Spherical Cinematography 101: Scale

This is the second post in a series an VR editing. The first was ‘The Choreography of Attention’.

Let’s start this off by looking over the video piece I will be referencing here.  “A Journey of Self Discovery” is a recent video available both on our downloads page for those with headsets or above. Play first then read on.

In the last post I argued that VR is a somatic medium and that any wearable medium but especially head mounted immersive experiences should inherently take the body and its knowledge as the axis of focus. But how exactly are we supposed to do that? This post is going to discuss one way: building off the earlier and by now well established vocabulary of filmmaking to think about how body positions that are simulated with particular camera positions and framing can be instead realized physically for the VR viewer. In particular we will be focusing on scale.


Scale Technique 1: The Up and Down


Scale is no stranger to traditional filmmaking. Even though every frame of a film is exactly the same size both camera distance, extreme close up to establishing shot, and camera inclination, high and low angle shots, are used in flat flims to simulate the sensation of scale changes. Take this frame from the one of my childhood favorites: Matilda (1996).



Matilda (Film)

From this vantage point the older woman looms over the small girl, giving her an air of authority and power. Theater too uses inclination to denote power as in this still from the musical version of Matilda set for the stage. The theater audience’s relationship to the overall image does not shift as it does in the film example but here we can project ourselves in the place of either character to similar effect.



Matilda (Play)

So instead of thinking like a cinematographer positioning cameras, imagine yourself in the place of the camera or girl on stage. You are 3 to 4 feet tall and the other character’s position in space requires that to see them you must look up, tilting your head back, elongating the front and shortening the back of your neck. That’s a lot of words to try to illicit a simple sensation and both the proscenium theater production and the flat film are similar attempts. Words and images can only describe the action of tilting your head or show an image that might result from that positioning, in VR the body must actually assume the required position. Jumping jacks to fetal position, when watching a flat film the viewer’s body position does not affect what is seen on screen. In VR however instead of predetermining a viewers gaze with fixed, framed shots the viewer is allowed to experience of actually looking up to (or down on) someone. Your neck muscles actually have to do a thing.

This a very simple technique. If you place the camera at eye level with a subject, or at an average human height, the viewer will look around the world feeling like a basically average adult human. However if centered above or below the eye line of a subject the placement introduces a feeling of power dynamics to the viewer. For VR the camera’s height can simply and effectively communicate similar power dynamics usually associated with high and low camera angles. No need to actually frame the old lady, users will find the action themselves.

And that’s exciting, not scary! Creating moments of immersion that hold with in them positions of serendipity which allow uses to ‘happen’ upon a vista will prove far more engrossing than the most beautiful establishing shot in flat filmmaking. Mass participation has already become the new normal in the rising creator economy, why not take that notion to the obvious content oriented conclusion and allow users to not only co-create the framing of an experience but also learn from all those bodies wearing our content. There is meaning in the tilt of a head, in a look over a shoulder, in a lean, and not just watching an actor make these movement on screen but in the feeling of them in your own body. In VR these kinds of shots take the viewer’s body and its knowledge seriously. What does it mean to look up to someone? Is it a gaze of admiration and respect, or of looming threat?

For an example, near the end of the video above, enjoy a tiny motorized model carnival that lives in the bakery window display down the street from my house. What positions do you find yourself in while watching?


Scale Technique 2: The In and Out

Remember rear projection? Big screens with roads flying by behind handsome actors in fancy cars pretending to drive? This example is from the 1962 Bond film ‘Dr.No’.




Rear projection, before we had green screening and mountains of computer graphics, was the effect of choice for guys playing Bond while driving cars. Look for the scale shift, the impossible perspective, the hulking black roof of the chasing car with its wide front wheels framed perfectly, shoulder to shoulder, to complete a menacing black halo around Mr. Bond. This shot is a layering mismatched scale for effect. Now let’s try that idea in VR.

Say for example your camera is tiny and you want to take advantage of that fact because for a year now you have been working with a camera that weighed more than most infants. So you put your camera in a cupboard in a over priced vintage furniture store for example, or the in refrigerator between shelves of eggs and homemade ketchup. But once you get the footage into the editing suit you realize there is a better use for this ability than just a feeling of being reduced down to ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ proportions. You can also layer scale.


So much like the Bond chase scene you end up with two disparate stratified scales, the tiny cupboard in the foreground and the swaying leaves outside. What to call the inner and outer russian dolls? I don’t know, the ship and the sea have a nice mental image to them but metaphor usually loses out to utility when it comes to naming techniques.


Two bits of practice now one bit of theory

As I mentioned, the ability to layer scale is afforded by the recently shrunken camera size. These kind of tandem advancements, one part hardware one part aesthetic practice, will continue to be common in the VR lineage, but it’s valuable to keep in mind that mass-production of representational technology can not be conflated with the development of a nuanced medium.

Take for example the film historical example of the legend of the Paris Cafe. The story goes: The Lumière Brothers first public film screening was held on 28 December 1895 in a Paris Cafe. The pair showed ‘L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat,’ a one shot film of a train coming into station. The images so overwhelmed the uninitiated audience that they run screaming to the back of the room to escape the crushing train. And of course this urban legend is often dug up to connect early film with early VR by comparing it to the dozens of videos online of people losing it while wearing an HMD. As Janet Murray wrote in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck (a book I highly recommend to those interested in VR media theory) “The legend of the Paris Cafe is satisfying to us now because it falsely conflates the arrival of the representational technology with the arrival of the artistic medium, as if the manufacture of the camera alone gave us the movies….In the first three decades of the twentieth century, filmmakers collectively invented the medium by inventing all the major elements of film is storytelling, including the close up, the chase scene, and the standard feature length. The key to this development was seizing on the unique physical properties of film: the way the camera could be moved, the way the lens could open, close, and change focus, the way the celluloid processes light, the way the strips could then be cut and reassembled.”

Which is all just to say: in the inventing VR editing we need only focus on the unique physical properties of VR, try everything, and be satisfied with baby steps.