A year and a half ago, Adam Savage, Norman Chan, and Joey Fameli of Tested presented us with new and intimate views into the maker movement by producing the first collection of 5K VR180 content for Oculus Quest. Today marks the launch of Adam Savage’s Tested VR Season 2, which features eight new episodes of delightful builds that delve deeply into projects at renowned workshops including Animax Designs and New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.
Oculus Immersive Media Lead Eric Cheng caught up with Adam Savage and Tested Producer Joey Fameli for a chat about the making of Season 2.
Adam, you’ve had a long and special relationship with studios like Weta Workshop and Animax. What is it about these studios that keeps drawing you back for visits, and what made them good candidates for immersive filming?
Adam Savage: Animax and Weta Workshop are both excellent examples of my favorite kinds of shops—shops in which innovation has to walk hand-in-hand with getting the job done in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Both of these shops are regularly exploring the cutting edge of manufacturing technologies, and both also have large staff to support. This means they have to tackle their innovation with one eye toward the future and the art of the possible, while the other is focused on what can get done within the budgetary and temporal parameters of the current project.
This type of problem-solving attracts a certain kind of engineer: an engineer like me. I find both of these shops populated with engineers and scientists that I feel a unique simpatico with.
In Fantasy Miniatures, viewers are shrunk down to the size of miniature figurines, and there’s even a moment when Adam and Johnny Fraser-Allen become giants, looming over a castle wall. How did you do that?
AS: This is one of the trickiest things we did this entire season. It’s easy to understand that our 3D camera is actually two cameras that are spaced to mimic the space between human eyes, creating a proper stereo image. What’s harder to understand is exactly how to modify those parameters when you want to change the scale of the 3D in relation to the observer. For the miniature sets we had to adjust our camera as if it were a tiny human being. This meant that we had to push the camera lenses incredibly close together in order to achieve a parallax that made the scale work. But it did. And it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed: a miniature set that feels like I’m in it.
Joey Fameli: Scale in stereoscopic 3D is determined by what we call the interocular distance (IOD), which is the distance between two camera lenses. We used an Edelkrone motorized slider with a customized firmware that was able to shoot repeatable image pairs with an IOD of less than 1mm. This technique has been used in the past to make stop-motion films 3D for theatrical release, as the subjects are often too small to place two cameras side by side. But, when used for 3D 180 VR video, the end result is truly fascinating as it basically simulates what it would be like to be a very tiny human, shrunk down and looking around the real world—it’s a very convincing perspective trick that is unlike anything else. We chose to shoot these as still images to simplify production, but even as stills, I think they are really compelling.
What were your favorite moments during the filming of Season 2? Did anything stand out?
JF: The performance of Adam’s velociraptor costume project was an incredible payoff for all the design work and build leading up to our visit to Animax in Nashville. Adam spent weeks fabricating and piecing the costume together from a variety of materials and collaborating with the team at Animax to produce mechanisms for puppeting the creature. But it wasn’t until Adam finally put on the finished performance suit that the dinosaur roared to life. Standing in front of the 7-foot velociraptor, we got a real sense of how big and ferocious these animals were, which was a thrill to capture with the VR180 camera.
For most of 2020, it was difficult or impossible to do in-person production, so it’s a pleasure to see such compelling content made during the year. Can you talk about how the pandemic affected filming and your post-production workflow?
JF: Like most other productions, the pandemic really shook up our 2020 shooting schedule. We were days away from booking travel and shooting on the other side of the country when we suddenly realized that we needed to put everything on hold and reexamine how to proceed. We had a backlog of editing to do, so we used that time to complete the other episodes from our home production bays and rebuild a shooting schedule based off of limited travel. Once things started slowly opening up, and once we knew much more about the virus, we followed the lead from Hollywood productions on how to best shoot safely during the pandemic. It helps that we are also a small crew, and talent on camera is limited, so physically-distant shooting came naturally. Communication was also key. We checked in often to make sure everyone involved was comfortable at all times and that we were doing our best to create a space where folks could speak up if they weren’t.
You’ve now shot and produced over 16 episodes of immersive video content. What are your tips for aspiring cinematographers who might be looking to do an immersive production?
JF: When it comes to camera tricks and visual language, keeping it simple is often better. The cinematic language of immersive media is different from traditional filmmaking and can sometimes feel counterintuitive to someone not used to shooting in this format. The two big pieces of advice I give people is, from a technical standpoint, learn and understand contrast ratios. Lighting is challenging when you see 180° in VR, but if you can place practicals and place large throw lights out of frame to paint up a scene, you can really use the camera’s limited dynamic range to your advantage and produce an interesting image when immersed in a headset. The other piece of advice I give people is to study live theater and what actors do on stage to spotlight themselves or what set designers place to create depth and layers using a limited stage space. Your filmic language will rely much more on these kinds of concepts rather than framing, lens choices, and compositions.
Adam and Joey, any final thoughts to share?
AS: Just that I love this technology and what it can do. I feel like we’re still at a very nascent stage in the development of VR, and it is super thrilling to be part of that development.
JF: This season of Tested VR really gave us an opportunity to learn about this medium in a much more intimate way. We expanded the team to include specialized positions like stereographers and spatial audio editors, and in working with them, we got to really understand the bigger potential of this platform and how the tools have been expanded and made more accessible to lower the barriers of entry to hobbyists and professionals alike.