MANDT VR gives us great insights on VR filmmaking (and tells us which VR cameras are the best)

In the last days I’ve had the pleasure of having a talk about VR videos recording and streaming with MANDT VR, an US company which is very active in this field. They have recorded videos for important companies like Disney or the Pittsburgh Steelers, so surely they’re very good in what they do. The thing that excited me the most (and that led to this interview) is the fact that they also love to experiment and perform researches. For some particular jobs, when camera solutions available on the market are not suitable for their purpose, they actually experiment and use duct tape to MagGyver new and innovative solutions!

The interview has focused on what they do and some peculiarities of VR videos recording/streaming. Stephanie Wong and Will Barratt have been very kind in answering my questions. Will, who is MANDT director of photography and R&D of camera department (he’s the MacGyver), is a very talented guy (he has also won an Emmy!) and gave me some useful technical insights on the VR movies recording. Got you interested? Come on, keep reading!

What does MandtVR do?

Founded in 2015, Emmy-nominated VR company MANDT VR is a Los Angeles-based studio specializing in the production of premium virtual reality content. MANDT VR creates immersive, 360-degree experiences that transport audiences to new worlds beyond the boundaries of traditional media. Channeling the limitless magic of virtual reality, MANDT VR transforms passive viewers into active participants in stories that engage, inform, entertain, and delight.

What does Will Barratt do for MANDT VR?

I am the Director of VR photography, VR Cinematographer. I am also the head of R&D for the camera department looking at all of our options for capturing the highest quality VR material.

MANDT VR virtual reality video shooting
Will Barrat with a 10-Go-Pro mount (Image by MANDT VR)
Which camera is MANDT VR shooting with now?

I choose every camera by how it fits the job. For College Football Championships I’ll go for a multi camera rig, the more cameras the better.. like 360Rize 10 cams, mixed with the Kodak 4k back-to-back for really tight spaces. I’ll even use a Samsung Gear 360 for scenarios where you’d normally use a GoPro in a flat 2D environment. Jaunt camera is great for filming when you have space for it and OZO when I need a good live stream, multi-cam project.

As always, I feel the choice of camera is very important, but needs to be the right tool to support the story.

Are the cameras on the market lacking of certain qualities producers and directors are seeking? If so, what are they?

I feel that there are two things lacking in the cameras produced now.

We need a camera that has its own AI (artificial intelligence) stitching hardware inside the camera body, so the image that is output is a fully equirectangular 6k image at 60fps SDI. I’d also like to see some really nice glass on those cameras. I’m frustrated by camera manufacturers who post beautiful websites listing a camera that contains all of these things, but then you find it won’t even go into production until 2022!

MANDT VR virtual reality video shooting
10-GoPro-mount, on a car, fo some cool footage! (Image by MANDT VR)
What are the downsides to cameras like the Jaunt, Ozo, etc… I mean, I’m not a movie maker expert, so some explanations “for dummies” would be useful…

Again, it depends of the job, because sometimes these cameras are great! There are however some downsides when using cameras like the Nokia Ozo or the Jaunt camera. First is size. The Jaunt is a big camera, and it’s pretty heavy, (like 5 pounds) so you need a very sturdy monopod for it. Post (post-production) is really tough for the Jaunt camera as well because all stitching takes place up in the cloud, so you have to upload HUGE files, AI (artificial intelligence) stitches it, and then you download. This process is also expensive.

I like the OZO for field production, because you can live preview through the oculus goggles, but when you bring the footage back to post, the codec they use takes a lot of power and time to stitch all of the raw footage. Now, if you have the time and money…

Can you please provide me a brief list of main camera types and which is the preferred use of them (and why)?

Cameras are coming in to our office every day… and the electronics are changing every minute. For every production, as a director of photography, you should choose the correct system for each shoot. You don’t want a big clunky camera if you are run-and-gun, and you don’t want a cheap/low quality look for a big shoot… So for the short list of my favorite cameras for the job, here are a few:

  • Samsung Gear 360 2017 – Affordable, very small and light, image quality not great, battery life bad and it overheats… but where size matters (inside race-cars, bicycle handlebars) this camera is great. Two lenses make an easy stitch.
  • Kodak PixPro 360 4k back-to-back – Affordable, very small, light, decent image. Great for a drone, or close up work. Two lenses are an easy stitch… Images at a distance get a little soft.
  • VUZE camera – Great price, intro to 360 AND Stereoscopic. Super easy to use through the app, not a lot of control over the stitch however, you kind of take what you can get. Also gets soft at long distance photography. It’s light and small, so good for run-and-gun stuff too. Drone etc.

