Filming in VR

Sounders FC Game Day

by Stephen Jablonsky

How can we use virtual reality to let every sports fan get off the sidelines and become part of the game? That’s the challenge Sounders FC and Pixvana presented to us earlier this year. Pixvana is a Seattle software startup that recently launched SPIN Studio, the new cloud-based video creation and delivery platform for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (XR). They were ready to test out their ultra high-resolution VR video player for HTC Vive with immersive sports content. What could be more compelling than live action soccer captured in 8K?

We collaborated with Sounders FC to gain unprecedented access to the field, the pre-game rituals, team huddles, and VIP sideline access during the game. We knew that virtual reality would help fans see the team from completely new vantage points.

The challenges

Storytelling in virtual reality brings both shooting and viewing challenges. An immersive environment means that you can’t always tell where the floor is – that can create a feeling of motion sickness in some viewers, even when the camera moves only slightly. For this film, we experimented by keeping the camera completely still and revolving the action around it, instead of the other way around.

When shooting with a camera in a fixed position, you’re relying on the action to come to you. Soccer is a low scoring game so filming requires a lot of patient hoping for players to make amazing plays right in front of your camera. To make matters more complicated, the camera operator can’t be next to the camera, otherwise they would be part of the shot.
With a 360º view, people take their time to explore a space. But looking above, behind and around can also cause them to miss the action, because there is no concept of “directly in front” in VR. We had to find other ways to make sure viewers caught the important action.

Quick editing is a common practice in standard films to define the action and emotion of a scene. But because VR viewers take more time to explore their environment, those quick cuts don’t work well. Instead, we added graphics—something like a heads-up display—to show important action if the viewer happened to be looking the other way.

The experience

In the final video piece, we take viewers on a journey with the Sounders. It starts at March to the Match, where fans and the Soundwave band walk in a noisy group to the stadium. Viewers take part in a warm up session with the players. It’s a unique perspective, and graphics help tell a deeper story about the players and the team. Some key moments from the game included some incredible footwork that fortunately happened right in front of our camera. The experience wraps up with goal celebrations where the viewer is placed inside the net, and finishes at the MLS championship celebration.

What we learned

Producing for VR requires patience and blind faith. The shooting process reminds us of the film days when you wouldn’t know what you got until the film was developed, because you can’t see what is being captured in real time. Directing action is tricky when you have to leave the area while filming. Knowing you got the take correctly is a more elaborate process. Graphics were critical in helping spice up less interesting areas of the scene and direct the viewer to know where they should focus.

Working with Sounders FC & Pixvana

The Sounders FC was a great partner with a spirit of adventure; they were happy to accommodate many of our crazy ideas. Pixvana brought their extensive VR production expertise and excellent post-production processing to the table. We all learned a lot together about what it takes to create a story from a wealth of disparate footage, and we’re excited to do more VR filming in the future.

Watch the film with your own VR headset here: