A year ago, Adam Savage and Norm Chan of Tested fame asked themselves a seemingly straightforward question: What would a one-day build video feel like in VR? Today, the answer to that question comes to fruition with the launch of Adam Savage’s Tested VR—a brand-new immersive series featuring builds with eight makers including Savage himself. It’s a true labor of love, resulting in cutting-edge 5K VR180 content unlike anything we’ve seen before, and it’s available now on Oculus Quest and Oculus Go.
“What I noticed when we watched that first four-minute build video in VR was an entirely new level of intimacy and immediacy,” explains Savage. “Sitting virtually across from the maker was leagues more instructive, intuitive, and physical than just watching it in 2D on a screen. Seeing the movement of materials and the movement of the maker’s hands in three dimensions was thrilling! VR is a game changer when it comes to more deeply covering the skills, stories, and problem solving makers explore when they set out to make something. It allows the viewer a seat at the bench as it were.”
Over a series of months, we worked closely with Tested Producer Joey Fameli to design the right visual language to tell maker-driven stories in VR. “The Tested team has spent years working together and crafting a specific way to shooting One-Day Builds, but this excursion took us farther than we thought possible,” Savage adds. “I know VR has been around for a while, but it’s hard not to feel like right now is the dawn of a brand new narrative medium.”
“We love the look and feel of high resolution 180° video, especially for the kind of intimate, informative experiences Adam and the team create,” says Immersive Media Lead for Facebook AR/VR Eric Cheng. “We’re excited to see what people think and to help other creators experiment with this format.”
After touring the country, Tested VR completed a curated collection of markers including:
We sat down with Tested VR Producer and Editor Joey Fameli to learn more.
What experience (if any) did you have with virtual reality prior to building this experience? What were your thoughts then, and how do you think about the tech now?
Joey Fameli: While I’ve been exposed to VR from the early stages of development, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in headset, with experiences. I’d check in on the tech, watch the improvements, and demo a few things, but most of what I saw was really angled towards the video game industry. It wasn’t until I saw a demo of a 3D VR180 live-action experience that the potential really clicked for me. I honestly didn’t think there was much room for live-action VR filmmaking before this. It always seemed like filmmakers were trying to retrofit their current production style to be viewed in a VR headset, instead of using new tools to complement the strengths of the platform. Having spent a large amount of time now in this production environment, I’m excited to try new things and develop more material for it.
What was it like to work with Adam Savage and the other makers involved?
JF: Adam is always great to work with in the shop. He’s a talented maker, but also a highly skilled communicator. He loves to make, and he loves to explain the process of making: a combination that works perfectly for the VR180 format. If a camera wasn’t sitting there in-shop, he’d probably be doing the exact same thing: making and documenting. When I shoot traditional build videos with him, my aim is to provide a point of view to be that of a “fly on the wall,” but with VR180 the idea is to make the point-of-view a person standing there in front of him. My biggest curiosity was how that was going to inform his performance. It ended up working great, and he engaged the camera (audience) in a way that really sang when viewed through a headset.
That was something that surprised us with all the makers we shot with. We approached every shoot day giving the makers a disclaimer that this was an “odd” format, in that the camera will be stationary, and they’ll have to “present” to it, with ideally very little starts and stops (to avoid too much editing). Once the makers got going though, they spoke to the camera quite naturally, like speaking to a friend or a captive audience. The production elements kind of just disappeared and it was just them and us.
It turns out, when you ask a maker to demonstrate and explain a process that they’re insanely passionate about, and get out of their way, you get some good stuff!
Any interesting anecdotes from the production process that you can share?
JF: Most of the fun for me came from putting on a headset in post-production and being surprised or amazed at some of the little things that came out spectacularly in 3D. Things like particulates, wood chips, or sparks, that added this extra layer of depth and immersion in the experience. Near the end of shooting the series, we knew how to look for that stuff, and tried to include as many small immersive moments as we could. We even carried around a can of spray fog to shoot through beams of light, just to highlight the atmosphere.
What can fans expect from the experience?
JF: Fans of Tested are going to experience a level of intimacy with our content that is usually only reserved for us, the production team. The normal videos we publish on our site are a wonderfully detailed look at the maker process, but there is something inspiring and exciting about being in the shop with a competent and talented maker. Tested VR does just that—it puts you in the maker’s space with them.
What was it like to transition from working with more traditional film to VR180?
