We recently worked with Karl Beyer and the UO Crew on the latest video in the UO Live series of music performance videos, and Urban Outfitters’ first foray into 360 video production. Zac has been working with Karl for years and their collaborations have resulted in some of the most interesting, innovative and fun videos that we have had the pleasure of being a part of. As a director, Karl loves to push the envelope. He has a passion for engaging and creative concepts. His shoots are never simple or easy, but that is inherent when you are creating something new and interesting. So when he asked us to get involved in a 360 Urban Outfitters Halloween costume party, we were naturally very excited.
LA Witch “Brian” – UO Live 360
James Madison, Expressway Cinema Rentals (ECR): So how did this whole concept come about?
Karl Beyer, Urban Outfitters (KB): We’d already been experimenting with VR at Urban in animation using 3D animation but hadn’t done a 360 video. We knew we wanted to try something with it but it had to be something that made sense.
We have our UO Live series, and we decided that pairing the two ideas together could put a new spin on both. Our Halloween promotions were also coming up and that’s how the whole concept came to life. It helps that the band, LA Witch was super excited about exploring the VR concept. “Brian” was the song and this was going to be the debut video. So it was exciting for everyone to explore something different. There wasn’t too much convincing in any direction. Everyone was pretty psyched.
(ECR): So you have a creative concept and technical concept and you have the band. What’s next?
(KB): We knew kind of what we were going to do. The band is going to play, we knew we wanted weird costumes and we wanted it all to feel a little creepy. We listened to the song several times and planned out the progression with the band, but we still wanted it to be compelling.
This is where it gets complicated conceptually because we are shooting VR. It’s a different thought process. When you are watching VR on the internet it begs the question of why? Why am I watching this band performance in VR? Why am I watching and why should I keep watching? That is something we focus on always, but in planning for VR, it is even more challenging to justify. I don’t want it to feel like VR for the sake of VR. I have seen VR videos where it didn’t have to be VR. If I wanted to go to a party and watch people hang out, I would just go to a party. I wanted people to have a reason to keep watching and looking around.
(ECR): So what’s the solution? Or what was your solution?
(KB): We wanted it to be different and we wanted it to be interesting and engaging, you know? We kind of lucked out that it was Halloween themed. We had so much to play with; costumes, props, set design, lighting gags. We focused on a variety of elements and actions throughout the space. People are running in and out of rooms. There are subtle visual elements all around the viewer. Each segment of the song has different performance aspects from the band and from the other rooms. We wanted the audience to always wonder “What’s next and where is it coming from?”
(ECR): Well it was definitely effective. What sort of challenges did you face in the planning? There are so many moving parts, both in the video and logistically, I’m sure.
(KB): The whole experience was nerve-wracking really. There was a lot we didn’t know going into it and there are distinct challenges in planning for VR.
We were in a very old, historic house and it was pretty tight for space. Initially, we thought about having the video move throughout the party and through the house, but there are limitations for movement in VR that are dictated by the stitching process in post. People have to stand a certain distance from the camera. Flashing lights can negatively affect the stitching if they are not 100% synced up. We had a lot of ideas we couldn’t do just because of stuff like this. So there was a level of necessity that dictated the concept to an extent.
There are also budget and crew challenges that had to be considered. It was going to have to be a pretty small crew because of the location and the budget. So we are trying to figure out what is possible technically. That is the point where I defer to Zac. In terms of technical execution and logistics on this scale, I just straight up call Zac. “What should we use, what can we do, what’s possible?” For this sort of production, it is essential to have a DP who understands the medium and the equipment, or it wouldn’t be possible, or at least it wouldn’t be good. So we put our heads together and we came up with the scenario. The camera had to be static for many reasons. We had to keep a certain distance and we would have to achieve a level of continued interest through the action. So that is the basic gist, but the real challenges just start here. You have to be very flexible conceptually and in execution.
(ECR): OK, so from a technical standpoint, why is this different than a traditional production you would be used to directing? Obviously, it is VR, but what specifically presents challenges?
