Vancouver VR creators examine the ethics of 360 video with Tidal Traces film

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      When filmmaker and new-media artist Nancy Lee put on a VR headset and watched her first 360 video, she knew right away that she wanted to work in the medium.

      “My two main interests are film and immersive audio-visual installations,” she tells the Straight, seated across the table of the National Film Board’s conference room. “This format is so exciting because it sits between the two.”

      Rising to popularity in 2016 when YouTube began supporting the technology, 360 videos have since become regular features on Facebook newsfeeds and tourism websites. Filmed, as the name suggests, with a rig that sees in every direction, the videos capture events beyond the limits of human vision. To watch the movie, a user inserts their film into a VR headset. As the wearer looks around, the scene moves with them—embedding them in the action.

      By transforming the way an audience experiences the films, recording in 360 degrees has the potential to rewrite the conventions of cinema.

      “It’s so new, there’s so much pioneering involved,” Lee says of her choice to embrace the format. “With traditional film, there’s a visual language that we all know—if a phone rings, there’ll be a shot of a person’s eyes and then a cut to the phone, and we know they’ll pick it up. We’ve been trained to understand those cues. There hasn’t been much done on creating that language for 360 video, and it was really exciting find out what works for me and for the audience.”

      An artist who has always been interested in moving bodies, Lee immediately gravitated towards creating a dance piece for the medium. In summer 2016, she connected with choreographer Emmalena Fredriksson, and shot her first 360 video demo. It wasn’t easy. Building her own rig—a 3-D printed platform designed to house six GoPros—the artist successfully filmed a one-minute teaser featuring three performers. The short immediately piqued the interest of some high-profile organizations.

      Keen to help develop the concept further, Vancouver’s prestigious Dance Centre offered the pair a residency. They used the time to workshop choreography that could be viewed from all angles, before landing funding from the National Film Board to build the project into something bigger. Together they finalized their concept: a four-minute, three-person dance in the shallows of the Boundary Bay mudflats.

      Then the hard work began.

      “There were a lot of challenges,” Lee recalls. “Most difficult was the fact that electronics and water don’t mix. We used the Google Jump rig, which is 16 GoPro cameras. There’s a giant battery because the camera takes so much power, and we had to work out where to stash it. We couldn’t put it straight in the water, so we had to do some troubleshooting. We got two dry bags and a Rubbermaid and poked a hole through for the cable, and then filled one of the bags with sand so it submerged out of sight

      “On top of that, the scene is so far away from land, we couldn’t go all the way back for each take,” she continues. “Even though we shot in July, it was cold. It’s much harder for dancers to perform in cooler temperatures, because it puts stresses on the muscles for certain movements. We would use windsurfer maps to work out the velocity that the tide was moving at, and I would walk out half an hour before with the gear so I could find a suitable area for the performance. I’d set up the camera and then text the dancers twenty minutes before we were ready to tell them to start walking out, so they could stay warm. We had maybe a 20 minute window to get the shot before the tide went out and the ground dried up completely. Then we had to push further out.”

      While the environment posed challenges for the group, the quirks of the medium proved even trickier. With the cameras seeing in all directions, Lee wasn’t able direct the performance once the GoPros were rolling. Instead, she found herself beginning the shot, running several metres away to conceal herself in a nearby dip in the sand, and lying prone in a wetsuit until the take was completed.

      “The dancers had to take a lot of agency—much more than a traditional film shoot – because we couldn’t physically be in the shot,” she recalls. “They had to take responsibility for the camera. When we pressed record, the production team would retreat, and the dancers had to decide independently whether they were happy with the take and wanted to move on, or would rather repeat the sequence. In a dance film, I’d normally be talking the whole time as they were performing—I’d be directing them. In the 360 video format, we had to trust them to make their own choices. It’s a filming style that forces the production team to lose some of their agency. Rather than a director’s medium, I’d call it a performer’s medium.”

      Problematic, too, is the fact that it’s near impossible to predict where a viewer might choose to focus when watching a 360 video. In Tidal Traces, haunting violin melodies and splashes from the water direct the audience’s attention to certain locations—but when immersed in the virtual environment, headset-wearers are free to make their own visual choices. In Lee’s opinion, that facet merits an inquiry into the format’s ethics.

      “Working in 360 means that both the actors and directors feel a sense of vulnerability,” she says. “People in dance talk about ethics, because you have to keep checking in with performers’ bodies. We talk about ethics in documentaries too. But no-one is discussing it in VR and 360 video yet because it’s such a new medium.

      “As a stage performer, you have the sides that you can retreat to,” she continues. “With regular filmmaking, it’s possible to walk out of the frame. In 360, you’re always in view. As a performer, how do you maintain your ‘on’ mode? When we did our dance workshops, the dancers felt vulnerable because they couldn’t tell where the audience was looking. As directors and choreographers, you feel vulnerable because you can’t tell them what to do during production. And technologically, because you’re not close to the camera you don’t know if one of the GoPros has turned off, or what footage it’s picking up. On top of that, because it’s an immersive medium, the audience has to have confidence that there won’t be something terrifying that pops up behind them.

      “There’s a lot of trust involved in 360 video,” she continues. “Because we have so little control over the filming process as directors, it’s even more important to have empathy and compassion and understanding of how the dancers and performers feel. In order to have the best possible outcome, we have to work out how to empower them so they have the agency and confidence to make the right calls. Making this film has given me a lot more insight into that.”

      Tidal Traces plays in the VIFF Vancity Theater atrium from March 7 to 11, during Vancouver International Women in Film Festival (VIWIFF) hours.

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays