360 film: the truth about function and effect (1/3)

What a 360° film can do

360 Film Function and effect videothink 360 Film Function and effect videothink

A 360 film is something special, no doubt about it. Contrary to conventional films, the audience’s view within the image is completely unlimited. If one were to believe the suppliers of the technologies required for the manufacture of 360° videos, this type of film will become the next greatest hit. Specialist publications, but also public media such as the German BILD-Zeitung and business analysts have unanimously declared 360° films to be a megatrend for 2016.

But what are 360° videos really able to do for marketing and communication in film and video? When does the production of this type of video make sense? What application are 360° films suitable for? What must be taken into consideration so that 360° videos are best able to unfold their effect?

From a technical perspective, the Internet provides numerous tips and tricks regarding the function and production of 360° videos. This three-part article series therefore focusses on the nature, the contents and the effect of 360° films.

How 360 film work

Contrary to normal videos, 360 films do not show any excerpts of reality. They present the entire setting around the camera. Irrespective of whether upwards or downwards, left or right: the viewer himself decides the direction in which he wants to view a scene. 360° films are therefore also called all-round videos. 360° videos can be viewed either on the Smartphone, the computer screen or with specially manufactured glasses. While you are able to determine your viewing angle on the computer by using a mouse, this automatically changes on the Smartphone as soon as it is moved into the desired line of vision.

VR glasses provide an even more perfect solution. The abbreviation VR stands for virtual reality. If the wearer of virtual reality glasses turns his head, his field of vision will change realistically at the same time. VR glasses are also called Head Mounted Displays (HMD). They are available as cheap cardboard models with or without individual advertising print (so-called VR cardboard), or as special high-tech glasses (currently: Galaxy Gear, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive). However, these glasses are only able to provide a virtual experience if they are connected to a high-speed computer serving as image source.

All this is a little reminiscent of “Second Life” from the “noughties”, a big hype I was unable to acquire a taste for in those days. Markus Böhm, SPIEGEL ONLINE

Technically, a 360 film can be implemented in a large variety of ways. We can basically distinguish between recording systems recording the entire 360° image with a single camera and systems which use several cameras for the same effect. Simple camera systems for all-round films are already obtainable in the low four-digit price range. On the upper end, the price for professional hardware reaches far into the six-digit range.

Generally, and providing a correct data processing workflow, the larger the number of cameras, the higher the quality of the film. If the film is recorded with only a single camera, compiling the images into a panorama during image processing (so-called stitching) may become obsolete, but the data from a single camera will have to serve the entire 360° image. Because image information in a 360 film can also only be improved if it actually exists, only multi-camera, colour-graded systems can guarantee a quality which can keep apace with conventional films. Five or even seven simultaneously recording cameras generate an enormous data volume, even in ashort 360 film. This increases the temptation of compressing the data to the detriment of quality. Although this may simplify data processing and increase the data processing speed in image processing, it ultimately makes just as much sense as putting a fine fillet through the mincer.

What can 360° videos do?

360° videos are films we watch to have a good look around, to discover things for ourselves. This creates the entertainment value. There is a mandatory visual experience for a 360 film in every direction.

Whatever is close to the camera appears large in the image. Whatever is further away moves into the background. Depending on the recording technique, and on the specification of the camera used, the ideal recordable space for a 360° film should not be closer than 1.5 metres and no further than 7 metres away from the camera. Anything closer to the camera will become distorted. Anything further away will only appear as small in the video’s background.

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360° film has its own visual imagery

The selection of the location is particularly important, because a 360 film works with a different visual imagery than conventional films with a limited image section.

360° videos cannot be cut in the traditional sense. 360 films already find their final form during their recording.

This also cancels out the option of designing a 360° film in assembly after its recording or trimming it afterwards to suit a required expression. In this light, a 360 film strives far more for authenticity than others genres are able to. 360° films already find their final form, their structure and their rhythm during their recording and not only in subsequent image processing.

The limited assembly options also mean that panorama images cannot be cut to close-ups. If objects in 360° films are to change their size (or their distance to the camera) within a scene, careful staging is required. Either the camera has to be moved, or the object. Because the 360° camera is the eye of the viewer and influences the telling of the story, this movement should also always be motivated contextually.

Virtual reality is a magical technology, because it causes a fundamental shift from indirect information consumption via text, image and video to direct information consumption within virtual worlds. Luca Caracciolo, t3n Magazin

This is aggravated by the fact that the viewer’s all-round view not only forces the director and the camera to literally go and hide so as not to appear in the image, but also necessitates hiding lights and microphones in the setting so that they are not visible at first glance and destroy the illusion of reality. This explains why so many 360° videos are only recorded with natural light in the open air instead of indoors.

360° films almost exclusively consist of a sequence of a few sedately and consecutively distanced venues (scenes). The viewer needs time to discover the 360° setting. To motivate the viewer on his road to discovery, elements are frequently specifically built into the scenes. If, for example, a person moves through the room (de facto around the eye of the 360° camera), the viewer will usually want to follow this person. 360° films are completely unsuitable for contents requiring a fast change in scene!

a 360 film is not suitable stories that need a high paced change of rhythm, or the accurately controlled localisation of information and emotions through changes in setting dimensions.

360° videos give viewers the freedom of having to look for themselves. In contrast, they strip filmmakers of a large part of their cinematic tools used to control the viewer behaviour during normal films.

Image film, product film and storytelling

The continuation of this article (Part 2) deals with the question of the circumstances under which 360 videos should be used as image films and product films and what 360° films signify for the storytelling aspect. The concluding Part 3 introduces a selection of best-practice examples, dealing with 360° documentation and the perfect 360 film.

360 film circlevision-kristian-widmer


Background information: The author of this article has been occupied with 360° films intensely since 1998. As an executive producer from 1999 to 2000, he was responsible for a 360° entertainment film in the seven-digit budget range, which was filmed under director Dani Levy with 9 analogue 35 mm film cameras and post-produced in Los Angeles and Munich. After this film (in specially built cinemas) was able to generate more than 10 million viewers, Kristian Widmer shot six additional international 360° films in Australia and Europe during the following years.

Condor Films shot their first Circlevision film for the Swiss National Exhibition in 1964. Condor is currently producing four new 360° films on customer assignment. In order to be able to guarantee an optimal price/performance ratio, production and image processing departments frequently revert to proprietary tools and independently developed workflows.

About Kristian Widmer
Kristian Widmer (49) is Executive Producer and CEO of Condor Films Ltd. He has been advising customers on film and video for 23 years.


  1. I want to learn more

  2. Can you tell me what kind of specialist need to create 360° films?

    • Depends on the kind of 360-Film you want to create. As always, check out showreels and make 100% sure you know who did what on the film (very often you’ll find people in the business that choose to work with a writer, director or cinematographer, not knowing that the big and relevant inputs for their excellence came from somebody the person you talk with doesn’t mention.)

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