Tarik Benbrahim

Director of Special Projects at RYOT

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Welcome to the second Q&A in our VRU (VR to the Power of You) series, where we’re asking some of the world’s best VR content creators how they’re developing groundbreaking work that’s pushing the limits of VR. In this latest entry, we chatted with Tarik Benbrahim, Director of Special Projects at RYOT, a studio of artists, filmmakers and humanitarians who are using 360/VR to tell important, powerful stories from all over the world.

RYOT was born from a passion for humanitarian work. Can you tell us how this led to the creation of an immersive media company?

When our founders, Bryn Mooser and David Darg, were working with disaster-relief efforts in post-earthquake Haiti they began making films on a DSLR camera to give the crisis the attention it deserved, from the perspective of those most-affected. Years later, David got ahold of an early GoPro 360 rig and headed out to help with the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. When he returned, he edited the content into a short documentary. The response was more than he could have anticipated; people were taking off the goggles with tears in their eyes. That’s when we knew we were onto something. By using 360 video/VR, we knew we could amplify an audience’s personal attachment to what they’re watching.

How has VR helped your ability to story tell and impact your audience?

It’s easy to forget that there are a huge percentage of people who never leave their country, state, or even hometown in their lifetime. So, how can we expect them to relate to someone on the other side of the planet who is fleeing their home by boat because their leader is dropping bombs on them? For us, VR has always been a tool that lets us bridge that gap, helping viewers “become the story.”

What is it like to record 360 video in an active war zone or in the aftermath of a disaster?

We’ve been all over the world with these cameras and whether you’re in a war zone or on a tropical beach in Hawaii, you get the same problems. Cameras overheating or glitching, settings mysteriously changing – it’s literally an exercise in patience.  We always bring lots of extra cameras and batteries because something always comes back broken. However, newer camera technology with global shutters, syncs, and controls is helping with that side of things; optical flow stitching algorithms and live stitching is allowing us to check our shots on site now, almost instantly.

Smooth camera movements are essential to great VR films. How do you ensure this when filming?

We’re constantly mindful of camera movement. The last thing you want is somebody in goggles at an activation getting motion sick or falling over. Thankfully, that’s another area that the people developing hardware are really mindful of. Gyroscopic stabilizers, cameras built on – and sometimes even around – gimbals and the utilization of stabilization programs/plugins during post are all ways to keep the horizon stable and eliminate the risk of losing a viewer. For our content creators who are strapping these cameras to different vehicles to get all these dream shots, I think the biggest issue isn’t the big movements anymore as much as the smaller, more intense vibrations that can warp an image.

How do you think 360 video/VR filming technology differs from other types?

Filming unscripted in the field leaves you open and exposed, at the mercy of the elements and variables that are out of your control. When shooting in crowds, parallax issues are nearly unavoidable, and there’s always that one guy who decides to walk up to the camera and ruin the magic moment you traveled all those hours to capture. Interviews in 360 are pretty tough too; we’ve put directors under cameras, in bushes and around corners, and had them yell questions. As a whole, it’s just an industry of challenges no matter how much you prepare, what type of piece you’re creating, or what technology you’re filming with.

A big obstacle to VR going mainstream is SIM sickness. How do you get past that when making a documentary with such an intense subject matter?

Aside from being very aware of camera movement and ensuring stabilization when we capture these images, limiting the time the user spends in the experience is essential. If you’re approaching a topic that takes over an hour to cover, break your film up into episodes. We usually keep our segments down to 5 to 8 minutes.

For aspiring VR filmmakers, do you recommend they put their content on any medium to build their reputation, or focus on exclusivity and monetization right away?

If you’re a filmmaker who is just starting to explore the medium, my advice would be to focus on making your content accessible first, and worry about monetization later. Remember, there are many people who haven’t seen a VR film, and even the most viral content we’ve produced still only gets a fraction of the eyeballs that framed video content gets. So, I would say to focus on creating new and interesting ways to shoot, things to shoot and places to get your camera, and getting it seen. Worry about monetization later.

Pixel density and refresh rates are some of the biggest challenges in VR today. Where do you think the challenge lies in the next 5 years?

The challenge will be in creating displays that can keep up with the quality of images that new cameras are producing. Some new cameras are producing 12k images at high frame rates, and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve personally watched 360/VR through a display higher than 4k. Future proof images are already here, so keeping up with quality will be huge.

Adding new levels of immersion in a VR experience will also be challenging. Some of my favorite experiences utilize haptics – the science of applying touch (tactile) sensation and control to interaction with computer applications. This creates a whole new set of issues. POV capture is a big one as well; the audience can only be a fly on the wall for so long. Audiences crave movement and perspective changes in these experiences, so the more human we can make the movements feel, and the more-drastic the places we can get the camera, the better.

What should amateur filmmakers know before shooting VR for the first time?

“Why VR?” is a rule of thumb we’ve adopted at RYOT. Not every story is worthy of being told in VR. Also, don’t neglect sound design. That’s a lesson we learned late in the game, but it makes a huge difference to those watching your content. Luckily, ambisonic microphones are getting cheaper and workflows to incorporate directional audio into your content are getting easier. Some newer entry-level cameras even have directional mics built-in.

Lastly, what do you think all great VR films have in common?

The first thing I look for, before anything else, is lots of motion and creative camera placement. Things that keep me looking around and utilizing the entire 360 space. I also like experiences that sequester visual and sound cues to direct my attention somewhere else, because maybe something important is happening behind me that I would never know about.

It’s great that two people can have two different experiences in one VR film, but some elements are crucial to the story. Overall though, it’s all so new – the options are limitless. There are so many places a VR camera has never been, so many stories that haven’t been told, so many editing tricks and effects that have never been explored and implemented. I just think it’s pretty cool that we’re at the onset of it all, and there’s an entire industry dedicated to making the things we create better and better at every turn.

Thanks to Tarik for sharing all of his stories, tips and advice. If you’re a VR creator and you want your content to be seen, explore Samsung VR. It can help you with gain the reach you need – available on Gear VR, mobile and web platforms, as well as in over 50 countries abroad, it can take your content to a global audience.

If you’re interested in VR, be sure to follow us on Twitter (#BeASamsungDev), like us on Facebook  and join us at the 2017 Samsung Developer Conference (happening on October 18-19 in San Francisco) where you can attend a variety of VR content sessions and meet and mingle with other VR creators.

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