Virtual Reality Video Production: Civil War Trust Picket Post


The concept of virtual reality has been around for some time, but the recent boom in the smartphone and gaming markets has catapulted VR out the recesses of niche technology and into the platform of storytelling.

We were contacted by our friends at Civil War Trust in early 2015 about researching virtual reality for use on their website. To say we were excited is an understatement. Though unseasoned in the world of VR, we were confident that our knowledge of Civil War history and film production would be enough to help us navigate this unfamiliar territory. Learn about our VR process and how we completed this project for the Civil War Trust below.

Choosing Virtual Reality Filming Equipment

The first step was figure out which technology we would use. After looking into many 360° camera rigs, we finally settled on the GoPro Omni. The GoPro Omni is equipped with a spherical rig to capture 8K 360° video (8K is the recent successor to the 4K phenomenon and is the highest of ultra high definition resolution). The GoPro Omni has six cameras, making it easier to capture quality, high-motion 360° video.

Testing Virtual Reality Filming

Before diving into our first VR video for the Civil War Trust, we thought it best to shoot a test video. Our goal was to take a simple subject – a snippet of history on the KC River Market – and see it through all stages of production: the difficulties/limitation of camera operating, the challenge of keeping the viewers’ eyes tethered to the action, understanding how to stitch the footage of 6 cameras into one parallel projection, and figuring out how to add 3D graphics to the footage in post-production.

In this first test shoot, we were able to check off many of our target goals: stabilizing the moving camera rig, compositing 3D graphics, and guiding the viewer's eyes with cues from the speaker/tour guide, Keith Johnson. We toyed with a few creative ways to hide the camera operator, Brian Rose, but since the nature of the video was experimental, we decided to leave him in the shot and hope the video’s primary action would draw the viewer’s eyes away from the cameraman.

Overall, though brief, finishing the test video gave us enough confidence to move forward on our VR video with the Civil War Trust.

Civil War Trust Picket Post VR Shoot

Our VR project with the Civil War Trust was to capture a picket post, a group of soldiers that are placed at a forward position to watch for an enemy attack.

Keith Johnson (co-director) left, Michael Palm (camera operator) right

Keith Johnson (co-director) left, Michael Palm (camera operator) right

On a normal film shoot, the director stands behind the camera and is able to watch actors’ performances. In the case of VR, our director, Shane Seley, had to dress up in a union soldier costume, pose as a sentry (you can barely see him off in the distance on the ridge in the images below) and attempt to watch the performances as an extra.

Shane Seley in center dressed as union soldier directing actors

Shane Seley in center dressed as union soldier directing actors

This was no easy task. The rest of the camera crew had to hide behind a hill and hope the actors did their job. After half a day of rehearsal/choreography with the actors, we finally rolled the first take.

Picket Post Stills Collage.jpg

The post-production workflow was very different on this project compared to what we’re used to. Traditional video editing (sequencing one clip after another to form a story) was basically thrown out the window. We added some music and sound effects, overlaid a few graphics here and there, but beyond that, we really had to rely on the performances we captured in-camera to tell the story and direct the viewer’s eyes. We could not have pulled off this project if it weren’t for the help of our team of reenactors, whose attention to detail and knowledge of Civil War history is always an invaluable asset to us on set.

Moving forward, we intend to partner with the Civil War Trust on more VR projects. While we haven’t mastered VR video just yet, this project has sparked new ideas and we look forward to refining our VR skill set.

If you’re interested in virtual reality services, contact our friendly team. We’re excited to master this art form and would love the opportunity to work with you!

Wide Awake Films