360° MoGraph VR – An Oral History
Using primarily After Effects and Cinema 4D, Ten Stories’ R&D program created a 45-second motion graphics driven 360° VR film. Our goal was to create an immersive experience using still frames, light effects, text animation and an eerie soundtrack. We thought it would be fun to reflect on the project in the form of an oral history.
Rob Craghead (Creative Director): Our company has an R&D program, which challenges us to create innovative stories using new or developed techniques. We always want to be versed on the latest technologies — for our clients and us.
We create a lot of animated motion graphic pieces, and to be able to share that look and feel in 360° VR viewed on a headset; I thought it would be very cool. We didn’t want to rely on 3D animation, but instead on After Effects looks, effect, textures, and typography as the visual.
Peter Weisbrot (Screenwriter): I think that there was an opportunity for us to explore a new medium. We didn't really know what was going to happen, so we just wanted to give it a shot, and see what we could come up with. We thought that there was a lot more that we could control if we just tried to make everything from scratch.
Rob: We looked online to try to find examples of what to do and how to do it. Most pieces we found were live-action video with text tracked and superimposed in the scene. We didn't want to do that. We didn't want to augment an already produced video scene. We wanted to create something out of scratch where we had total control over the image without shooting anything.
We didn’t find anything particularly helpful. Usually with anything that you do, somebody has a tutorial somewhere. Someone has some article or video about how it should either look, or how you should approach it, or even the tools you should use. That's not to say there isn't anything out there, because there very well could be. We just didn't find anything. That was inspiring.
Chet Brown (Animator): There are few examples that I saw but there really weren't many. The only one I can think of, really, is the one by the Mill, because they did a whole insane production. They had to create their own software for it. They had some absurd number of really talented artists on it, so it was a cool demonstration, but really nothing practical, unless you're talking Hollywood budget.
Rob: I think for this particular technology, its best viewed while wearing VR glasses. You can look at it online and move the mouse around to view all angles... It's OK, but to really use the technology correctly, fortunately or unfortunately, you really want to wear the VR glasses. Companies that entertain an small group of prospective customers at a time could take advantage of this technology, which usually means a B2B company at trade shows, etc. This really isn't a business to consumer play, unless it involves gaming.
Chet: As for an advertisement, there's that one for Clash of Clans. That was a cool one, but it was purely animation. There was another one put out by Google as a software test. It had some pretty gnarly programming going on, so if you looked at something once, it would do a different thing the second time you looked at it, so that was cool. That was a nice proof of concept.
Peter: I saw one example. I believe it was created by IGN. It was an action sequence that took place from the first person perspective, and it moved through the scene. It felt pretty immersive, but it never cut. It was one constant thing. I do think that's kind of common for a lot of 360 videos right now, is that they are like one full take. I look forward to seeing, actually, more stuff where there can be cuts, and it can be a little more dynamic.
Chet: I was talking with some guys in Japan and they said the next thing that really needs to happen with VR is better camera technology for live action. Also there are some forms of eye tracking within the headset that's still pretty rudimentary. Once that gets better, the cameras get better -- and I guess the processors have to catch up, too -- everything will be able play more smoothly and in higher quality.
The next step is involving depth of field, because right now everything has to be rendered flat, or if it's forced up the field, so you're basically only focusing on one thing. If eye tracking in the cameras get to a point where you can automatically focus for the viewer - it would be insane. It would be so much more of an immersive experience, because right now it's a lot better than it used to be, and it's obviously much more affordable, but it's not fully immersive yet. That's one of those big steps that would really push it forward.
Rob: We needed a concept for the project. I was hoping to tie in an applicable industry so that we could end up having an example to show them once this was complete. Who knows, maybe they would want something similar. We just talked about a few different industries….Real estate, hospitality, education. We landed on wireless cybersecurity.
We all know cybersecurity is an industry that is only going to get more and more important. Most cybersecurity companies work on an enterprise level, so they do a lot of trade shows and private showings. We thought having a 360° VR product would work well with their captive audience. Really, what better way to differentiate them from their competition than show their technology in a different way. So, That’s how we came about it. We came up with a high-level idea, and then we push it off to our creative department, who then wrote the script.
