Virtual reality content is still barely inching out of gimmick zone, so it's interesting to see it embraced with such vigor by a no-bullshit music group like Run the Jewels.
The hip-hop duo of Killer Mike and El-P aren't the first musicians to play around in the virtual reality sandbox, but the VR video they released this month for their song "Crown" achieves something you don't always see: Beyond the novelty factor, the immersive format actually gets across the emotion and message of the song better than a traditional video could.
Run the Jewels gave Motherboard a first look at this behind-the-scenes video about the filming process, in which Killer Mike and El-P talk about why they felt VR was the right choice for "Crown," one of the their most personal songs.
The song follows two perspectives: A true story from Killer Mike's past about the guilt he felt after selling drugs to a pregnant woman, and El-P's more political message about how kids get brainwashed into joining the military.
The dual narratives makes it a natural fit for 360° view. The music video, which you can watch via the New York Times VR app, has a kind of a theater-in-the-round effect, where you the viewer are plopped in the middle of the stage with the characters surrounding you; as you look around, you can move between the two rappers' stories.
It was shot to make it seem you're standing extremely close to the rappers and the actors they're interacting with, but can still see their full bodies, something not possible with a traditional shot. That sense of proximity makes it feel more intimate, which helps drive home the message the group is trying to get across with the song.
"We just felt the virtual reality platform was a way to help crank up the empathy machine a little bit more—as well as make something cool, visually," Run the Jewels' co-manager Amaechi Uzoigwe told me during a conversation at South By Southwest this month.
I swung by the record label's booth at the music festival to check out the video, which was being demoed along with soon-to-launch Run the Jewels-themed Google Cardboard viewers. The rappers are apparently going all-in with VR — they're planning more virtual music videos their new album, Run the Jewels 3, which will all be housed in the group's upcoming "VRTJ" app. The group will also be part of the "Virtual Reality Experience" at Coachella in April.
"VR seems like the future of music videos to me for obvious reasons," El-P said in an email. "Not only can you tell a story in a unique way in medium that has been begging for a next step for a long time, but you can also make a connection with the viewer in a way that just wasn't available previously. There's no way to top feeling like you are literally standing in the same environment as the character in the film you're watching. It opens everything up."
"Mostly, though, I'm excited to finally masturbate in cybertron," he added.
This may be a good time to clear up some confusion around the term "VR," which amid the hype has strayed from its original meaning. Purists will contend that true virtual reality is an environment you can move around in, where the viewer is in control the scene. This is enabled by motion-trackers on high-end headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive that allow the digitally rendered world to adapt to your movements, so the brain is tricked into thinking you're really there.
This isn't possible (yet) with recorded video: 360° cameras can't capture the mass of data needed to give the viewer countless perspectives of the shot in order to interact with the scene. But the fledgling VR film industry has taken to using "virtual reality" to mean anything you watch with goggles on, since that starts to cross into that realm where you feel like you're immersed in the content. To further complicate the matter, a lot of the stuff out there claiming to be VR is actually just 360° video, and not immersive at all: You can see the scene all around you, but you're still watching on a flat screen on YouTube or Facebook.
So, "Crown" isn't VR in the purist sense, nor are any of the early music videos that have experimented in the space, like Bjork's "Stonemilker," or The Weeknd's "The Hills" featuring Eminem. But Uzoigwe told me the group was happy with how it turned out. "I think our video does achieve that to a pretty good degree—feeling like you're there," he said. "360 doesn't make you feel like you're there, and that's the difference to me."
He admitted that "Crown" was a first swing, and relatively rudimentary in terms of what's possible as the tech rapidly develops. "Six months from now we're going to look at our video and be like, that was cute, you know? And then hopefully we're on to some other crazy train of thought."
One of benefits of VR for storytelling is that you can watch or listen to the story over and over and have a different experience every time, kind of like choose-your-own adventure film-watching. You can follow Killer Mike one time and El-P another, getting more details with each re-watch, and presumably listening to lyrics more closely, so the story really resonates.
