How the NBA and Oculus Brought Sports Documentary Filmmaking Into VR
The tech-friendly professional basketball league continues its dalliance with virtual reality.
King James. Image: Image: Keith Allison/Flickr
When I walked into the NBA Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan Tuesday afternoon, I wasn't really sure what to expect. For one, I didn't expect to be greeted with an enthusiastic high-five by a store employee as soon as I walked through the front door (though I suppose it beats awkward eye contact). And I sure as heck didn't expect to walk away from my hour-or-so in the bowels of the building as optimistic as I am now about the future of virtual reality filmmaking.
Alongside a handful of other reporters, I strapped a Samsung Gear VR onto my face for a screening of Follow My Lead: The Story of the 2016 NBA Finals, a 25-minute documentary (a trailer can be seen on Facebook here) shot entirely in virtual reality (360 video, to be specific) that recaps the improbable comeback victory last June of the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors. Unless you somehow managed to spend that week on Neptune you likely already know what happened: Led by the otherworldly good LeBron James, the Cavs managed to outfox Steph Curry and the Warriors in seven games to finally end Cleveland's 52-year championship drought. At long last, the city on the lake had its trophy.
"The Finals are so iconic," Eugene Wei, Oculus's head of video, told Motherboard after the screening. He said he initially considered pitching the NBA on a virtual reality livestream before concerns over broadcast rights convinced him to instead pitch a documentary film. "I was like, 'Let's not walk away and just let this pass and wait another year to figure out what to do,'" he added.
As Wei explained, Oculus wanted Follow My Lead, which debuts today for Gear VR (a version for the Oculus Rift will be released in the future), to recapture the sleek aesthetic of critically acclaimed sports documentaries like ESPN's 30 for 30 and HBO's Hard Knocks even given the quirks of virtual reality filmmaking, including the inability to use zoom lenses and that fact that viewers may not always look in the exact direction the director would like them to. He turned to production company m ss ngpeces (yes, the letter "i" is intentionally missing from the name) to help make that happen.
"We're focused on what's in front of you but you also have to always be cognizant of what's around," said Gabe Spitzer, the film's co-director who explained the challenge of deft 360 degree camera placement. To Spitzer, whose CV includes traditional, non-VR sports documentaries, the lack of a zoom lens meant he had to get creative about camera placement. "It was really pushing the boundaries of access [to the players]," he said, noting how close to his subjects he often had to get. "Trying to get as close to the action was key… to give fans a perspective that they've never seen before."
As a longtime fan of similar documentaries, including UFC's various Countdown specials and HBO Boxing's 24/7, I'd say Follow My Lead not only recaptures that this is serious business feeling, but perhaps even improves upon it by giving the viewer a genuine sense of presence that can't be replicated on a static, two-dimensional plane like a TV or laptop—even if the visual fidelity is still somewhat soft.
"I was a little worried because it's longform," m ss ngpeces founder and executive producer Ari Kuschnir told Motherboard, who explained that virtual reality filmmakers are still unsure of how long the average viewer will tolerate wearing a head-mounted display (HMD) in a single sitting—at 25 minutes, Follow My Lead is most definitely on the far end of the length spectrum. "But every time we watched it," he said, "we were like, 'It's good! It holds up!' You follow the story and it's a comeback story. We let it be whatever length it needed to be."
That the NBA readily agreed to provide Oculus & co. unfettered access to the likes of James and Curry shouldn't be too surprising given its rather progressive view of technology, with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert telling Wired last May that clips of players like Zach LaVine dunkin' on fools ricocheting around the likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Vine are effectively "free commercials" for the league. A deal announced in July will let Twitter (already no stranger to the NBA's legions of fans) livestream original content (though, crucially, not full games), and early experiments in 2015 with a company called NextVR taught the league that this VR thing just may be an avenue worth pursuing.
"There are many technical hurdles to [a live VR broadcast], there are many practical and production/editorial choices that we need to make in order to make that work, but we've been very active in exploring" live VR, Jeff Marsilio, vice president of global media distribution, told Motherboard, referencing the league's 2015 VR livestream experiment. "Taking it from a livestream to a broadcast production is not a small task. It is one that we think is really important and one that we're working on. And one that we're confident will come soon and probably sooner than you think."
Until that time comes, however, we'll have to make do with fully produced, pre-recorded video formats like documentaries. Luckily, VR appears to be a good fit for the format, giving viewers the ability to simultaneously see things like LeBron's game-saving block and the audience's reaction to it in game seven, and 360 degree views of the city of Cleveland's subsequent celebration. Once the last remaining technical hurdles (primarily the low resolution of HMDs and phones, resulting in a sometimes fuzzy picture) are overcome, it wouldn't surprise me to see more efforts like Follow My Lead populate a VR app store near you.
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