VR, Coral Reefs, and Climate Change: Behind the Scenes of a Sundance Audience Favorite

Published on in Miscellaneous

By Alicia East, CrewCloud

Virtual Reality (VR) is about to bring the ocean’s mysteries to the 99.9 percent of us who will never actually don a wetsuit for a deep-sea dive. Chasing Coral (the feature) and Chasing Coral: The VR Experience, which both premiered at Sundance 2017, capture climate change’s impact on our oceans and reefs. The latter project does so by giving viewers a full 360-degree view. Just trade in the face mask for a 3D headset and instantly you have coral ahead, ocean below, and fish above.

We interviewed Matt Schultz, a motion designer, and compositor for both films, to find out what it was like to work on the forefront of VR technology and where he sees the medium taking us in the future.

Chasing Coral: The VR Experience is cutting edge—both in documenting dying coral reefs in real time and in doing so in such an immersive way. Virtual reality is new enough that norms and best practices haven’t been fully established, which means the team experimented and learned as they went. In short, it was “challenging on every front,” according to Schultz. 

Divers filmed using GoPros in Freedom 360’s Kolor Abyss rig. From there, Schultz and team took their first pass at stitching. Autopano Video Pro (a GoPro tool) worked well with underwater sequences where objects were far away from the camera and colors were similar. Other sequences, which had a lot of action and color variations at different depth planes, caused challenges. It’s hard to find a common convergence point to stitch all six cameras while keeping foreground and background features aligned. If you pair the talent in the foreground, then the background doesn’t always line up well (and vice versa). For these situations, Schultz and team used Nuke’s CARA VR plugin, which allowed them to hand warp objects (think divers, beaches, and boats) in place to make it all line up. Once combined, they did color balancing and tone mapping to make the final spherical image.

It took two passes of stitching to bring all six angles together seamlessly. “It won’t be long before we’ll be able to do it with one click in Premiere,” Schultz said. But for now, “there’s still a lot of handwork and craftsmanship required to get it to look clean and perfect in the end.” 

 The rough stitch before color matching and blending 

What filming techniques make VR post-production easier? 
According to Schultz, camera stability is extra important—and challenging—for 360-degree images. Any horizontal movement messes the image up royally, as you’ll see in the picture below. An underwater stabilizer (which is basically fins on the side of whatever the camera is mounted on) allows the diver to get the gear away from their body to maintain a level horizon even while swimming. 

The simplest tip for any 360 filming is to make sure the talent is 100 percent captured by at least one camera. This allows post-production to stitch around the talent rather than having to Frankenstein their way through limbs.


Horizon fail: what the shots look like when the camera twists underwater

What was the VR viewing experience like at Sundance? 
The exhibition experience was totally different from the traditional theater. Schultz said the VR setup was very cool but had some drawbacks, too. They had a large room where viewers put on their own separate headsets and went to different parts of the room to view different films.

“If we jumped or laughed or got tangled in our headset, we did it alone. While it immersed viewers in the film, it absolutely nullified the effect of community movie-watching,” Schultz said. “There’s something about sharing a movie experience in a theater where you laugh, cry, or jump together.” 

How will VR technology evolve in the next five years? 
You won’t need a theater experience to go into another world: You can get transported with just a headset. Schultz sees the future including a more intuitive, immersive sound experience that is responsive to where you turn your head. Sound will take a greater role in the experience if storytellers choose to guide viewers with audio cues.

Another area ripe for innovation is the way behind-the-scenes stories are told. If a 360-degree camera shows the filmmakers, viewers can feel like they’re a part of the production team. 

The bottom line

The challenges of VR are fierce, but the rewards are great. Hats off to the entire team behind this important film, which advances awareness of state-of-the-art VR video technology as well as the impact of climate change on our oceans. Virtual reality is the wave of the future. We just need a habitable planet and oceans on which to ride that wave.

For more background about the Chasing Coral project, here’s director Jeff Orlowski diving deeper into the subject.  

Matt Schultz is the co-founder and creative director at Mass FX Media, a Denver-based post-production studio specializing in crafting motion design and visual effects for film and advertising. Their story-centric intuition and keen technical skills converge to create animated content for documentary and nonfiction films.

About CrewCloud

CrewCloud puts a world of video service providers at your fingertips. In just a few clicks you can search, chat with, and book vetted video and post-production providers local to your shoot—all on your own schedule. Digitize your little black book while maximizing your budget with CrewCloud. Need live assistance or help booking in multiple locations over multiple days? Our crew coordinators are on call around the clock. Visit TheCrewCloud.com, call 303-526-4900, or email hello@thecrewcloud.com.

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