great American film director John Ford used decades ago.
“Look at the horizon, then look at the entire area,” he said, recalling Ford’s advice for filmmakers. “When you give students a 360 camera, this advice helps.”
Equipped with technology and tips from Intel, Coppola’s students were given a mere six days to make something incredible.
Having little, if any, experience with 360 video made it hard at first. But Serwitz, Phillips and Murga took inspiration from Noa’s first 360 music video and developed a new storyline.
“It’s so new that it really demanded our brainpower,” said SFSU student Max Serwitz, describing how difficult it was to get “San Francisco in 360 Degrees” started. They started in 2D then quickly moved into a 360-degree mode.
Serwitz’s teammate Jacob Phillips said that using the cameras, editing the footage and executing all the required prep work was extremely challenging.
“The GoPro mount had six different cameras that are all individual, so each one has to be accounted for and organised, then synchronised, which created a lot of redundancies to make sure everything was recording,” he explained.
Diego Murga, another teammate, said that as a director it was difficult to move past a traditional shooting experience and get his mind into a panoramic perspective.
“I’m so used to looking at stuff from behind the lens,” Murga said. “There were sleepless nights where I couldn’t comprehend the idea of not being behind the camera. That was the biggest struggle.”
Serwitz agreed it was hard to think beyond the 2D, behind-the-camera view — your typical cinematic viewpoint. It required the team to conceptualise their story flowing in a panoramic world rather than from a stationary perspective.
“The whole gimmick of 360 is that you can look around and someone’s always doing something,” Serwitz said. He wanted the story to move, something like a “Where’s Waldo?” story.
With 360-degree video technology advancing and now more accessible, Intel experts like Khoi Nguyen believed that CES 2016 would be the ideal place to show how it works and offer a peek into the future.
Looking around CES 2016, Phillips said that technology allows people do so many things, especially in a world where people can market themselves and show off their talents.
“Access to technology makes things more competitive,” said Phillips. “It allows us to spread our wings and find our niche.”
He said that ideas are the most important part, but technology comes a close second in helping filmmakers advance their craft. The technology has pushed him to work harder, think more and step outside his comfort zone to create new, impactful films.
Beyond filmmaking, amateurs are using the 360-degree technology to create family videos, while more advanced video makers are capturing skiing and snowboarding action. Murga said that he saw people at CES 2016 get excited about using 360 video to cover sports events, allowing fans to view the action from all kinds of angles.
“This technology is no longer just for entertainment,” said Murga. “It’s still primitive, but it’s the future and [it’s] being used now.”
Coppola, who has been in the movie making business for over three decades and oversaw most of the filming, said that technology innovation constantly impacts his craft.
“My uncle, [legendary academy-award winning film director] Francis Ford Coppola, believed it was all going digital, electronic cinema,” he said. “I’m carrying that mantle.”
Seeing how technology gave everyday people (and not just Hollywood regulars) the ability to make movies, Christopher Coppola turned his attention to teaching future filmmakers. As his students and film students everywhere hone their 360 video skills, movie audiences may find themselves more immersed in stories than ever before.
“With 360 video, the audience’s emotions become a big part of it,” he said. “It’s a journey of emotions as the audience participates by changing the perspectives.”
Kurt De Buck contributed to this story.