It’s been six months since the New York Times started pioneering the use of 360 video in journalism. Since last October, some 200 daily pieces were published on the NYT’s website and app, on top of higher-end VR productions. We’ve watched close to a 100 of those, and will continue to do so, for three main reasons:

  1. Lots of content, often: Journalists around the globe publishing their daily productions on a single platform provides an exceptional playground for those of us invested in 360 production. We’re not skipping on this massive learning opportunity.
  2. Content serving a well-defined purpose: information. Each Daily 360 video is a variation of how to best inform people. The multiplicity of pieces available allows us to start systematizing the experimental – from establishing shooting and editing styles to designing a new visual grammar.
  3. Studying the viewer: we have the audience’s privilege to judge the results with fresh eyes. 360 videos stir first and foremost emotional reactions: either you’re in it, flowingly, intensely, either you don’t get it. Understanding the triggers to these emotional responses is crucial to anchoring the power of immersive media such as 360 video. That’s what we’ve been trying to do, through the analysis of the New York Time’s 360 video production.

So, while journalists are battling dying batteries and unstitchable angles, we’d like to share what we’ve inferred from their efforts.

1. How to prompt the viewer into watching the right spot

In the case of reporter-led pieces, direct interaction with the viewer at the beginning of the piece works well. It indeed directly involves them in the story, and the reporter plays the “explorer” role, showing the viewers around and explaining the main points of interest. It works well for pieces such as this report on Paragliding Contest by Tomas Seymat (Euronews). This technique unleashes its full potential when a directional mike is used (see point 4.), as is the case in this short piece:

However, more often than not, reporters do not visually appear in the pieces, and that’s where getting the viewer to watch the right spots gets tricky. We’ve found that a very efficient way to organically drive the viewer’s attention is to use surrounding people’s gazes or attitudes to direct the viewer to interesting points. This was done greatly in “Witness the Woman’s March in Washington” (1:24): as the woman we’re facing looks up, the viewer is incited to do so too, and thus discovers the point of interest of the scene. Closeness to the person with the triggering attitude is essential.

2. How to manage interest on both sides of the camera

Generally speaking, it is good to think about the “middle” of everything. How can you be in between a subject and their action, so that both sides of the shots are worth watching? If it’s not an action, in the middle of what are you? What details can drive the intangible link you’re trying to communicate, and how best can you position them to have them appear as the viewer explores the scene? (See point 6. Details).

When both sides of a scene are of equal importance, like a dialogue, a group discussion: the camera is best set in between the people. For instance, the dialogue in Witness the Women’s March  (1:05) works very naturally, and we go from one side to the other as we would IRL.

When an action has two sides that are linked by action or movement, like a tennis game: make sure you have the camera in the middle, so people can follow the action by turning their heads or devices. It makes the most of the 360 medium and encourages exploration. A good example of such a setup is found in “Take the Polar Plunge in Milvaukee”.

When a scene has 2 sides of unequal importance, like a concert, a conference, a show, do not put the camera in between the crowd and the show. Chose a side, preferably the action side, but if access is restricted, chose the crowd. In “Lighting Up the Sky Across the Globe” for example, both cases are present. At 0:21  the camera is placed among the people, so we get to interact with them. At 0:38, the quality is not good enough to enjoy the fireworks and we’re not that interested in watching the crowd from that far.

The “middle” counts as much on the horizontal as on the vertical axis: “above” and “beneath” angles are great ways to engage people with the medium, as it forces vertical exploration. The opening shot of the video above is a great example of a vertical “middle”.

3. “Spatial edits”, a.k.a jump cuts, work beautifully in 360 video

Spatial edits are basically created from shots that move along a vertical or horizontal axis. For this to work effectively, and give a sense of space, distance, and relation between different spaces, a strong visual reference point needs to consistently be in sight. Between cuts, one has to make sure there is enough time for viewers to notice the reference point, which should be obvious.

Horizontal spatial edit: “Just a bit Off Center”. Notice how the camera moves along a horizontal line, getting further away from the statue inside the building.

Vertical spatial edit: Dining at the MET Breuer’s. Our personal favorite piece (find out why in our next post “Our Top 10 360 videos in journalism”). Notice how the camera goes from the top level of the restaurant to the lower level, using the bay window as a reference point. This allows the viewer to understand the topography of the place, and thus gives a better feeling of the place.

4. Live sounds and spatial audio are a crucial part of immersion

360 videos are much more than films to watch. They are environments to explore. Music, or even voices, when overlaid to the footage, brake pure immersion by using traditional filmmaking techniques, thus reminding the viewer that “it’s not real”. Conversely, “live” music, as part of the environment (played from a radio) adds a depth layer to the production. It could be worth trying narrating on-site, rather than in a studio.There are ways to aestheticize 360 production, but we should be conscious that any filmmaking technique used (yes, even editing) reduces immersion a little bit.

And if you really wish to leverage the immersive power of 360 video, spatial audio is the go-to solution – and probably the industry’s standard in a few months. You can check out youtube’s and facebook’s guidelines on how to best achieve viewer engagement through good spatial audio.

