Video & Filmmaking

VR Doc About Jet Recycling Shows Medium’s Possibilities

November 3, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Scenic’s CEO Gary Hustwit. Courtesy of Scenic.

What happens to jet airplanes when they’ve reached the end of their useful life? “Funeral for a 747,” a virtual reality experience shown this fall at the Camden International Film Festival, shows how workers at a jet recycling plant outside Tucson strip a Boeing 747 for replacement parts, gut the interior, lop off the wings and chop the fuselage into a heap of scrap metal. “Funeral” was the first VR film directed by filmmaker Marshall Curry, a two-time Academy Award nominee in the Best Documentary category. It was produced by Scenic, a VR production studio founded in Brooklyn in April 2016. Creative director and CEO Gary Hustwit says Scenic’s mission is “to enable non-fiction filmmakers with the technology and tools of VR to experiment with how you tell a story in this medium.” Since the Wall Street Journal released “Funeral for a 747” earlier this year, Curry has directed his second VR film, “The National: Something Out of Nothing,” about the making of the latest album by the band The National, which was released by The New York Times in September.

Hustwit believes that documentary directors have the right skills to explore the boundaries of VR. A producer of 12 feature documentaries, Hustwit first became interested in VR when its early adopters were more interested in technology than visual storytelling. He formed the production company and recruited several directors of award-winning documentaries to join. Hustwit says, “I think the documentary filmmakers we started the group with are passionate about storytelling at the highest level, and I was interested to see what they would make of this technology once they got their feet wet.” In the past year and a half, Scenic has created VR films for publishers such as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the art publication Artsy, which recently commissioned Scenic to produce a series of VR experiences about the Venice Biennale and other art events.

Marshall Curry at a jet recycling plant outside Tucson during the making of the VR project “Funeral for a 747.” Courtesy of Scenic.

For “Funeral,” Curry spent about a day trying out a VR camera rig, then traveled with a DP and a sound engineer to the jet boneyard. Over the course of two days of shooting, Curry and crew worked out questions VR directors reckon with: How high the camera needs to be to give viewers the sensation of being in the location, how close to a subject the camera can be, where to put the rig to capture 360-degree views plus the most interesting action taking place in each scene. Says Hustwit, “Unless you create in VR you can’t wrap your head around the possibilities of it. You have to try it and fail and try again and watch a lot of it before you trigger ideas of what this technology is best at.”

When Curry arrived on location, he had a rough idea for a narrative—“You start with a plane and end with a pile of metal”—but he also observed the facility’s workers and looked for interesting moments that could help show viewers how the workday unfolds.

“Those are the things I’m looking for when I’m making any documentary,” he says. “Those little quirky moments only happen when you have time to patiently wait for magic to reveal itself.”

There are differences in the making of a documentary and a VR, however. Viewers watching a scene on headsets or web browsers can look around and examine whatever interests them, so creating a clear storyline depended, Curry says, on figuring out framing “when you can’t control what someone might be looking at.” Once the camera rig was set to record, Curry and the DP had to jump out of sight to avoid being on camera. Curry couldn’t be sure what he was capturing, but he notes that workers quickly forgot the camera was there and went on doing their work, easing the access that documentary filmmakers sometimes struggle to achieve. Documentary filmmakers strive to capture a subject from different angles. VR, however, “does that place setting really well and intuitively,” Hustwit notes. “Any time that the physical environment is a character in the story is where VR works really well.”

Courtesy of Scenic

For Artsy, the production studio Scenic created a VR about the Venice Biennale. “Any time that the physical environment is a character in the story is where VR works really well,” says Gary Hustwit, the CEO and creative director at Scenic. Courtesy of Scenic.

“Funeral for a 747” incorporates 360-footage captured while the camera was clamped to cranes, forklifts, the hood of a car, and within the confines of an airplane cabin as workers yanked out the overhead bins. “I like it when shots have something close and something far,” Curry says. “Having those two elements together make it feel more like you’re there.” In very tight spaces, such as the cockpit of a Cessna jet, he pushed right to the edge of what the lenses on the camera rig could keep in focus, but Curry says he liked inspiring viewers to try to touch a wall or a cockpit control panel that feels as if it’s within reach. “That’s part of the fun when wearing the goggles,” Curry says. “There’s power in proximity.”    

Watching the wing of a giant jet being sliced in half is dramatic, but at its heart, “Funeral for a 747” is about how a small team of workers spend their day. Rather than shooting on-camera interviews—which are challenging to shoot in VR, since there can’t be quick cuts—Curry recorded interviews off camera, then used them as voiceover narration. In the middle of the VR film, the workers break for lunch. The area where they eat is Spartan and nondescript, but Curry felt it was important to show. He says, “If you’re just rolling in to capture the spectacle, you’ll miss the human details that elevate my favorite of these films to a human story.”

In all, he estimates he gathered about 20 hours of footage and four hours of audio interviews. Curry worked with an editor at Scenic, who edited the footage in Adobe Premiere after each scene had been roughly stitched. The piece packs in several scenes shot in several locations, put together with a mix of sharp cuts and dissolves. In cutting each scene, Curry says he had to account for how much time a viewer would spend looking around. “You cannot cut away and frustrate people before they have a chance to look and discover something.”   

Hustwit notes that projects like “Funeral for a 747” were created to be viewed on immersive players such as Daydream View headsets but at the moment, “most people will experience this on a desktop and click and drag.” He says, “People think it’s like Google Street view: I can click around. But we’re not making the pieces with that as our primary focus, we’re thinking about what the headset experience will be.”

The cameras and options for stitching and editing continue to improve, but at the moment, Hustwit says, VR is in a “transition period.” Curry, who designed multimedia before he became a filmmaker, compares VR today with website design in the mid-Nineties. “You’re trying to figure out the grammar for the new medium,” he says.

When Curry talks to filmmakers about VR, they seem intimidated by technology that requires directors to give up control of the viewer’s experience, he says. He thinks they’re missing an opportunity to add a storytelling tool. With VR, he says, “You give up the ability to put together individual shots and to tell the audience, ‘Here’s what they said, here’s the reaction shot, here’s the closeup of the hand,’ but you’ve gained an immersive experience and that is cool.”

He encourages other filmmakers and visual artists to simply give the available technology a try, and begin to explore what it can offer in visual storytelling. “The gear is a little bit finicky still, but it’s not like  you have to be a programmer to make one of these films,” Curry says. “In a day [of testing], you can be up to speed.”

Hustwit agrees. His dream, he says, is to collaborate with visual artists, “so that they wrap their minds around the limitations and possibilities of the medium.”

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