"I don't think there would have been a way of telling that story in, as we call them, 'flaties' now"
"I don't think there would have been a way of telling that story in, as we call them, 'flaties' now—regular music video," the video's director, Peter Martin, told me on the phone.
"Flaties," he said, is at the moment an industry joke term for traditional 2D rectangular video. Apparently a New York Times editor used the word one day and it sort of stuck. When I asked Martin how to spell it, he said: "I don't think anyone's written it down yet! But I love the term and I think we should coin it—piss every filmmaker off on the planet."
Another thing VR enables over flaties is the ability to see behind you, above and below, and all around. But most VR videos make the mistake of showing all that peripheral background just because you can, even if it serves no purpose in the narrative—just "having a lot of shit going on behind you that you don't really need," said Martin. He used a black background for "Crown," which is somewhat counterintuitive for VR, and adds an ominous vibe to what's already a chilling song.
"For my first VR experience I saw a life-size whale stare me in my eye while I was at the bottom of the ocean—it was cool as shit! Since then I haven't been able to stop thinking about what it can do for kids from an educational standpoint and what it can do for the imaginations of people who don't have the luxury to travel or grow their curiosity. Seeing pyramids true to size is not the same as seeing a picture online or in a book," said Killer Mike over email.
"The same is true for being able to put someone in the middle of the music video as opposed to watching it on Worldstar. The ability to build a world for our music is pretty exciting stuff."
Martin told me that the actual filming process for "Crown" was much more simple than most VR video. They didn't use a 360° camera rig (the reason is obvious if you watch it, since different iterations of the same actors are at various angles as you look around). Instead, they shot everything four times with a still, monoscopic RED camera, so each angle you see when you look around in the video is a different take. Then they stitched all the different perspectives together into a sphere during post production. This is different from how spherical video is usually captured, with either a moving camera or rig with multiple cameras pointing in different directions.
They used a fisheye lens in order to capture more surface area so it feels like you're standing right up close to the actor's face, said Anthony Batt, co-founder of Wevr, the VR company that produced the video. The fisheye lens can capture from the top of the actor's head to their legs at close proximity, whereas our eyes can only see the actor's face at the same distance. The raw images then come off the camera looking warped so everyone looks fat in the middle but the distortion is fixed, of course, in post, when the footage is stitched into a sphere so it looks normal when viewed in the headset.
The shoot itself took just a few days, but the video took months to edit and stitch together. What was unique about the process was having to visualize what the final image would look like, Batt said, since you can't stitch the shots together in real time. "[The group] sort of didn't know what it was going to look like in the end. So they were brave," said Batt. "They were sort of putting their reputation and music on the line doing this thing."
Uzoigwe echoed that point, admitting they didn't really know what they were doing with the new technology, but that they were into it, and thought their fans would be too. "You know, we're 80s kids—we grew up thinking that virtual reality and jet packs and flying cars were part of our future right," he said.
For music though, it's still very, very early days for VR. Like any new medium, it takes a beat for it to move past the kitsch factor into a legitimate art form. When music videos first came out, bands were just recording themselves playing on the stage. It took a minute before it occurred to people they didn't need to show the artists or instruments at all; they could be much more creative.
Uzoigwe predicted a similar thing will happen with VR video—artists will start conceptualizing a narrative with virtual reality in mind from the start, or, to take it even further, be dropped into a virtual environment and creating from within it. It's bound to happen, he said: Someone will create something amazing that sets the bar really high, and everyone else has to follow suit.
That is, as long as all the hype doesn't turn the industry into a money-grab that kills off any chance for creativity, he added.
"Cause you know, the industry is gonna fuck it up and they're gonna try to monetize it too soon and not give it a chance to develop," he said. "I just hope they don't turn it into a shlock factory of shitty VR."