5. Using text and subtitles in 360 videos

Text, as well as voice-over, are great to provide context to the viewer. The use of text is as necessary as it can be intrusive. But there are ways to make it work flawlessly, especially for pieces that need more background information to bring the full story to life. Longer text works well under two main conditions:

  • If the shot is long enough so that exploration is allowed after reading,
  • If no real action that needs the viewer’s attention takes place at the same time

For instance, the huge and empty hangar in “Preserving a Brooklyn Temple of Graffiti” is interesting enough in itself to justify the length of the shot, while providing a calm setting that allows the viewer to focus on the text.

In “How a Mother Copes with Zika”, use of text is interesting. In the opening shot, the text is put on the side of the action, which allows the viewer to calmly immerse in the environment. However, at 01:06,  putting the text on the opposite side of the action leaves the viewer with the impression of constantly missing something. More importantly, it asks of the viewer to make a choice between information (reading) and immersion (watching), which, in the case of journalistic pieces, might not be ideal.

That said, there is one case in which text use in 360 video does NOT work, and it’s on moving shots. Those moving shots usually needed a thoughtful execution, thus they are in themselves providing value. Having to read something on top of exploring the (interesting) setting, “jams” the viewer’s attention span. An example of this can be found in the opening shot of “Tour an Art Deco Masterpiece“. It’s a great topic, but the shot is too short compared to the amount of text to read, and it’s frustrating to spend the whole opening shot staring at one direction while there is obviously something exciting happening (going down from the ceiling on a cherry picker). 

6. Details to look for is what keeps us engaged for a longer period of time

Details support the credibility of the scene by adding authenticity to it. They help us believe in the universe that is being shared, making us more receptive to the information conveyed.

The surprise such details convey is particularly attention-grabbing. Surprise can come from the detail itself. For example, in “Sleeping on Denver’s Bitterly Cold Streets” noticing a Tolkien book (00:43) in a homeless woman’s tent gives infinitely more perspective on her situation than any words could have. It drives empathy and identification.

Or, surprise stems from the fact a detail is noticed only the second or third we spin the video around. This leaves the viewer with the impression the detail has just appeared. And because surprise is such a positive emotion, those details keep us engaged, especially in single-shots pieces that would be boring without them. It gives us something to look for, not simply look at. But more importantly for journalistic pieces, it gives us something to look into, to read into.

7. Complex narration is best served by a vivid single shot

This is not TV, where complex stories need dynamic (and multiple) illustrations to keep the viewer engaged. 360 shots are not illustrations, they are stories in and by themselves. Yet, context needs to be provided by journalists. If the viewer is to listen to and understand a voice-over, all the while exploring and engaging with a shot, bombing them with new settings every 15 seconds discourages both exploration and understanding.

Detail-oriented (visuals and sounds) single-shots are environments to explore. The quiet pace of an interesting single space enables us to assess and analyze the setting and the information provided as if in real life. It supports presence and immersion. A great example of this is ” Inside Trump’s Cabinet Room”.

Instead of multiplying shots, visual information can be split into many, quieter elements, so as to let the viewer focus on the narration. Thinking in terms of crucial details (see point 6. above) for a single shot, rather than multiplying shots, could help reconcile the tension between a rich narration and a rich setting: eliminating the distraction posed by multiple active shots, we encourage the exploration of single, detail-rich, shots.

8. In 360 video, your position is your identity

In 360 videos, especially those viewable with a head mounted device (HMD), identity and position merge. The viewer is always asked to assume a role, and the only hint they get is the position they have in the scene.

In short VR story “Don Cheadle” from the Great Perfomers Series available on the NYTVR app, one looks down and sees the bar. Automatically, one feels like the bartender. If the viewer is too far from the action, they’re spectators. If they’re at the center of the action, but there’s no interaction with them, they’re ghosts (or God). If everyone is looking at the “viewer”:  they’re a main character in the story.

In journalistic pieces, more often than not, the viewer is a “ghost”, at the center of the action with no interaction whatsoever. However, clear identified roles in a story, or direct interaction with the viewer are great ways to raise concern about a story. Indeed, viewers are thus made partially, or completely, about the viewer.

9. Would it look better in another format?

We are used to consuming magnificent 4K beauty edits, whose main (and sole) interest lies in the visual magnificence they show off. Therefore, even if shot in 360, sunset timelapse or fireworks shows do not work very well for the viewers, as stand-alone pieces. 360 video does a lot for immersion and engagement, however if there’s something it doesn’t do well, it’s beauty shots. Therefore, 360 videos cannot really be seen as stand-alones pieces for their aesthetic purpose, yet – hopefully in a few months time, technology will evolve.

10. Moving shots : yes; rotating : no.

We’ve seen that moving shots, especially vertically (because it’s a perspective we don’t often get), work well for 360 video and storytelling.

However, setting a 360 camera on a rotating device feels like swimming against the current. It’s literally saying to the viewer : do not explore, do as you usually do: wait and see. It would be great content otherwise. But It’s not educating people about their agency in the use of 360 videos. So, don’t forget, in 360 video production, your rotating device…is the human watching your piece 😉