This Director Just Schooled Us on 360 Video With an Immersive Short Story for Facebook

Alex Smith breaks linear boundaries in visuals, sound

Director Alex Smith has created his first-ever 360 video, as part of an ongoing series called "Picture This," a project started by Facebook in partnership with Semi-Permanent, an Australia-based global creative and design thinking platform. And it's one of the most instructive uses of the technology we've seen. 

The goal of the project was to tell an emotionally powerful story. Five creatives—including writers, directors, photographers and artists—were enlisted to spin their own tale, using Facebook's creative platforms, including Facebook Video, Facebook Carousel, Facebook Canvas, Facebook 360 Video and Instagram. 

The unifying challenge: They all had to use a Dan Winters photograph called "Photobooth" (shown below) as a starting point.

Smith, who works with experiential production firm Will O'Rourke, has directed ads, documentaries, short films and over 90 music videos for artists like Coldplay, Olympia and Kylie Minogue. 

His entry into the Picture This project, titled "Server Room Symphony," is a surreal, Jan Svankmajer-esque short featuring office workers coming in and out of a claustrophobic, windowless room to print, fax, swordfight and cry. As the video progresses, their collective din creates a symphony. 

The piece, which is just over three minutes long, employs a number of techniques that use the technology to its fullest, including titles that follow your cursor, and sounds that direct you elsewhere. 

"Essentially this was like directing theater, in that there's nowhere to hide behind the camera," Smith tells Semi-Permanent. "There's no sense in having quick edits, or cutaways. It's difficult to light, most of it has to be practical lighting. Also, the lens we used was 10mm, which is so wide that you have to get right up close to people to see their expressions. You can't control where viewers look, so you have to make visual and audio 'suggestions' to guide people toward moments you want to draw attention to." 

Smith also explains how best to plan 360 storytelling: Put all the action in a single wide shot.

"You can't guarantee that your audience is going to be looking at what you want them to," he acknowledges, which has been one of the trickier aspects of using 360 to tell a linear tale.

"Even if you have a massive arrow saying 'look at this,' people have free will and may well just stare at the wall or the floor if they find that more interesting. The novelty of the format can be absorbing enough to be a distraction, which is frustrating when you're trying to be nuanced. It's early days."

It's also possible that, to most efficiently use 360 video, we have to stop thinking of stories as linear and lean more experiential—something we increasingly do anyway, driven by the importance of real-time reactions on social media, VR learnings from video gaming, and livestream video.

"I found it more of an 'experience,' like an immersive environment, rather than a linear time-based format," Smith says. "There are a few brilliant exceptions that really work, where you find yourself looking around to follow the action without even thinking about it." 

Advertisers are starting to get the hang of it. Recently, Lowe's created a series of home improvement videos on Facebook 360 that enable the user to pan around to see every step of a project's creation—saving them time on a lengthier video, and letting you decide how long to linger on each step. 

At MIPTV in April, during an extensive panel on the uses of VR for storytelling, a number of production studios and platform creators confirmed Smith's discoveries about the distracted eye of the user. They also had advice for storytellers using the medium: Divorce yourself of the notion of passive viewing. 

"What is the role of the person in this story?" asked Stéphane Rituit, co-founder of Felix & Paul Studios, who appeared on the panel. "Because in VR we know where you're looking [when we add a visual or audio prompt], we can play with transitions everywhere you're not looking. This creates multi-layer stories, and opens the door to non-linear storytelling." 

"360 video is not about just about creating a scene, it's about conceiving one that is worth you being in the middle of," says Rebecca Carrasco, head of Creative Shop at Facebook Australia and New Zealand, on Facebook's blog. "That's the challenge and the opportunity. And that's what I think 'Server Room Symphony' does so well." 

But it isn't just technical prowess that wins attention; you still have to be worthy of it.

"It better be interesting," says Smith. "Performance timing is critical. You have to be mindful of people's attention spans, and the novelty of the format versus the quality of the content. [The experience] was very interesting, and really turned things on their head for me." 

CREDITS

Head of Facebook Creative Shop, ANZ: Rebecca Carruso
Head of marketing: Leah Tennant
Events and marketing, Facebook: Briony Campbell
Founder, Semi Permanent: Murray Bell
Account management: Cassandra Kevin & Jessie Gilbert @ Albert Agency
Production company: Revolver/Will O'Rourke
Director & editor: Alex Smith
Managing director & executive producer: Michael Ritchie
Executive producer/head of projects: Josh Mullens
Producer:Phoebe Marks
Project consultant: Leo Faber
DoP:Stefan Duscio
360 camera operator/video stitching: Pixelcase
Grade & Online: Fin Design & Pixelcase
Music: SPOD