It’s a question VR enthusiasts can squabble over just as emotionally as cyclists in Berlin will fight with SUV drivers. Ultimately, it’s a question of personal preference. Still, what is a film in 180 degrees anyhow? And what is it good for?
180 Degrees: the Silver Screen Returns
The principle behind 180 degrees is pretty simple: instead of taking place all around the viewer, the action limits itself to the hemisphere in sight of the viewer. No more tedious turning around, no more missing out on the action, nor being scared from behind (spoiler: it’s still possible from the front…). In essence, this technique reimagines the concepts of framing and composition – some elements of cinematography traditional filmmakers bemoan the absence of in 360 degrees and VR.
Only recently, I wrote an article about The Great C. The film’s creators approached this problem in their very own way: instead of resorting to 180 degrees, they relied on many intermediate cuts and camera movements.
The technique of 180 degree films recently gained a very prominent example: The Limit, by Hollywood superstar Robert Rodriguez (technically, we’re talking a couple degrees more than 180). You can watch the action short almost anywhere – on mobile VR headsets, via the app Robert Rodriguez’s THE LIMIT and Cardboard or plastic goggles, as well as on PlayStation and PC headsets.
A rod of warning for those prone to motion sickness! After minute 7 (of 20), I found myself lying on the living room floor, whimpering quietly and pressing a hot water bottle to my belly. Seems to be a question of character: the hubby remained cool as a clam, visibly enjoying the film while raising a pitying eyebrow at my misery.
In the same vein, the (in my opinion quite recommendable) app Amaze VR also uses 180-degree imagery; interactive no less! The app is also available for most devices and can be found in respective stores.
But even before these, there are many older examples of storytelling in 180 degrees. To this day, I have encountered three distinct types of 180-degree narration.
Type 1: Black Void
Both above mentioned films demonstrate the most radical of approaches toward 180-degree productions. While the front half of the sphere shows a purportedly normal 360-degree film, the rear half is painted black. Otherwise, a dim cinema hall or blurred image can be displayed; in any case, it has nothing to do with the scene taking place on-screen. The dividing line is ruthless: the border bisects the environment, cutting through objects, furniture and even parts of “your own” body (The Limit plays out in the first person perspective), that are only halfway visible then.
Which of you read Momo by Michael Ende when you were young? That is just about how I have always imagined nothingness to look like.
Disadvantages of 180-Degree Film
To me, the technique of the black void (fancy, melodramatic name I’ve come up with, don’t you think?) represents too significant a breach. An implementation as drastic as this instantly robs me of two advantages of both VR and 360 degrees: I cannot freely decide whether to survey my surroundings or not.
And, even more aggravatingly, the feeling for the room is lost: my surroundings cannot take immediate effect on me if they are not visible and audible – in short, perceptible – all around the viewer. It makes a difference if I know something is there and I just have to turn around to face it – or if there simply is nothing there.
Adding to that are the cut-off objects that clearly detract from immersion. At any given moment, the border is a clear reminder of the fact that we are sitting in front of a glass sphere, not inside of it.
There is one advantage that I certainly do not want to hide from you: filming in 180 degrees instead of 360 makes production much easier and entails smaller file sizes. This holds doubly true for stereoscopic videos. There are special 180-degree cameras that exist solely for this application. Thanks to initiatives such as Google’s VR180, I can see even larger potential for 180-degree film in the nonprofessional segment, for example for short family films or vacation videos. Well, and of course for VR porn; which has been very successfully making use of the principles of 180 degrees for a long time already (or so I’ve been told, ahem).
Type 2: Spacecrafts and Windows
Baby, you can drive my car
Another option would be the one I facetiously call the spacecraft technique. Its name stems from the 360-degree classic Titans of Space. However, this also applies to any other VR and 360-degree experience that places the observer in a closed-off vehicle or any other mode of transport: the view may extend all the way round the sphere, but the rear only offers an unspectacular view of the back wall of the spacecraft, car, or boat, while the action ensues in front.
Nobody would find themselves staring at a gray wall or empty seat for an extended duration when the window in front gives light to the monumental, shimmering rings of Saturn that appear to be so close, you could almost touch them. A more recent example for this technique can be found in the short film Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit by Oculus.
This method’s advantage is quite obvious: the strange world is not bisected by a black border – instead, the 180-degree view is integrated into the virtual surroundings. Plot-wise, it makes perfect sense to be looking out of the front window of a spacecraft or car – one would do so in the real world, too. The whole thing appears much more elegant than the “slap-bang-cut-your-world-in-half”-method of before.
That sitting in a car does not necessarily implicate a 180-degree perspective has been shown by the VR short film Pearl, which was even nominated for an Oscar. In the breathless trip through a young girl’s family history, the viewer finds themselves constantly swerving back and forth to experience the entire drama. Tiring as it may be, it is also a great example of 360-degree storytelling – especially regarding the auditive level.
