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Will 360-degree films replace “traditional” filmmaking?

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When was the last time you went to the shops, bought a newspaper, sat down and read it from cover to cover?

I honestly can’t remember the last time I did that. It was probably for a college assignment or something. Ask someone ten or fifteen years ago and they would’ve probably thought the fact that someone like me existed was absurd. But that’s the thing about technology: It’s ruthless.

It will devour everything in its path, all in the name of moving forward and while that’s brilliant, it’s also incredibly scary. I studied Journalism and during my four years in college, my lecturers all insisted that the newspaper will always be around as a medium. Then I see stories like these, and videos like these and suddenly, I’m not so sure anymore.

The same could probably be said about film. With how accessible, portable and amazing 360-degree cameras have got over the years, is this the beginning of the end for traditional rectangular filmmaking?

I recently had the pleasant opportunity to pick the brains of some of the more prominent Malaysian filmmakers and content creators — namely Veedu Production and TheMingThing (TMT). Both parties had recently embarked on the journey of creating 360-degree videos as part of Maxis‘ Rojak 360° film series to celebrate Merdeka 2016.

Their experiences in a nutshell? Everything was brand new.

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YouTubers TheMingThing are well known for their shorts and videos that reflect daily Malaysian lives. Their videos often centre around things that are rather close to our hearts and our daily lives — things that we can relate to. This time, Maxis challenged them to get their creative juices flowing in an all new medium: 360-degree videos.

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The resulting film, Lost and Found, was an interesting buddy-comedy between three friends who decided to go on a holiday in the land below the wind. Things started off brilliantly, but eventually the trio wound up hopelessly lost in the jungles of East Malaysia.

Veedu Production, on the other hand, is a successful production house for Tamil movies. Well-known for their feature film Vetti Pasanga, the duo behind this production house were forced out of their comfort zones to create a short but heartwarming story about tradition, culture and togetherness called Rojak Cow Cow in glorious 360-degrees.

Despite the radically different settings, both TMT and Veedu said that one of the biggest challenges they had to overcome was where to hide the crew and equipment. Big productions tend to use a lot of equipment (lighting, audio, etc.) and employ large crews to keep everything running smoothly.

But, with 360-degree films, the creators had to get creative with their usage of equipment. While TMT made good use of natural lighting, Veedu had to disguise their light setup to make it look like the natural fluorescent lights you’d find mounted on the ceiling. Audio also had to shift from the more conventional boom mics to clip-on LAV microphones.

The crew also had to be hidden from the all-seeing 360-degree camera, which meant they had to hide behind rocks and leaves in TMT’s jungle setting while Veedu’s director had to duck under a table to remain out of sight.

To make matters worse, there was also the challenge of the cut. Because 360-degree films were all about the immersion and being in the scene, cuts had to be limited which meant that each scene had to be a gruelling Oner. Both parties talked about how they had to rehearse each scene extensively before they switched on the camera to make sure everyone knew what they were doing. What’s more, since the director had to be hidden from view, it meant that they were not there to call the takes (think Lights, Camera, Action!) so the actors had to simply wing it.

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Even the camera was a big challenge. Because the Samsung Gear 360 cameras that they used to film their shorts was basically two fisheye lenses mounted back to back, the creators had to account for curvature and distortion of the lens when directing their actors. This was to make sure they could reduce any parallax errors and seams they might encounter during a scene.

It was rather amusing and incredibly enlightening to be able to hear some of the challenges these filmmakers faced, and how they had to improvise to overcome them. As with all new experiences, the filmmakers did seem excited to come up with further 360 content in the future. And that was when I asked if this format of film would eventually replace “traditional” filmmaking.

No, was their answer, and their reason behind it was one I agreed with.

To me personally, with rectangular filmmaking, what the director puts in the frame is incredibly important to the storytelling process. But, what’s equally important is what the director leaves out of the frame. What you don’t see, is just as important as what you see because it makes you think and engages your imagination to construct what your eyes cannot see. It also drives home emotion and emphasis. Emotion from the actors, from the lighting, the scene and the frame — all incredibly important aspects in filmmaking.

A well-framed 16:9 movie is beautiful to watch and breathtaking to experience. It’s cinematic, it’s poetic and it brings the audience, not only on a storytelling journey through the film but also an emotional one.

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That’s something you just can’t do in 360-degree films. When I was watching the shorts today, I was caught up in looking for what was going on (which, by the way, is very difficult to do when you’re sitting in a comfortable chair), and not experiencing the story and the film.

I will concede that this could be a personal thing and that not everyone may go through the same experience as I did, but both TMT and Veedu did agree that traditional filmmaking is here to stay because 360-degree films simply don’t accomplish what good ol’ rectangles can.

Then again, people said the same thing about the print industry and look where we’re at now. At this point, I think it’s a race, a race to see who can make it work first, and once that happens, we’re in for a whole new ride.

What do you guys think of 360-degree films versus the “traditional” film format? Let me know in the comments below because I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Maxis will be releasing more Merdeka videos until the 16th of September over at their YouTube channel.