Immersive Paleoart: Shooting 4K VR Video

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Over six months of research, equipment rigging and pre-production, multiple failed and successful stitching tests, and the hard work of 7 crew members and over a dozen collaborators paid off last week in our first VR film shoot for “Project Dreadnought” (working title). Here we captured an interview with world-renowned paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, who joined us in the Dinosaur Hall at the historic Academy of Natural Sciences. The 3D spherical video captured during this experimental shoot will serve as the framing device, narration, and compositing background plates for an immersive paleoart encounter with Dreadnoughtus schrani, coming June 2016.

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It was a great pleasure working with Dr. Lacovara on this shoot. He very eloquently told the story of Dreadnoughtus, from the discovery of the first fossil in the arid badlands of Patagonia, through the prep work and 3D laser scanning project, all the way to the cutting-edge robotics and Virtual Paleoart research presently taking place with the digitized fossils. Lacovara’s narration broke down complex biological processes into a digestible language, which will guide our audience through the virtual restoration of Dreadnoughtus. Even better, he did several segments in one complete take, preserving the immersive construct of VR film by eliminating any need for cut-aways and editing.

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Our footage was captured on two Blackmagic Micro 4K cinema cameras, each equipped with a 190-degree fish-eye lens. The cameras were mounted on a gimbal arm set at the nodal point of Camera R, allowing us to rotate the rig incrementally and asynchronously record segments of a parallax-free image sphere. Meanwhile, “Camera L” was offset at an approximate interpupillary distance to intentionally generate parallax for the final stereo-spherical stitch. This parallax will be refined in post-production with compositing tools, later to be composited with CGI Dreadnoughtus renders.

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This camera rig was wired up to a 4K recording station that allowed us to monitor and balance the cameras in real-time. Project adviser Nick Jushchyshyn rigged this cabinet together for this shoot, sacrificing the nuts and bolts of many an unused storage rack in the process.  Below is an early version of our camera rig, before Nick built a suit of travel-proof armor for it:

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Due to the limited low-light capabilities of the Blackmagic cameras, we also brought along an abundance of lighting equipment: including three Arri kits, a Matthews kit of flags and diffusers, blue gels and clamps, seven C-stands, and a portable LED panel. Other equipment included a spherical DSLR rig for HDRI capture, an H4N audio recorder paired with condenser shotgun mics, a wireless lav mic, a Canon T3i for set photography, a locked off FS100 camcorder, and many sandbags to pin it all down.

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I’d like to thank all of the wonderful volunteers and collaborators who donated their time and energies to make this production possible. If you found this post interesting, please subscribe for more updates to this project… including, “How to Resurrect a Dinosaur in About a Thousand Not-Entirely-Easy Steps (working title).”

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Spoilers.