The Stalking Version
A similar, if not as logical method is the window technique. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t have that much to do with 180 degrees, but it takes the element of the silver screen quite literally.
The interactive 360-degree series Fire Escape (available on Daydream headsets and on the Google Play Store) aptly demonstrates my meaning: as the player, I am stood on a fire escape, looking over the courtyard through my neighbors’ windows – they are the story’s protagonists. There, I witness a murder and can sometimes communicate with the people on the opposite side of the courtyard. It’s a nice idea put forth by the production company that was also behind Hero – but unfortunately, it feels a bit like a step back towards the distant times of 2D.
The film Ctrl by the makers of the highly esteemed film Lucid also uses this idea; in this case, however, the action doesn’t play out through a physical window, but in a video chat window. The spectator follows the story in classic 2D on a virtual screen, which in this case makes more sense to me than spying on your neighbors across the courtyard.
Both examples skillfully play with the images’ borders (that is, the window’s or the screen’s) by also having things happen beyond the visible areas, perceivable only as sounds.
Incidentally, the use of computer screens often finds its way into VR video games, such as Kobold. For example, one of the characters recounts the game’s background within a YouTube video on a virtual laptop. Other variants such as video cassettes or TV screens are also frequently employed to this end.
Type 3: Perspective and Camera Positioning
The most elegant tricks, of course, are the ones you never even notice. Indeed, most 360-degree and even some VR films employ a 180-degree perspective – if not always, at least on some occasions. You need to look out for this! The concept is closely related to other techniques for directing the audience’s attention.
Walls Behind, Stage in Front
Directing attention using 180-degree-based storytelling is conceivably simple. A fictitious example of which would be if I were standing in a hallway in a 360-degree film, with my back against a wall, looking into a room in front of me. Why should I – apart from, possibly, a quick peek to realize that nothing of importance is there – look at the wall instead of peering into the room? There simply is no reason, especially when the wall has been designed to be spectacularly drab. I, Philip, an older 360-degree film available on the Arte360 app, employs this technique in almost all of its scenes.
To cite a few actual VR films instead of only 360-degree films as examples of this technique: Penrose productions The Rose and I, Allumette,and Arden’s Wake actually pinch their approach from theater. Here, the audience looks at (and into) a cute miniature world laid out in front, while behind, the ever-same clouds or seas go by their business. Only occasionally, a little ship will come sailing in from this side. Apart from these situations, however, the majority of the action takes place in the main direction.
Subtly Direct the Audience
The method becomes even more ingenious when one half of the 360-degree environment is filled with just a bit fewer details than the other, without losing all significance, though. Curious as we as humans are, we instinctively turn our attention to the more exciting side. Antoine Cayrol, VR producer of I, Philip and founder of Atlas V (called Okio Studios back then) revealed this neat trick at a symposium in 2017. In order to actually achieve this, he works very closely with the films’ set designers to coordinate this focus.
A further possibility is to slightly darken one hemisphere or blur it almost imperceptibly. Alteration, which followed I, Philip, and was also produced by Antoine Cayrol, uses this trick in a number of scenes.
Another slightly older 360-degree film called My Brother’s Keeper, applies a very similar idea in many scenes. Here, however, a thick fog only permits you to look in one direction (and, besides, also allows multiple perspectives).
Naturally, knowing exactly where the viewer will be facing is elementary for VR and 360-degree films; even more so for editing purposes in 360 degrees. Here, cuts usually also entail a change of location. If I was looking away from a wall and into a room before, I shouldn’t be standing with my nose buried into some other wall following a cut (that is, at the new location) – I should be looking in the right direction from the beginning. Jessica Brillhart explains this nicely in this video.
If desired, techniques such as these allow producers to essentially retain a 180-degree perspective throughout the entire film – without ever having to cut away half the picture.
Bottom Line: 180 Degrees is a Storytelling Device Within 360 Degrees
In recent times, the subject has garnered a lot of attention with high-profile productions such as The Limit that interpret 180 degrees in a very drastic way. In truth, however, The Limit by no means reinvents storytelling in 180 degrees.
The 180 degree field of view is a well-tried narrative device that (with the exception of the porn industry) does not exist as an addition to 360-degree film, but as a part of it.
While the origins of 360-degree film saw viewers’ gazes dart across half the sphere every couple of seconds, and something exciting was happening on the opposite end at any given moment, little by little, filmmakers developed methods for directing viewers’ attention effectively; one of them being the focus on the “hemisphere” right in front of the audience’s eyes.
In VR, where viewers and players can not only look around, but also roam the premises, the directing attention gets a bit more complicated. That is why 180 degrees are hardly significant for “real” VR, except maybe in VR film, very story-driven VR games or individual scenes within them.
Can you think of more examples of 180-degree storytelling? Give me a shout – via this contact form or right here in the comments.
Translated by Jan Mc Greal