Bigger cameras:

  • Zcam S1 4 lens camera – I like this camera a lot… it gets hot, but never overheats. It has 4 lenses, so the stitch is easy… shoots on readily available SD cards. Has great controls over the CAT5 connection so it’s good for a multicam shoot. It has a battery pack that lasts a long time, and you can change batteries as often as needed… This camera is built like a tank. Drawbacks? Terrible in low light, HDMI connections are very susceptible to strain and breaking.
  • Nokia OZO – GREAT for live productions, get a stitching computer, and you are great. Its SDI output makes it easy to run through fiber cable for long runs, great image, you can’t beat its field production software and hardware.
  • Jaunt – Beautiful image quality. Tough for post, but a very high quality camera. Easy to use, and delivers the robust image for high end shoots.

We will be one of the first to take delivery of the new insta360 PRO camera. Very excited to try this one out! Self stitching, stereoscopic, surround audio… just some great stuff.. Interested to see the new Sonicam camera when it comes out: with 16 microphones it should be really cool…

MANDT VR virtual reality video shooting
Will Barrat with a big Jaunt Cam in his hands (Image by MANDT VR)
How did you “develop” a camera rig? Tell me something about your MacGyver invention!

As I’ve said, we’ve tried a number of camera systems that did very specific jobs well, like the Jaunt camera, OZO, Zcam S1, 360Rize GoPro10, but for my specific PodcastOne client, we needed a system that could record 360-degree content, stream to multiple destinations live, and have a good stitch as well as quality picture.

What I have been able to create, is a combination of two cameras, stacked vertically and wired into Video Stitch Vahana VR to accomplish this… we can also bring in the podcast audio through Vahana so the audio is just as high quality as the 360 video.

We use this software called “Vahana” made by “Videostitch/Orah” to stitch our 4 camera VR system. We can then use Vahana to bring in the audio from their mixing board, so the stitch and the sound are married at the computer. This process helps post, as opposed to a separate system. I use two proprietary cameras stacked on top of each other to use one as a back-up, and for stills or other live streaming solutions. It’s a system that I’ve wired together, and is not available to the public.

Apart from the camera type, which is the most important thing to consider in VR filmmaking?

I tell everybody that the KEY to VR filmmaking is ACCESS!!! The camera needs to be placed in the very middle of the action. It can’t be really far away, OR too close. Camera placement is absolutely critical.

How do you envision the future of VR filmmaking?

I think that the future will actually be a combo of live action VR mixed with augmented reality… we’ll probably film an event, and you’ll get to share it with your friends, as you and your avatars sit at a table and enjoy it.

Do you think we’ll have VR cinemas in the future, or VR is destined too a future similar to the one of 3D films?

It’s hard to say if there will be a complete 360 degree cinema experience. As a DP, that’s exactly how I’d like my audience to enjoy my images… I like seeing films in the theater with an audience. It would certainly be a unique cinema experience… let’s hope we see it someday!

MANDT VR virtual reality video shooting
MandtVR office… some big minds are overheating here (Image by MANDT VR)

And that’s it… hope you liked this interview! I liked it a lot because it is the point of view of a skilled VR director who, in the past, has also been a great director of traditional filmography. I thanks MANDT VR for this interview really a lot. The greatest takeaways that I had from it are:

  • VR cameras world is moving very fast. Will talks about how every day new VR cameras pop out and is excited about the future. This is exactly the same thing that is happening in all fields of the VR ecosystem;
  • Despite the above point, VR cameras are not perfect yet. Exactly as VR headsets, VR games, etc… we’re still at the beginning, so we have good products but not perfect ones. Will is waiting for something that will arrive in 2022…
  • You need experience to be a VR director. What impressed me the most is the fact that each VR camera has its pros and its cons and you have to know them to decide which camera to choose for each particular footage. Before this interview, I thought that Jaunt Cameras were the best for every kind of professional recording and Gear 360 were only for hobbists. I was so n00b!
  • There’s still room for experiments. Will MacGyvering a new innovative solution for a particular recording he had to make is a great example of a VR innovator that can’t find a solution to his problems so he creates the solution himself with some duct tape! This is how VR works these days and that’s why I love it so much…

I advise you to check out MANDT VR website, because it’s a professional shooting company, with real talented people working for it!

Hope you liked this interview as well. If it is the case, please like and share this article!

(Header image by MANDT VR)

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AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I've still not waken up...