360 Video and Perspective Distortion

Photography and cinematography deal with the same core challenge of the image: Projecting a 3-dimensional image onto a 2-dimensional plane.

Photospheres and 360 video does not allow for head movement. There is no parallax. No looking behind or around something. No observing from different angles or perspectives.

That's a big deal. Talk to VR artists and creators, and this will be discussed as a weakness to the format. In those contexts, they aren't wrong. Yet, talk to photographers and filmmakers, and it's this projection - this conversion of 3-dimensional objects to a 2-dimensional representation - that's a primary source of the creative power of cameras.

As a photographer, I exaggerate depth or collapse objects together by standing closer or further away (and perhaps zooming to compensate). The placement of the camera and the relative distances of the objects means everything. Understanding perspective distortion is the first thing I cover when teaching composition - even before discussing the rule of thirds.

When dressing and posing a portrait subject, we photographer's use lots of little "tricks". A pocket square to break up a broad chest, a low-contrast background (dark gray background on a dark suit, perhaps) to draw attention away from a silhouette, towards a face. We angle subjects so they appear thinner, give them negative space so they have form. We light subjects in different ways to accent their most flattering features. Sounds unscrupulous? Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder, as they say. The concepts are just things to understand and utilize to do our jobs. In this case, taking portraits that clients are happy with. In our case here, helping tell stories.

Photographers are tasked with capturing the world "as it is", and blamed of cheating when they exaggerate too much. Yet, all photography is a lie. No image is a "perfect" representation because that's simply impossible - we're making 2-dimensional images out of 3-dimensional worlds. So things are going to distort, morph, and adjust. We also want a well-composed image that brings attention to the parts that matter, and away from the parts that don't. It's impossible to be neutral, there is no neutral. Photographers and cinematographers use and manipulate the world to capture the image they wish to capture. To tell their story, to please their client, to appear 'authentic' or 'documentarian'.

Many documentary films have a shaky camera. It isn't too hard for a documentary filmmaker to use a tripod, monopod, gimbal, or another method to achieve steadier shots. In high school I once attached my camera to a long piece of wood with water bottles duct-taped to the bottom; increasing the angular inertia of the camera got me a steadier shot.

In many of these cases, documentary filmmakers choose not to use such tools, because they want the shaky camera. It's a choice they are making to look more authentic. It appeals to an informal, unpolished home-video aesthetic that viewers trust. They're manipulating you!

360 video is stored as a grid of 2-dimensional images. We may wrap it around a 3D object and stare at it (ahem, "stuck in spheres"), but it's 2D. Cinematographers have to deal with all the same projection, perspective, and visual trickery "issues" that traditional cinema brings to the table.

Much of the aesthetic of 360 video will be driven by the tools. We can't change focus, zoom in or out, and have a hard time moving the camera. What can we utilize about these limitations to a purposeful and creative end?

We can change the relative distance (and thus size) of just about anything we can move, including the camera. Perspective distortion will be a hugely significant creative tool in a 360 filmmaker's toolbox. How close objects are to the camera will be the first decision we are likely to make while staging scenes. I can come to this conclusion without watching a single 360 video, because it is such a primitive and obvious limitation (or "feature") of 360 cameras and thus it must be tackled head-on for creative ends.1

  1. I can also come to this conclusion as someone who has watched a lot of 360 video's.