By Alissa Elegant
Immersive video (including 360 and VR) is an emergent technology bustling with innovation. It allows us to break out of a century in which video was usually constrained to a rectangular screen. We can now capture imagery (still or moving) in all directions – creating a spherical vision with no frame. Its closest historical analogue is Thomas Edison’s kinetescope, a device that in our time almost seems quaint. They both are marked by novelty and a spirit of innovation as well as defining film viewing as an individual rather than collective experience.
Early Film: Explorations of Movement
Early film was a truly exploratory time. Looking back at film clips from that era remind us that what we think of in terms of film content is a product of more than just the technology itself. It is a series of techniques and theories that sculpt viewing in distinct ways. In the 1890s the medium itself was new and novel, and many of the short films reflected that. We have old films of a person sneezing os were taken of anything that moved. Movement was of interest, as it was movement that separated film (which did not yet have synchronized sound) from still pictures. It was a heyday for dance in film. The dance clip Carmencita (1894) was the first video of a woman. There were also videos of Imperial Japanese Dance (1894), Buffalo Dance (1894), Sioux Ghost Dance (1894), Franchonetti Sisters (1903), Princess Rajah Dance (1904). Most famous is probably the Lumiere Brothers film of Lois Fuller’s Serpentine dance (date unknown, probably 1890s).
Cameras soon became (relatively) mobile and people went out and documented the world near and far. We have video from 1897 of a giant coal dumper, a Sheep run at the Chicago stockyards, and a storm at Sea (1900). These were videos exploring the potential of the form, before standards had been set. We are at a similar place in terms of the content and form of 360 video (and its extensions into XR/AR/VR tech).
360 Video: Explorations of Space
Most 360 videos made today are short in duration, and many are an initial documentary attempt to capture the world around us in this new medium, similar to the short film clips from a century ago. Just as with the Kinetoscope, one of the first developed uses of this immersive medium is the capture of world. News organizations have taken up 360 video. The New York Times has been the most prominent adopter, with the
While 360 video may seem like a small step forward in terms of technology, especially in this environment of constant technological innovation that we live in, it demands a lot conceptually for creators. It requires a new way of conceiving of content during the planning process. What is radically different about 360 film is the amount of space that it captures. A traditional film is unidirectional. It only captures footage in one direction at a time. This footage is then projected onto a flat surface, a screen, which is placed in front of the viewer. As such the one direction captured in the filming process, can often be thought of as “front”. The footage doesn’t show what’s to the side or back of the photographer. The photographer only has to be concerned with what is happening in one direction.
But with 360 video, there is a lot more space that is recorded. The photographer has to start thinking in all directions. They have to keep track/choreograph/direct what is happening next to and behind the camera. While 360 film is often compared to being able to look around in all directions, just as you would in real life, this actually demands heightened spatial awareness that is new for many.
To get a sense of the cognitive demands of the creation of 360 video think about what you what you know about the space you are currently in. While I am sitting here writing this, I can see the computer in front of me, and a little around it. I can hear noises of what is happening behind me. But I can’t see what is happening behind me. I can completely forget what is happening behind me. It is only with a lot of focus that I can sketch out a fairly still map of what the room behind me looks like, a room I am in many times a week. I don’t need to keep the information of those visuals in my mind. There may be times, of heightened awareness, say when on a dark street at night, that one might try to picture what is happening in all directions at once, but usually we only focus visually on what is in front of us. But if you want to direct a video in 360, you need to be able to conceive of what is happening in all directions.
This music video by Enya shows how challenging it can be to conceive of the full space in 360 video:
As a dancer and choreographer I find that the conception of 360 video actually is in many ways more similar to the spatial awareness necessary to choreograph than might traditionally have been demanded for film.
The watching of immersive tech is one of its most innovative characteristics, as it is more interactive than traditional film. But even for the viewer immersive tech is similar to the Kinetescope in one element, both are defined by viewing as an individual experience. Throughout the twentieth century the watching of film was a collective experience. An entire theater full of people could watch the film together. The TV gave the possibility of individual viewing, but did not preclude collective viewing. But when one puts on a headset to view immersive tech it is an individual experience. This is similar to the Kinetescope as one put their eye up to the peephole to view a short clip, which was also a necessarily individual viewing experience.
Alissa Elegant is a choreographer exploring the medium of film. She taught the dance department GenEd Shall We Dance on dance in film in Spring 2018.