Peter: I had spoken to Rob, who is the creative director on it, and he wanted something edgy that, you know, was still hacker related. At this point in time, I think everybody's head maybe goes straight to Mr. Robot. That was probably the biggest influence.
Because VR is such an isolated experience, we wanted it to feel like this omnipresent kind of person was talking to you, and telling you like their deepest secrets. We wanted it to feel personal, so that's how we approached it.
Chet: I really wasn't sure how to construct it initially, because I didn't even know how the algorithms worked for folding it into a cube…taking it from a cube, and putting it into an equirectangular aspect. I really wasn't sure. I had thought that it would be a more natural transition between Cinema4D and After Effects, where I could just plug in the data from C4D, and put it into AE. I thought that would work a little bit better, but when you're dealing with six cameras, which is what you had to do, things can get a little wonky. Not everything is going to be a smooth transition. I'm not actually even sure why. I don't actually know why just plugging in the same numbers doesn't give you the exact same results, but it doesn't. There was a lot more finessing, and kind of forcing things to work than I had originally imagined. Whatever. That happens a lot.
We basically went through three iterations. The third one was the one that worked. First was entirely out of After Effects, and that was okay. It just lacked depth. You can tell it was designed in a 2D space that fakes 3D, and it just wasn't convincing. Then we did just C4D, and that was functionally sound, but when it came to some of the animation, and there were some aesthetic things that weren't working in C4D, this was when the basis for the third process came about, which was a mix of the two.
What we did specifically was kind of unique in that we created the visual effects in Photoshop, arranged them in Cinema and then exported individual movies at different sizes, which were imported into After Effects for placement in the scene. After much testing we decided that the rendering from After Effects was better for final output.
If we had to create a low-poly environment, I could do that primarily in C4D, and that would probably work out a little bit better. If we did need to have some mix of After Effects in there that was more than just some post-processing, it would need to be a similar process where everything has to be rendered out separately. Everything would be done individually.
Peter: I think watching it through the VR headset for the first time is probably my favorite part. It’s fun to see what you come up with.
Rob: I would definitely make it a lot longer. I would definitely let the viewer be able to take in all the stuff all around, and even have some cues within the script to tell where to look. Have it a little more interactive. Have a little more immersive by having more sound effects to help the design. In other words, I would use the platform as the character more.
Chet: I actually felt it could be longer. At first, when we were working and viewing in the program I thought that everything moved a little too slow, because in comparison to just a regular flat animation, the pacing was a little bit stagnant, but when viewing at 360° on YouTube, that, I felt was okay, but when I put on the headset, I really felt like I could spend more time there. There was a lot going and there was hidden stuff I put in there that you could watch it 10 times and not even realize it.
Rob: What I really like about the end product is that there are all these little things that happen everywhere. If you watch it once, you're not going to notice all of them. If you watch it again, you're going to look for something different.
There are certain aspects of it, which were very problematic while we were developing it, that ended up being really cool. For instance, all the pictures along the side. There was a lot of debate about how that should be done. Whether it should be flat planes of faces, or do we really need depth. We went five, six rounds of how much depth we wanted to show these pictures of the populace. Finally we got the right dimensionality. It did take awhile to get there.
Chet: We figured out early on when testing to render out one frame as opposed to a longer movie. Rendering a one-minute full-resolution rectangular movie took a long time. Well, we eventually made it work. It was a long process of “head on desk.” Things just kept not working out. Once I got just a single frame in 360°, and say, "Okay. This is the look that I want. It has proper depth, now we can get started." That was a really nice hurdle to jump.
Rob: When you see all your effort in a physical form, and it meets or exceeds your original idea, that's why we do this. It's not an informational thing. It's entertainment. People watch, and there are entertained. To tell a story and to be able to tell it the way you want to tell it, and not just tell it, but have your viewers experience it. It's very rewarding.