ASHE ‘68: THE VR EXPERIENCE
Eve M. Cohen thrives at the intersection of technology and creativity. As a cinematographer, she often works in the burgeoning field of virtual reality, where each project requires a unique approach. “VR has actually been around for a long time,” she says. “People have tried it a number of times in the past, but due to advancements in the technology, the growth has been exponential lately.”
When she speaks at workshops, Cohen imparts two points. “I look at VR as its own medium, but there are elements of traditional cinematography that are directly related to what we’re doing in VR,” she says. “ There are new ideas and new techniques, but we shouldn’t be afraid. I also try to push across the idea that most VR needs a cinematographer. There are a lot of VR projects where the producers don’t think they need a cinematographer on board – and to me, that is not a wise decision. People forget that if you hire someone to merely turn on the camera, you’re not necessarily making the best creative decisions, and you’re opening another box of problems. As a cinematographer, ideally I come onto the project early as a collaborator who is going to help creatively bring the vision to life, the same as in traditional filming.”
In late 2017, Cohen served as cinematographer on a VR project that offered a worthy challenge to her problem-solving and creative skills. Ashe ‘68: The VR Experience is partnered with a feature documentary about the iconic athlete and activist Arthur Ashe. The VR project recreates Ashe’s pivotal victory at the men’s singles final of the 1968 U.S. Open Tennis Championship. The piece required four distinct VR shots that will allow viewers with a monoscopic headset to see in any direction. The most complex shot was a re-creation of the dramatic match point, re-enacted on the shoot by two tennis pros. Applying her experience and network of VR pros, Cohen designed the perfect camera/lens rig to achieve the visual goals of the project.
Re-creating a match point that actually happened in a virtual reality space is a tall order in and of itself, but as with any shoot, there were other complicating factors. Step one was carefully planned with a trio of directors – Brad Lichtenstein, Jeff Fitzsimmons, and Rex Miller – as well as producers Beth Hubbard and Maddy Power, and live action director Janicza Bravo.
“Once we nailed how to accomplish that scene, that would guide the rest of the shoot,” says Cohen. “The placement of the live action on the tennis court dictated the field of view that I needed to capture in one lens. We were only using the live tennis play, but adding in full VFX background later, so the court was wrapped in chroma blue screen – and that dictated the amount of resolution I needed to deliver.”
The directors also wanted the ability to speed ramp during the shot. In the final frame of the shot, the hero tennis player had to be as close to the camera as possible to bring the audience into the action. One more consideration: The actor playing the hero tennis player was 6’7”, which would have a significant impact on final placement and composition. The actor’s proximity to the camera and the stitch line in the middle of that shot precluded any stereo or side-by-side delivery. Given these parameters, it was determined that the best result would be achieved by shooting nodally, where the VR space and the camera are centered on a single point in space.
All these factors and more were weighed in the equipment choices. “Finding something that could give me that huge field of view, at 120 frames per second, with adequate resolution, seemed impossible,” says Cohen. “I started by finding the right lens. We watched the actual match and mapped out how the players moved, and where they ended up. We found that we needed an approximately 280-degree field of view, which we cheated slightly – we agreed to keep everything within about 200 degrees.”
“I LIKE THE CANON-CODEX PARTNERSHIP BECAUSE IT ALLOWED ME TO ACCOMPLISH WHAT I NEEDED TO”
At Radiant Images, Cohen found a 4.3 mm Entaniya super-wide fisheye lens that sees a 250-degree field of view that would fulfill her needs. At that time, only four existed and they were all in Radiant’s inventory. The next question was the camera. Shooting nodal also meant that Cohen could choose a solid pro camera with sufficient resolution.
Radiant recommended the RED 8K Helium, but that camera crops in on the sensor at the high frame rate, sacrificing too much field of view. After extensive research, Cohen asked Loren Simons at Canon if the C700 crops the sensor at 4K/120 fps. The answer was no. She immediately went to Canon in Burbank to see whether the Entaniya lens would be compatible with the C700.
“Loren was so excited to see if this was going to work,” says Cohen. “It’s really fun when you’re using something for the first time and seeing if every piece is going to fit together the way you need it to. The lens has an adaptive EF mount, and they are proprietary for each camera. It actually fitted. I was so happy. I have the lens. I get my 120 frames. And I have my field of view, and with Codex recording and the C700, I can have my resolution.
“We didn’t have the budget to shoot each scene with a different camera,” she says. “Once we decided on the C700 for the tennis scene, I knew it would work perfectly for the other scenes. I could feel very confident about the sensor and the camera, knowing I could fully control it visually. Because we were shooting nodally, I could fully light the interior scenes. So that the camera and the Codex recorder were used on two of the four scenes.”
The C700 recorded the scene twice, once for each half of the 360-degree environment. The images were married later in post. On the set, the package included six 1TB capture drives, which hold just under ten minutes at 120 frames. Footage was constantly offloaded to a Codex Vault as Cohen and the directors made more than thirty takes. Overall, the Vault handled 3.13 terabytes of data.
For other scenes requiring drone and motion work, a different rig was used. Much of the gear was provided by AbelCine in New York. Visual effects were handled at Legend and supervised by Mike Hopkinson. Cohen’s VR crew included Ben Schwartz, Andrew Gisch, and VR supervisor Jeff Fitzsimmons.
“I really like the Canon sensors and I trust in their ability to capture the image the way that I want,” says Cohen. “It’s the way that I want the world around me to be shown. Given all the other limitations, the 10-bit 4K image recorded to Codex was the best image I could get. I like that Canon-Codex partnership because it allowed me to accomplish what I needed to. There was no other option, and to this day, I can’t think of any other possible solution to that particular set of issues. I don’t know of any other shoot that has done VR at 120 fps at a higher resolution for any longer than 20 seconds or so, and we needed three to five minutes of match-point tennis.”
The final piece is expected to come in at roughly eight minutes.
“I’m comfortable with Canon and I know how far I can push their range without having the image break down,” Cohen says. “And I’ve been told that everyone working with the footage, including the producers and the visual effects people, are really blown away by the quality of it, especially for VR. So much VR is done on poor quality cameras. There’s just no comparison between a professional cinema camera and a hobbyist, consumer GoPro.”
Cohen adds that because VR is a relatively new medium, there isn’t a precedent or dependable source of answers. “You have to come up with them on your own,” she says. “We’re experimenting with everything
VR has to offer - and discovering the possibilities. We learn so much in every endeavour. Finding the right combination of technology for this project took a lot of dedication and research. Every single time, we’re solving a new
technical and creative challenge. And I love figuring that out.”
Camera: Canon EOS C700
Lens: 4.3 mm Entaniya super-wide fisheye
Data processed: 3.13 terabytes
Rental House: : Radiant Images, AbelCine
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.