We recently produced a VR test with Michael Rosen. In this blog post we go behind the scenes to look a bit at how it was made and what we learnt.

Nat setting up to film 360 video.

Nat setting up to film 360 video.

With the accessibility and advancements of smartphone technology, Virtual Reality has been on the rise and so we have been wanting to produce some VR of our own for quite some time. We had experimented with a couple of 360 image tests with VR before, but this is our first go at creating a VR video and we were lucky enough to do it in collaboration with the children's novelist and poet Michael Rosen.

Primarily we wanted Michael Rosen to be the key feature in the experience - he is very much a public figure and it was a great opportunity to place him as a part of the poems world in a way that hasn’t been done before. Having a live action element to the project also gave us a chance to utilize our new studio space, recording Michael Rosen on a white backdrop ready for compositing.

Michael Rosen being filmed in our studio.

Michael Rosen being filmed in our studio.

The poem from the book 'A Great Big Cuddle' by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell.

The poem from the book 'A Great Big Cuddle' by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell.

The project was to accompany his latest poetry book ‘A Great Big Cuddle’. The richness of the poems in combination with the beautiful illustrations by Chris Riddell were screaming to be animated. Ideally it would have been nice to do some fully hand drawn animation of these characters, something in the style of the work of Joanna Quinn but with time constraints and coming to grips with the workflow and rules of a new medium we utilized the After Effects puppet pin tool. This allowed us to animate the original illustrations directly (once they’d been prepared in Photoshop) and gave us more freedom to experiment with the medium.  

Whilst working on the video we found that there are a few things to take into consideration when working in VR. One point is to allow time at the beginning of the piece for the viewer to put on the headset and to become accustomed to the environment. Some VR playback software allows you to pause and play the video once the headset is on, but with other software it’s a bit more tricky and so integrating a holding screen into the opening of our film so that the viewer can put the headset on and get comfortable was paramount for ease of the experience.  

Holding screen for the VR video, counting down till the start.

Holding screen for the VR video, counting down till the start.

Something that you can’t take for granted in VR is where you’re audience will be looking. In cinema and video you compose a shot in order to direct the eye to where you want the viewer to be looking, but at least you know they will be looking at the screen. It sounds obvious but in VR the viewer can be looking in any direction at any time and so if you want them to be looking in any specific direction at a given time, you really have to lead them there. We utilized multiple tricks to achieve this, from overt arrows to progressions of sequential illustrations and sound effects. In particular we found sound effects to be a nice subtle way to suggest something happening off screen and encouraging the viewer to look for its origin.

Another consideration is the speed of the animation in combination with the requirement placed on the viewer to look around the environment as the film progresses. In an earlier test we found the animation was too fast or moving too great a distance for people to comfortably follow with their head. In the end we found that for the most part it was good to keep faster paced action within a span of 120 degrees and anything that went further would be at a slower pace.

Michael Rosen reading from 'A Great Big Cuddle' in the FLETCHERWILSON studio.

Michael Rosen reading from 'A Great Big Cuddle' in the FLETCHERWILSON studio.

Our animation was based on an individual poem the narrative and visual journey was quite linear, it would be good to further develop a piece that has more elements for the viewer to find rather than the viewer simply being led. This then could start to move more toward the realm of interactive VR in which the viewer selects what they want to view and chooses their journey through the environment.

Dave working on the Michael Rosen VR environment

Dave working on the Michael Rosen VR environment

Working on this project really has illuminated the fact that creating VR experiences is becoming relatively accessible to mainstream users and the general public, with platforms such as Youtube providing a very simple encoder and platform for delivery. With the accessibility of Google Cardboard instantly making everyone's phone a VR headset, it is an exciting time for VR.