Why Facebook’s Lovely New VR Film, Shot in Grand Central, Is So Unlike Most 360° Videos

Inside the making of 'Here and Now'

In the infancy of virtual reality, two opposing extremes of 360° films have tended to dominate the brand space. On the one hand, you have your epic visual extravaganzas, including explosive work in gaming. On the other hand, you have quieter, more empathetic filmmaking about putting oneself in another's reality—although, to create an element of surprise, this other reality is often remote, difficult to access and far removed from one's own life.

For its first big experimental VR film, Facebook saw an opportunity to make a third kind of piece—one that's both heightened yet familiar, ambitious yet ordinary, something quietly grand about everyday life. This fits the Facebook brand perfectly, of course—this is, after all, a giant company that enables the smallest, most ordinary moments of human interaction.

The resulting three-and-a-half-minute film, which just rolled out Tuesday, is called "Here and Now." It was made by The Factory, Facebook's in-house creative studio, and was shot on—and in some ways serves as advertising for—the Facebook Surround 360 camera, which was introduced last month at F8.

As a story and a piece of craft, it fulfills its high-low mission by showing ordinary moments in a grand space—eight vignettes of people engaging with friends and family in the main concourse at New York's Grand Central Terminal.

Watch the film below. (It will be on Oculus VR later today.) If your browser has trouble playing it, you can watch it on Facebook instead.

The Factory's creative output has been strong for a while, and this piece is an impressive addition to its portfolio of work. It was shot in a single take, which called for exacting choreography and fluid performances. The narrative is only loosely structured, yet the piece has an oddly emotional effect—its theatricality and its naturalism combine to create a curiously meaningful meditation on people and place. 

Adweek previewed the film exclusively last week, and spoke with The Factory creative director Larry Corwin and executive producer Margaret McLaughlin about its creation.

Facebook's engineers "built this [camera], and they came to The Factory and said, 'Can you make an amazing piece of content for this?' And of course we jumped at it," said Corwin.

From the beginning, he and the team wanted something different than the usual VR work.

"We looked at a lot of 360° films out there right now," Corwin said. "There are these epic things, and also these human things where you travel far distances. It felt like there was this white space in there where we could show moments of everyday humanity. … You can create things about really local humanity, everyday humanity, and they can be just as poignant as anything on either of these poles."

The production challenges were imposing.

The shoot involved some 20 principal actors and 500 extras all choreographed in a single space for a single take—on a camera that doesn't allow the director (Smuggler's Jaron Albertin) to review footage immediately afterward. Oh, and Grand Central Terminal only allows filming between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.

"The whole process took about five weeks," McLaughlin said of the ideation and production. "On set, we had very limited time to come in, set up, rehearse and shoot, and break down. That was a huge challenge. We did it in three days."

Writing the script mostly involved trying to make the stories of human interaction broadly relatable yet specific enough not to be clichéd. "We wanted the moments to feel universal, but then draw back in and do them in an interesting way that merits watching each individual scene," Corwin said. "We wanted to see how all these different sets of characters could play off each other to form a bigger narrative, as well as working individually."

The sets of characters are diverse, and in many ways complementary. There is a family saying goodbye to a girl going to college, and a family reuniting. There are kids coming back from a class trip to the zoo, and a group of twentysomethings going out for the night. There's an arguing couple, and a reuniting couple.

"We sketched out general narratives and story arcs, but we also had backup scripts for all of them so we could feed lines to them if necessary," Corwin said. This loose structure was intended to help individual scenes within the entire 3:30 film to find their own pacing.

"We wanted to let it flow as it needed to, and let the actors work and play off each other, and figure out when to enter and exit the scene, and start and end their conversations, based on that," said Corwin.

The actors were all New York based, and many of them are actually friends or family members or couples. (This was done to enhance the reality of their connection.) Facebook also wanted natural-seeming performers—"actors that didn't feel too polished, that didn't feel like they would nail every line perfectly," Corwin said. "The perfection of imperfection in delivery was really important for us."

The film uses Nico's 1967 version of the Jackson Browne song "These Days," which has emotional heft and also firmly grounds the piece geographically. "We landed on it both for its meaning and its New York connection," Corwin said. "And the timing of the song worked out almost perfectly with the length of the film."

The film isn't branded beyond the opening title (and where it lives on Facebook). And indeed, isn't really meant as an "ad" for the social network, either. 

"It's meant less as something to promote the Facebook brand and more as something to just inspire the possibilities in 360° VR filmmaking," said Corwin. "I think, overall, the takeaway is a feeling more than an intellectual notion. Just that feeling of connection."

"I don't think anyone knows exactly where VR is headed, but it'll be everywhere," said McLaughlin. "We see this as medium with so much potential to be in homes, in hospitals, to be everywhere. And we want to understand how to work in this medium and push it."

Of "Here and Now," she added: "Our hope is that you put this on and you're just there. The headset falls away, and you're having this moment. You can connect with the people who come in close to camera. You can hear their conversation. You can feel what they're going through. Or if you want to go against the storytelling, you can follow [other] characters, or look at the sky and see the famous ceiling. You're just having a New York moment." 

CREDITS

Agency: The Factory at Facebook
VP Consumer and Brand Marketing: Rebecca Van Dyck
VP Executive Creative Director: Scott Trattner
Executive Producer: Margaret McLaughlin
Brand Marketing Manager: Sarah Russell, Lindsay Russell
Director of Marketing Communications: Jennifer Henry
Creative Director: Larry Corwin
Creative Director: Demian Oliveira
Creative Director: Cameron Ewing
Engineering Director: Brian Cabral
Engineer: Albert Parra Pozo
Art Director: Wilf Eddings
Copywriter: Luke Wicker
Producer: Mandi Holdorf
Producer: Cassie Gomrick
Communications Planner: Pavan Patidar

Production Company: Smuggler
Jaron Albertin – Director
Patrick Milling Smith & Brian Carmody – Partner / Executive Producer
Allison Kunzman – Executive Producer
Erin Wile – Line Producer
Darren Lew – DOP
Armando Kirwin – VR EP and Head of Post Production (Vrse.Works)
Joe Chen – VR Executive Technical Producer (Vrse.Works)

VFX: MPC
VR Supervisor: Jason Schugardt
Executive Producer: Mike Wigart
Producer: Colin Clarry

Editorial: Spot Welders
Executive Producer: Carolina Sanborn
Editor: Ting Poo
Assistant Editor: J.C. Nunez

Sound Supervisor: Squeak E. Clean
Virtual Reality Sound Design: Dražen Bošnjak
Virtual Reality Sound Production: Q Department® in association with Mach1
Virtual Reality Mix Powered by Mach1

Title Design: Buck Designs