The Smile Experience: Part 2

In the first part of this series on Operation Smile we discussed the development of our collaboration with Operation Smile and Johnson & Johnson. What does it take to travel halfway across the world and work with emerging technologies to produce an effective tool for marketing? The answer is simple: a solid plan, talented people, and determination.

Working Together

A project as big as the Operation Smile video required cross collaboration to get off the ground. We worked closely with Johnson & Johnson and Operation Smile throughout the process. Having the right connection was important, but what really helped was the fact that everyone on the project was dedicated to the cause.

A considerable amount of time was spent scouting the location for the project. When filming a 360-degree video, the environment heavily influences each shot. Since our crew couldn't exactly take a short trip overseas, we needed some help from the Operation Smile team. Our Account Lead on the project, Chris Lindinger, went into detail about the scouting process.

“Regardless of the type of video you’re shooting, location scouting is always an important step when planning a video. Because so much of 360 videos rely on the natural environment, we required information about the locations much earlier than we normally do. This was a bit of a challenge because our shoot location was over 3700 miles away in another country.

“We worked with folks from Operation Smile who were already on the ground in Morocco to send us photos from their mobile phones. This gave us the preliminary details we needed so we had an idea of how the various locations of the shoot would help tell the story and what the available lighting, etc., was like. When we arrived in Morocco, it was a function of returning to the places we had photos from to verify our understanding of the area.”

Choosing Equipment

The equipment used to shoot the Operation Smile video played one of the biggest roles in the project. Weeks of research from the film crew went into choosing cameras, rigs, and other necessary equipment for the shoot. Since the project required traveling to a foreign country, they needed to make sure that they got everything right from the beginning.

“We actually spent a lot of time selecting our gear before the trip. We needed to stay lightweight and mobile, but at the same time we needed redundancy in our setup in case of equipment failure. There aren’t exactly a lot of Radio Shacks in Morocco,” Digital Imaging Technician Xavier Johnson joked. “That meant backup cameras, backup charging systems, and backup data storage.”

One of the challenges of choosing the equipment dealt with the nature of the shoot itself. Filming a 360-degree VR video is very different from traditional shoots. The equipment they chose had to be able to capture the right shots and work well in the environment. Johnson went into detail about the challenges he faced while they were filming.

“Shooting in VR is night and day from traditional cinematography. If you think about traditional filmmaking, imagine it as a series of images. Ultimately, a sequence of rectangular compositions. Your job as a filmmaker is to make sure that the subjects you want to focus on stay in that rectangle, are properly framed, lit well, and sound good. Everything outside the rectangle (lights, microphones, cables, camera guys, reflectors, etc.) doesn’t matter because it’s outside the shot. As long as the sequence of images that comes from that rectangle looks good, you’re all set. You can even use frequent cuts to shift the viewer’s viewpoint and perspective in a way that favorably portrays your subject and tells your story. You, the director, decide what the viewer focuses on.

“With VR filmmaking, that all goes out the window because, obviously, the viewer can look around in 360 degrees. There is no rectangle, there is no ‘off-camera’ because the VR camera captures everything. The crew had to physically hide from the camera’s line of sight during filming, otherwise the viewer would be able to see us in the final product. With VR video, you’re no longer capturing a series of images, what you’re now capturing is an entire environment. And when you place the viewer in that space, they can look around and focus on anything they want, and not necessarily what you intend. So the entire space needs to be compelling--you can’t operate around a singular focal point or composition. You need to find subtle ways of guiding the viewer's gaze around the space and give them plenty of time to explore it visually. That means no rapid cuts or fast camera movements, which can be disorienting at best and physically sickening at worst.”

Shooting the video also required multiple cameras to accurately get a 360-degree shot. Johnson explained that the crew had to get creative when it came to using their equipment.

“The 3DHero rig (the 3D-printed camera housing that held our 14 cameras) let us capture 3D video in 360 degrees. It was simple, lightweight, and stable enough for extended use. In the end our whole setup revolved around assembling a collection of modular parts (the tripod, the housing, the cameras, the charging system) that could be replaced, upgraded, and otherwise changed to fit our needs- as opposed to one of those singular, all-inclusive (and frankly expensive) camera systems that are popping up all over the market.”

The audio portion of the video was nearly as important as the video our crew captured. Ambisonic audio can immerse the viewer into the environment, so it was crucial to accurately capture every sound. Our crew captured audio from at least four different angles during the shoot.

The crew needed a lot of equipment to shoot, but they managed not to be weighed down with bags of heavy equipment. VR video doesn’t require the same equipment traditional filmmakers use, and it helped make transportation much easier.

“The bright side to VR video is that you don’t need cumbersome lights and other studio equipment because frankly, they’re not much use when the camera literally sees in every direction,” Johnson explained. “This allowed us to limit our equipment load to a few small bags that could be easily transported by the crew.”

The most impressive piece of equipment used during the shoot may have been the charging station the crew used. Our Director of Photography for the project, Kyle Garvey, spent weeks putting it together.

“The custom charger we created consisted of 14-mini-USB cables wired together (with 3x 14V-5V step-down voltage regulators) to one P-tap cable that we would plug into a large V-mount battery,” Garvey explained. “The only tricky part was feeding all of the mini-USBs through the rig in a way that they wouldn’t be seen by any of the cameras’ lenses.”

Looking Toward the Future

The results from the video exceeded our expectations. Operation Smile debuted the video at the 2016 New York Smile Event, and both the guests and our film crew were amazed by what they saw.

“We thought people would put the headsets on for a minute or so, but people were going through the full eight-minute video. It really did resonate with them,” Lindinger recounted. “We thought we were going to have to cut it down to a one- or two-minute teaser, but they sat there the whole time and watched. After people took the headsets off, they sat around talking about it for another few minutes. It really impacted people.”

The Operation Smile video has opened new doors for Tonic. Now we hope to dive deeper into projects that use virtual and augmented reality.

“Next, we’d be ready to step deeper into VR – augmented reality (AR), rendered material, not actual footage,” Lindinger explained. ”In terms of shooting, storing the data, stitching, rendering – we’ve done it all. We could do it again quicker. Next is AR.”

We hope that the project with Operation Smile and Johnson & Johnson won’t be Tonic’s final foray into the world of charity. Tonic’s Managing Director, Justin Mathews, hopes that our work will inspire other companies to do more to make the world a better place.

“I urge people to continue to push the envelope when it comes to new technologies and how we are using them to change the digital landscape. We want to lead the charge in the Philadelphia agency scene to donate more than just an afternoon, or some creative hours, etc., to a cause. Let’s use technology to assist us in the power of giving around the world.”