(KB): We were using the Freedom 360 GoPro Rig. Traditionally, you’re thinking about one camera in one direction. Now you are thinking about 6 looking in every direction. It is a lot to wrap your head around. It’s annoying to even storyboard. It helped to have a team of people thinking about it. Even the extras were suggesting ideas of what they could do and we’d say, “Yeah, that sounds cool, do that!”
We also had to deal conceptually with a video that would, in essence, be one long shot. We rarely do one shot videos. You can really lean on post-production and cut points to cover you in a normal scenario, but this was like a live performance capture. It really needed to be choreographed an
(ECR): I know John was really excited about the lighting. It sounds like there were some really technically creative opportunities with the lighting scheme, albeit born of necessity.
(KB): Lighting for VR is very challenging. We had to hide everything. We were hiding lights behind doors, behind props, almost anywhere we could stick a light, we did. We wanted it to look neon and colorful, but also creepy. Power is always a concern, especially in the historic location we were using and having to hide everything, but they had some really creative solutions and some cool lights they brought over from Expressway and it all worked out.
With some of the new LED technologies that Zac and Johnny Baum Baum rigged up, we were able to play with some crazy color palettes. We were able to DMX all of the units and sync up a list of interesting lighting cues. Since there wasn’t really room for anyone to be in the room to manually execute the color shifts, it was huge that we could program it all in and operate remotely. I don’t think this would have been possible a few years ago, not with the budget. But John did an amazing job of getting everything prepped and it was perfect.
(ECR): Now you’re locked and loaded. Camera is stationary, lighting is set, what’s next?
(KB): We picked the song and we made a live chart for the sequence of action throughout the song and then the extras showed up. I had to go dress all of the cast and walk them through their cues. It was like a high school musical.
There was a good deal of improvising as we worked through the action. There is just a lot of time and space to fill with 6 cameras. It had to be one take and we couldn’t cut and we had to get it right. There was a lot of imagining and re-imagining, but ultimately that made it better. We really wanted to make sure we were giving people something to see that they wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, and we had to keep it moving. The preparation was intense. Keep in mind also, this all happened on the same day. Prep, rehearse, shoot.
It was one of the most frenetic & crazy shoots I have ever been on. But it was very fun.
(ECR): Rehearsing for a one take, live performance VR shoot with multiple stage cues and directions sounds crazy. Fill me in. What was that process like?
(KB): We knew the general structure of what would happen beforehand, so were a little bit rehearsing and a little bit making it up as we went along. As we rehearsed and from take to take, we saw new opportunities to add to the experience of make things better. We were all brainstorming on the fly and adding comical elements. We would run through a rehearsal and someone would suggest, “This space feels empty, let’s have someone kind of walk in and hang out, very subtle.” So now, Ross just comes out stage right and chills, wearing a mask.
(ECR): I thought that was a very funny understated joke. I’m into subtle humor like that.
(KB): It was really fun because everyone was so excited about the video. LA Witch was really stoked and they were so patient about the process. We also had great extras who dealt with my stressed out screaming very well. You can’t hear me, but I’m screaming cues the whole time, like “OK Pandas, GTF in there, we need the wolves out, out, out!” All of the cast was awesome and we really nailed it.
(ECR): It sounds like it was complicated, but it came out really well.
(KB): Like I said, it was new and it was challenging, but we were all figuring it out together, and I think everyone was very happy to be doing something so different. You could tell that everyone there was excited to work on this crazy VR shoot. It felt like making a crazy art video in college. It is rare that you get to work on something that everyone is genuinely excited about in that kind of way.
Having finished this now, I notice different things when I watch VR videos. Bjork has a simple but awesome 360 music video she did; it’s funny how she’s always a step ahead. She’s so creative, but you can tell she was dealing with all the same issues of what to have happened around the camera.
(ECR): Will you be doing more VR videos?
(KB): I definitely want to. It’s still so new so I think it will take more experimentation to find out what works and what doesn’t work, what makes it worth it to the viewer. But I think it’ll start to be pretty clear after a little while.