JF: To be honest, the transition was initially tricky. It required a fair amount of “unlearning” of the traditional techniques of film production that’ve been drilled into me, but also repurposing some of the tried and true tools of old school filmmaking. For example, I carried around a color meter with me, and while I’d grab a color temperature reading of the subject in front of the camera to make sure I set my white balance correctly, I’d also have to walk around the entire room and grab readings of all the other areas of the room that were going to be captured in the 180° space. If there was a discrepancy, I’d have to change some light temperatures to try and match them up in order to be less distracting. Traditionally, you work within a frame; here it was an entire room. Exposure and lighting ratios also had to be considered. Your eyes can adjust to certain disparities, but camera lenses—as the eyes’ proxy—are a different story.
What did that mean for you as a filmmaker?
JF: The camera lenses as the audience’s point of view was also a hard thing to wrap my mind around at first. As a filmmaker, you lean on the fact that through cinematography and editing you can manipulate the audience’s point of view to tell a story. With VR180, you kind of have to surrender that, and understand what it means to surrender that. It’s not just about setting a camera down in front of the action and hitting record. You have to understand what this POV means and how it’s conveyed in headset. Does the audience feel like they’re too low to the ground? Too close to the person talking to them? Is there a harsh light in frame that’s going to be bothersome to the viewer? A person standing there in real life can adjust their bodies or their eyes to increase comfort, but in VR180 and without a full six degrees of movement, the viewer can only be where you placed them. That’s a huge responsibility to understand, and take into consideration. What that meant for us is relying on a lot of things like measurements: what do the different heights of the camera represent (sitting/standing), what is the distance that constitutes a comfortable close-up, etc.
As VR video technology evolves, setups and production in general will become faster, but at the moment, it does require a little bit of testing, exporting out sample frames and viewing them in headsets to make sure that what you’re shooting isn’t being undermined by issues of comfort or distractions.
How was the post-production experience?
JF: Going from production to post production, I was pleasantly surprised. Adobe Premiere now has most of the tools built into their program to make this a seamless process. Getting to Premiere can be a little bit of a challenge, as you’re dealing with multiple SD cards of footage that represent different “eyes,” and those eyes need to be concatenated and stitched—it’s an exercise in good media management, but once you get those clips ready to edit, the process will be very familiar to anyone who’s done any degree of editing. There are even export preset settings in Adobe Encoder that will get you the correct settings for whatever flavor of VR you’re mastering for.
Any insights you’d share with other content creators curious about making the switch?
JF: My advice for anyone looking to try this format out is to shoot lots of tests, and watch them back. Show them to friends, hear what people respond to. It can be a lot of fun. While there are never any “rules” in filmmaking, there are a certain amount of guidelines when it comes to VR to maximize comfort. But shoot tests against that, watch it, and find out for yourself why it doesn’t work. You’ll learn a whole lot more about your camera and VR filmmaking that way. When it comes time to shoot an actual project, have a headset ready to watch a quick sample of the shots you’re peeling off. “Check the gate,” as I like to call it. Those little moments will spark more ideas and inspire creative uses for the format.
Any particular highlights of the app you’d like to call out?
JF: We were able to put our VR180 camera setup in some really fun places, like the wood-chip filled carving pit of sculptor Griffon Ramsey while she’s chipping away at a large block of wood with her chainsaws. Puppet designer and puppeteer Rick Lyon also helped us experiment with the idea of performing a short puppet skit for VR180. Both of these are a joy to watch in headset!
If people take one thing away from this experience, what do you hope it would be and why?
JF: Ideas. I’m looking forward to seeing folks’ reactions to the content, the format, and the platform, and hear what they suggest we tackle next. I think each person is going to react strongly to certain aspects of each of the episodes, and hearing that feedback along with what else they’d like to see is exciting to me. I’m also looking forward to seeing other filmmakers watch this, get inspired, and take this format and run with it in their own way.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
JF: This has been an exciting project to work on. We were very lucky to have access to the Oculus team to help develop ideas and techniques, and to lean on them for technical support. For those looking to get into VR filmmaking, it’s relatively low-cost, and implementation in editing systems like Premiere is already there. At times it can feel like learning a new language, but once it clicks and you put that headset on to see what you’ve made, it’s really cool! Take your time, explore the tech, be patient, and create!
Thanks for all the behind-the-scenes details, Joey! We can’t wait to hear what people make of the makers.