We recently partnered with M Booth to create the content for an interactive experience for The Macallan. The final project included a 20ftx20ft projected cube, 4D multi-sensory VR experience in New York’s Grand Central Station, enabling visitors to this experience feel closer to the brand by virtually visiting its new £120m distillery and spiritual home in Speyside, Scotland.
Every ambitious creative is always looking for new and dynamic ways to tell stories and for creatives who want to push the envelope and create one-of-a-kind interactive experiences, its a constant learning process. I’ve been producing video content in one form or another for 25 years now and I wanted to share some experiences, learnings and anecdotes from producing what was a big production for a major brand using a new medium. Always exciting...
Everyone needs to understand it’s a learning experience
Before we shot any footage, writer/director Jason Glenister and I spent a month working closely with M Booth in New York and The Macallan to develop the scripts and establish a clear idea of what the finished project would look like. We even completed The Macallan Academy training courses to fully immerse ourselves in the brand!
Gaining an in-depth understanding of The Macallan was crucial in order to tell a compelling on-brand story in VR (there may have been some tasting involved along the way too, of course). In total, Jason wrote four films about The Macallan, the distillery and how everything continues the brand heritage.
Being "on brand" is nothing new but one of the key differentiators between 2D and 360 is that 360 needs much longer shots and fewer cuts to enable the audience to look around and be immersed in the scene. For The Macallan films, instead of writing one script for a single film and ending up with dozens of shots crafted in the edit as per traditional filmmaking, we had to write scripts for four different films that had around 10-15 shots each. So everything we shot had to be specific and relevant to the script which meant that building the story was much more difficult; there was a lot of information to include in the scripts and each shot had to sustain its relevance throughout.
We also knew at this stage that the best way to drive the narrative was to have constant movement throughout each film. The audience was being taken on a journey and we wanted them to keep moving in the direction we (or the narrative) wanted them to. Now movement in 360 VR when viewed on a headset may not be for everyone but we knew if we used a two-camera rig to lessen any parallax* and multi-stitch issues, and had that rig mounted on a very stable tracking vehicle and a very big drone, it would work - but this took planning.
* If you don’t know what the parallax between lenses is, hold your right index finger about 1ft in front of your face and look at it with both eyes. Keep the finger still but close your left eye and continue to look at the finger with your right eye. Now switch to the right eye and see how the finger appears to shift. That’s the parallax and we don't want that.
In order to overcome this, we visited the distillery twice before any filming actually took place, so we could work out the exact shots to shoot. We took photos of every single thing we planned on filming but making sure that as we were filming in 360, the whole scene worked too. We then used the images to build a comprehensive storyboard that established a clear idea of how each component of the film would work together. Having that allowed us to create a timeline of our filming schedule, which is another story...
Be prepared for the unexpected
It is Murphy’s law that no matter how much military precision you put into planning, things won’t go exactly to plan. We only had four days to capture all the footage we needed including the aerials, and needed to work around the construction company who were in the final stages of finishing and handing over the new distillery. So we were working in what was still classified as a construction zone and throughout the filming process we had to sign in and out of every area of the distillery and the surrounding Estate where we were filming, which can take up quite a bit of time when you have a film crew and all the kit.
When we filmed inside the actual distillery we had to be supervised and chaperoned at all times because the air could potentially be volatile due to levels of ethanol emitted in the production area. The air had to constantly monitored by our escort to ensure it was safe for us to keep using our equipment, which also meant we had to work much more quickly to get what we needed and capture the perfect shot.
Given that pretty much everything was a tracking shot filmed using a remote controlled Mantis 360 Evo, the pressure was on for Jeff Brown and Jonte Beswick from Brownian Motion. Atop the Mantis were two Panasonic GH5’s on a specially built rig, both fitted with Entaniya Hal 250 4.3mm lenses. Once the fiddly setting up was done the rig had to be driven by Jonte via videolink as we all hid from the 360 view of the lenses. We’re all experts at hide and seek now… and thankfully in his spare time Jonte is a championship Go Kart racer. Hopefully his Karts go faster than his Mantis...
Another obstacle we had to overcome was the bracing weather conditions Scotland is famous for. We were shooting drone aerials to capture the incredible design of the distillery and the stunning Macallan Estate using an Alta 8 with the GH5 rig that had a payload of around 6 kg, but several times we had to abandon the drone as the wind took over, gusting 30mph at times. That’s not necessarily unique to shooting 360 but everyone hiding whilst filming is. The drone sees everything and the pilot needs to see the drone…
Think about how every shot will affect the post-production phase
When you shooting 360, you need to think about how every single shot will affect the post-production process and vice-versa.
The old adage of “we’ll fix it in post” actually becomes a very scary and potentially expensive prospect for the producer and as we discovered once in post some of the shots took up to 72 hours to render, so it was essential that we invested our time in shooting only what we needed and that when we did take these shots, we knew that in post they would work (and not cripple us) within the limited time we had to turn the films around once we had wrapped.
Henry Stuart from Visualise helped us achieve that as the project’s Technical VR Supervisor and ensuring that what we shot would work in post-production. For example, when shooting drone in 360, it’s a straightforward process to remove the drone from the sky at the top of the frame. But if you’re flying the drone near trees and if below the tree line the blades of the drone come between the trees and the camera - it’s a different story.
When shooting with the Mantis the texture of the floor can be a massive issue if you’re trying to remove the Mantis from each frame, and again when shooting with the Mantis, tracking along a gantry that has a plate glass window on one side and the vast, lit, interior production area of the distillery on the other, not only do you have to think about removing the Mantis underneath but you have moving parallax issues and also the exposures for outside the plate glass and inside the distillery from two lenses. Henry worked with Jeff Brown our DoP to ensure it would all work. And it did of course…
Although we were shooting in the wilds of Scotland we thankfully made the call to drive all the kit up to the location (from Pinewood). As well as having a base for everything, it turned out to be one of the best decisions as our DIT was able to set up shop on the back of the truck. He was wirelessly connected to us and constantly processing and loose stitching everything we were shooting so that at the end of each day we had dailies to review and to make sure that technically everything we had shot, had worked. Something we thought best to ensure whilst on location rather than in Bermondsey. It also meant we had an espresso machine too.
Once wrapped and back in London, Henry’s team then completed the time-consuming editing, including ambisonic audio production, for VR headset, mobile, and large screen projection. It’s incredibly important to have someone who is experienced in the post-production phase of VR on the shoot, particularly with complex productions because they will be able to pinpoint what will work or what would require extensive editing that could cause significant delays and extra costs to the project.
Remember you’re telling a story
People sometimes fall into the trap of treating VR/360 video as a gimmick and believe that you just need a few great shots to impress audiences. The reality is that you’re still telling a story and that story or brand message comes first. Stunning images are one thing but if there’s no hook or backbone you’ll lose the audience quickly, just as with any brand film.
The Macallan project was incredibly ambitious, but the main reason it was a success is because everyone had a clear understanding of The Macallan’s brand message and the important role 360 played in creating visuals that would make it come to life. Every shot was meticulously planned and each shot worked with every line of script
The project is unique and helps to elevate the perception of VR/360° video as a valuable and innovative storytelling tool for brands.
Links to all The Macallan Films: