The Associated Press has built an agile 360 video operation that’s able to respond thoughtfully and at a moment’s notice to breaking news. Its digital team achieved this by dismissing the notion that creating high-quality 360 videos requires any special technical expertise.
“We think of 360 video as a toolkit that all journalists should have,” says Paul Cheung, director of interactive and digital news production at the AP. “It’s not just a luxury accessory to storytelling. We are creating a lot of enthusiasm by showing that anyone can do it as part of their regular assignment.”
The organization has around two dozen kits spread around the world that consist of an easy-to-use point and shoot $500 Nikon Keymission 360 camera, lavalier microphones for recording interviews and a Pelican case. Dozens of AP journalists who don’t necessarily have significant video experience — just enthusiasm, a good eye and one day of training — form the many one-person 360 teams across the globe that can quickly turn around high-quality videos.
We chatted with some AP journalists and AP’s digital team about their advice for shooting 360 videos.
Think of the Camera as a Person
Dario Lopez, in addition to being chief photographer for Mexico and Central America, is a regional coordinator for 360 video. He helps train journalists and distribute cameras across Latin America. The biggest piece of advice he gives journalists is to treat the camera as if it were a person. “You have to place the camera in a situation where a human would be,” he says. “Make sure there’s a lot going on around it and put it at eye level.”
The key is to place a camera in a spot that a human would want to stand and look around — but in a location or environment that is foreign or inaccessible to most viewers. In the example above, notice how the camera is placed as if it were one of the Venezuelans on the beach, or as a customer in the fish market.
Find a Unique Angle
Paul Cheung notes that shots at high-profile events you’d think would be great for 360 videos often don’t work. “The typical shot at a big event is from a press pool. But from there, you really only have a 180 view, because behind you are a bunch of cameras,” he says. While the AP believes most events or subjects can work in 360, they advise journalists to find a different shooting location — one that normal news reports wouldn’t have, and an audience member couldn’t get to themselves.
This video of the New York Philharmonic shows the perspective from within the philharmonic itself. It gives the unique perspective of showing the crowd, the conductor and the other musicians within the same shot, all from an angle that an audience member wouldn’t be able to see on their own.
Shoot Between One and Six Meters Away
Distance is key for 360 videos. Shoot too close to a subject and they will get distorted. On the other hand, anything far away will appear small because of the fisheye lens. The AP tells its journalists that the sweet spot is between 1 and 6 meters away. And if they’re interviewing someone, the subject should be 1 meter away.
In this video of the aftermath of a tornado in Rosalie, Alabama, the clearest subjects and items are positioned in that range of 1 to 6 meters.
Be Careful of Moving the Camera While Filming
Nathan Griffiths, the AP’s interactive editor, who leads most of the trainings, tells journalists to be careful when adding movement to 360 shots, and says to never pan. Most shots are done by placing the camera on a tripod in the middle of a scene, then getting out of the way. Movement can be good, but it needs to be stable. If the camera isn’t steady when it moves, like it would be when mounted on a car, it can cause motion sickness for viewers.
When Fidel Castro died, Dario Lopez traveled to Havana, Cuba, to put together the short 360 video above. To get the right feel and place people within the setting, he used a combo of still and moving shots. Note the opening still shot in the middle of a crowd mourning Castro’s death, as well as the view from a motorcycle riding along the city’s coast.
Shoot For At Least One Minute
Each shot in a finished 360 video for the AP is at least 10 seconds long. Griffiths notes that it takes at least that long for a viewer to fully look around. To get 10 seconds of video worthy of including, an editor will typically need at least one minute of footage. Much of the raw 360 footage will include reporters entering and leaving a shot, as well as random passersby getting too close to the camera.
In this video of Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade, each shot gives enough time for a viewer to look around and take in the sights of the scene.
“I explain to journalists that this isn’t a gimmick,” says Dario Lopez. “We all need to continue to experiment.” 360 video is still in its infancy, and while the AP has learned a lot, it encourages experimentation to help figure what works best in the format. While breaking news videos have worked well for them and certainly suits the AP’s strengths, Paul Cheung says there are real growth opportunities in episodic 360s as well Live 360. “We see people are consuming these videos in large chunks of time on Facebook. The question is can we create regular features that are 10 to15 minutes, and have people go watch part two?”
Recently, AP began shooting a number of videos out of Mosul, Iraq. The reporter included footage that shows children interacting with the camera. Typically, an editor cuts out those shots to maintain the illusion of the fourth wall — but in this case, it gave an interesting perspective of some of the people living there.