How We Captured Canada’s Most Epic Nature Scenes With 360 VR Cameras

For this series, The Wild Canadian Year team dealt with a new challenge: how to capture some of Canada’s most epic animals and scenes with VR cameras.  It wasn’t an easy job. Taking new technology into the field, hundreds of kilometres from electricity and a wifi signal, meant being prepared for anything.

Technical challenges of new technology
The team filmed the virtual reality video by using multiple GoPro cameras (up to 16) housed in an aluminium rig with glass domes. Each camera points in a different direction. In post production, the images they record are stitched together to create a fully spherical, 360-degree video.

One of the biggest issues the team encountered was getting all of their GoPro cameras to turn on by remote triggering. The cameras were placed into the environment; the filmmakers re-located far from the scene, and the cameras triggered as the wildlife approached. If even one of the cameras failed to activate, the whole video was ruined. It took a lot of trial and error, and as with any emerging technology, it was far from foolproof.

A new cinematic language
With regular cinematography, the director selects the frame in a very focused way. They pick what the audience will see — from a super tight close-up of an animal’s eyes to a big majestic wide shot. That way they can focus on what’s interesting in a scene, and frame out the boring bits.

But with 360-degree shooting, the audience sees everything. So the team has to make sure there is something interesting happening in every direction. If animals are most active to the north, try to make sure there’s an interesting natural feature like a river or waterfall to the south. Or unusual cloud formations overhead. The directors had to expand their thinking to include 360-degrees of vision, which is a whole new type of cinema.

Crafty camera placement
The 360-camera needs to be placed discreetly so that the animals aren’t aware of it. The Wild Canadian Year team found that some animals — like the sandpipers, were nervous of the camera rig and stayed too far away.

Other animals were so curious about it that they’d stop to take a closer look and investigate. The caribou came right up to it and put their noses on the lens! That’s too close. So the team had to disguise it in different ways — to look like a rock or another natural feature in their environment. That way the animals don’t pay any attention to it and continue their natural behaviour.

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The disappearing camera man
Because the 360-camera can see in every direction, it can be a challenge for whoever is operating the camera to get out of the frame. Seeing a camera man standing there would interrupt the virtual reality experience of wild places the team wanted to capture.

So after turning the cameras on, the directors would have to try to hide and get out of the scene. When you’re filming in a forest that’s not too difficult. But when you’re on the prairies or in the middle of the tundra, it’s significantly harder!

The challenge of the wide angle lens
The 360-degree virtual reality cameras have wide-angle lenses. The field of view is wide, and animals in the distance appear quite small. To capture compelling video, the camera rig needs to be close to the animals. For most shoots, that meant putting the camera where animals will be passing by, retreating and waiting for them to show up.

It’s quite a lot harder than filming with a telephoto lens because being able to use a powerful zoom lets you capture close-up images from a significant distance. For the 360s to work, the camera has to be in the heart of the action.

Danger and wild weather
Some of the locations the team filmed in were challenging due to the nature of the terrain and the weather. In Newfoundland, the crew had to descend a cliff face to position the camera to film the northern gannet.

And while out on Sable Island, they endured hurricane-force winds and extreme blizzards to film footage of the grey seal colony. Many of the animals The Wild Canadian Year wanted to capture in virtual reality live in very harsh and extreme places that are not so suited to humans — and their technology!

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