The Viewer As Cinematographer

Let's talk about how the viewer as an editor. Yet, more than just having clear indications of where (and where not to) look for continuity; how can we manipulate the audience's gaze to change their experience as it relates to the characters experience?

Let's understand the viewer as filling both the role of editor and cinematographer.

The viewer as an editor is looking around the scene to better understand a story. Basically, they are, by moving their head, 'cutting'. The viewer as cinematographer is how we should think about the frame's position when the viewer has just one thing to look at.

The framing, in other words. A small control over mise-en-scene. The viewer can't zoom in or out, but with such ultra-wide head-mounted display's they can focus (ignore periphery) or take it all in.

Filmmakers need to anticipate how a user will frame a shot in order to determine what is likely to be in frame, and where different objects are likely to enter the frame from.

An Example Scene

Let's take a scene where a character is leaving a restaurant but forgot an important envelope. Another character needs to catch their attention before they leave.

Our movement beats are as follows:

  1. Both characters are sitting across from each other.
  2. The left character stands up and leaves to the left.
  3. The remaining actor runs up to hand them the envelope.

A Medium Shot

Let's think of a few ways we can film this.

Let's try just our gut instinct in 360, we film the camera at a medium shot. Close enough the 360 cameras can get enough detail on the actor's faces, but not too close; the viewer can see both actors in the frame. The camera is offset from the center of conversation, at the end of the table perhaps.

The audience - unaware of the impending interruption during beat 2, gives the first character headroom. They follow the moving action and give leading room for the moving character to walk into. Why?

The moving character poses more questions in the narrative. Where are they going? What will happen next? The sitting character is static, and the audience does not expect them to move. They don't need to keep their eye on the sitting character.

The headroom is a more interesting phenomenon that, when broken down, is fairly obvious. Audiences don't tend to put characters that are moving right in the middle of the frame. They give them an amount of headroom so they can keep an eye on what is about to happen. In this case, the audience is performing the role of the cinematographer, who also would - in all likelihood - give that same headroom for a shot. It's a more comfortable framing to look at.

On beat 3, the second character runs into the new frame from the right. This surprises both the actor and the audience, who has likely panned away from the first character.

This isn't the only way to play this scene, however.

A Wide Shot

Without cutting, we can capture this with a wider shot. In our new framing, the actors are visible in the frame, and are still visible when the second character follows the first.

In this case, the audience can see the second character stand up and follow the first. A new tension arises, which is if they will catch the first character before they leave. The audience see's the motivation of the two characters at odds with each other (leaving, and bringing the envelope).

This framing might be better if the second character didn't actually catch the first one, as we got to watch that tension play out.

A Close Up

Again, without cutting. We can move the camera closer to the characters, such that the audience is between them when the character stands up to leave. In this case, I would place the camera on the same side of the table that the characters leave from.

This framing gives us a 180-degree split when the second character gets the attention of the first, let's say by shouting "Wait!". If we were following the character leaving, we see them spin around from facing away from us to facing towards us, and then the audience must also spin around to see what got the first characters attention, and/or because our attention was also grabbed by the "Wait!" from the second character.

This framing functions similarly as the first, in the way that the audience is likely having their experience line up with the first character's experience. Yet it is much more dramatic. It takes a lot more movement and effort on the audience's part to follow along. This can be detrimental if this level of involvement is not earned by the story - the audience won't feel like their efforts are paying off (see the section on tension and curiosity).

It can also be the way to go if we want to highlight the intensity or significance of the moment.

The Role of the Cinematographer

The cinematographer has a new role in 360 video, which is not to deliver these moments of empathy, discovery, and character-experience to the audience through the mise-en-scene, but to guide the audience to experience such moments themselves through their decisions.

The cinematographer must anticipate what decisions an audience is likely to make in various situations and account for how the audience's experience can be manipulated through camera placement to give different impressions.

Which characters matter, where to look, and more. Do the audiences know more than the characters? less? Do they discover elements with the characters, before the characters, or after them?