The Hallelujah On Set Experience

From the first time we heard the concept for Within’s Hallelujah, we knew it was perfect for a Light Field VR experience. Unlike a traditional 360º video, Lytro Immerge content allows viewers to move freely and become immersed in the virtual world. We knew that viewers would quickly become enveloped in the world of Hallelujah when Bobby Halvorsen sang directly to them.

Zach Richter, the director, found a magnificent set for the production, St. Ignatius church in San Francisco. Its European interior evoked the past of a cappella, choral singing which was born in fifteenth century European churches. St. Ignatius was also more spacious than the typical San Francisco church which would give us more room for our shoot. The historic venue was not without challenges however; there wasn’t enough power for a professional film set, the large interior was dark, it did not have ramps to easily move the camera inside the church, and we would have to wrap before five o’clock mass!  

After scouting the church and realizing that we didn’t have time to light the entire space, we decided to use long exposures to capture the beautiful details of the interior. We hired movers to place the camera and servers on the altar, brought in generators to supply power, and hid additional lighting and audio equipment behind pillars. The advantage of shooting in ‘wedges’, rotating our planar camera five times to capture the full 360º Light Field volume, was apparent as it allowed us to have the rest of the lighting, servers, and audio equipment directly behind the camera.

Our greatest concern was being able to finish the shoot within the allotted time. It was close at times, and I had visions of the camera sitting on the altar during mass. But the capture went smoothly and we were able to wrap and break down shortly before the mass began. Working with early stage technology is always a nail biter, you never quite know what issues you will run into, but it was evident that our software team had put the camera through extensive validation. There was not a single dropped frame among the 95 cameras during the entire day.

One of the most beneficial tools developed for working on set with the system has been our camera UI. It allows the director to playback and display camera footage from all cameras during filming, and to adjust camera settings as necessary using a touchscreen tablet. It has been key for accurate blocking, as you’re able to see the extreme view points of the scene with a single tap. We also needed to ensure that every member of our audience could be at eye level with the singer, Bobby Halvorson. This was a challenge since Bobby is six feet four inches tall! After repeated testing, we decided to raise the camera to capture Bobby from the best position. We had already developed a ‘centering’ tool for our VR Player, which allows each viewer to enter the Light Field experience at the same location and height. These techniques allowed us to put the viewer at eye level with Bobby which was key to achieving the intimacy that makes Hallelujah so powerful.  

The success of our efforts was evident during the launch of Hallelujah at Tribeca as I watched many people react emotionally to the experience, several of whom actually cried. This was one of the most wonderful and humbling parts of working on this piece. Despite the complexity behind the scenes, from the Lytro Immerge system that enables high fidelity life-like capture and playback, to the composing, performing, and capture of the audio and song, viewers aren’t conscious of the technology when they watch it.

A director friend of mine who had one of the most popular VR pieces at the festival said, “A director’s greatest goal with an experience is to have it emotionally resonate, if you can get them to cry you’ve hit the jackpot.” Any creative can attest to how hard that is. To watch the viewers focus on this beautiful performance as the technology melts away reminds of me of why we fell in love with the concept and why it was such a great first customer piece.  

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