Sat. Jan 28th, 2023
Aboard HMS Cavalier, where Wargaming battles to shape the future of VR movies

Sometimes promotion for a video game can go too far, become overwrought and drive up the value of what is being promoted. Other times it can be subtle, unique, maybe even really interesting and attract a new audience that might not have cared otherwise. Then there’s the Wargaming approach, which seems to be “make something that doesn’t promote any of our games just because you can.”

So, Pretty much in warships was born: a virtual, 360-degree video tour of the HMS Cavalier, made with virtual reality headsets in mind, but the sort of thing you can just as easily watch on a smartphone, tablet, or even (with some fiddly mouse movement) your browser. It’s a complex technical endeavor, requiring a lot of preparation, technical know-how and traditional documentaries – and if you didn’t know beforehand, there’s almost no indication it was made by a gaming company.

This is not unfamiliar territory for the Minsk-based studio, which is best known for developing the game World of tanks. The first VR outing was Virtually in tanks, and it followed it up with a 360-degree combat reconstruction from 1941, a nice proof-of-concept for where the studio wants its VR ambitions to end up. But Pretty much in warships sees some improvements to the technology used, including a much more experienced production team and a level of ambition I haven’t seen in a VR or 360-degree movie to date.

“We’re trying to push the concept forward from the two different tank projects we’ve done,” said Matt Daly, Wargaming’s special projects team leader and executive producer on the Pretty much in warships project. “Both were very well received, they broke records and things like that, and the feedback from the general public was overwhelmingly positive.”

That feedback has of course been included in the new VR documentary. How? I’m not sure, but it’s along the lines of “doing more of what people said they liked”. In this particular case, that appears to be a greater weapon of war, the aforementioned Cavalier. Oh, and documentary filmmaker/historian Dan Snow as a presenter, of course, alongside British Army veteran Richard Cutland, who brings in expertise on things like weapons.

However, when it comes to more obvious, tangible changes, we turn to the technology. 360-degree filming has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with Google and Samsung eager to take advantage of what could become the way for all of us to look at things. While its natural habitat is a VR headset, there’s a lot to be said for simply watching a 360-degree video on your phone and changing the view as you move your arm (and phone) over the spot.

Out with the old, in with the new

With such a huge investment being made in VR, the equipment used to create these kinds of videos is getting better and better. The Pretty much in warships shoot used the same rig as in previous shoots — a Freedom 360 GoPro setup that uses six GoPro cameras — which provides high-resolution, 360-degree shots with only a few major issues (stitch lines and differences in light levels, according to Daly).

But there’s something new: “We’ve since added GoPros to the Back Bone-modified GoPros as well,” explains Daly. “They have been modified to fit the lens, so we confirm this Entaniya [fisheye] lenses from Entapano. One is a large 280-degree lens that points upwards and gives you a 280-degree view – you only lose the bottom part of it, which I think is an acceptable loss.”

The crew spends much of their time playing with GoPros.
Enlarge / The crew spends much of their time playing with GoPros.

“We also have two back-to-back GoPros, each with 250-degree Entaniya lenses,” Daly continued. “They cover the entire frame, so you get a full 360-degree view with just two lenses. You get one line in the center, but it’s not visible when you’ve got everything synchronized, focused and tilted at the right angle. The advantage is that you can be more agile.”

These static cameras are used alongside a camera-equipped drone, which can take outdoor shots on the go – a first for the Wargaming crew – and it’s yet another way it’s chosen to crank up the difficulty to make the documentary more interesting.

This way of working is of course not new for the special projects team, but it is for the presenters who have to learn a whole new style of presentation. Due to the lack of crew in the immediate vicinity – they have to back off so that they are not in the all-encompassing shot – and the small size of the cameras used, there is little indication that anything is actually being recorded. While it’s something Snow and Cutland had to adapt to, the end result, according to Daly, is much more natural, almost like a stage play.

“Think about what a big Hollywood movie needs in terms of equipment, and what an actor needs to do his job with so many people watching,” he says. “There are lights, the industry around them, it’s such an artificial space. While with this we can’t help but create a space for our presenters that’s just empty and there – and it’s just the two of them and this other ghost, immaterial entity that is there with them, and they must treat it as such.”

With the technological advancements that have been made in recent years, it’s clear it won’t be this low-key for long. Improvements will come, and with them the opportunity – and the need – to make things more like a traditional film session. “All that pretense, the fact that the device isn’t there, isn’t going to stay that way forever,” Daly tells me. “Eventually there will be a whole infrastructure built around how to make this stuff work, and more things will be visible around you. So I think we’re at a wonderfully primitive stage from a delivery standpoint — the is like theatre.”

The fact that the technology currently contains some of these “primitive” elements may put off some filmmakers, but Daly and his team are enjoying the unique challenges that arise. Just a few weeks before shooting started, a new feature had given them access to a whole new (for VR) convenience: the viewfinder.

“We’re using the new version of the Ricoh Theta, which streams live 360-degree video to your phone. It has a low frame rate and low resolution, but you immediately get a feeling of blocking, positioning – the same as a live viewfinder or monitor at doing traditional films, so that’s a huge advantage. So now we can use that to get a real sense of what this is really going to look like, should the guys be more spread out, things like that.”

Wargaming’s first VR project, Virtually in tanks. Don’t forget to drag the viewport around!

This is vastly different from how things went in previous shoots, with the first one Virtually in tanks project is, by Daly’s own admission, a pocket thing.

“We didn’t even get to see what we had done until [we were finished],” he tells me, “For various logistical reasons, we couldn’t really get a sense of what we had created until the whole project was done. So if there was an aspect that we didn’t predict even something like camera movement and what that feels like in a headset, you can find the whole thing that you made, that you got your men from Minsk to England and put the resources in, you may discover that everything is unusable. It didn’t happen to us, but we were blind.”

Part of the learning process is accepting that all good plans will have to be reworked, if not outright abandoned, on the day itself. Ambitious drone shots, which would have featured the presenters covered in CG effects, were in the pipeline, but had been put on hold on the day due to very high winds. Adapting to situations is key. And adapting what you already know with these new methods is a big part of the whole process.

“The advent of every new medium throughout history has always involved this gestation period,” says Daly. “The old rearview mirror adage, that we move forward but look backward to grasp the only things we can tangibly hold on to. In this respect, it is similar to traditional moviemaking and game development pipelines. is a perfect position for us to be in, with a gaming transmedia background, as a game publisher with an audience that’s really receptive to these kinds of topics, that are really movie-friendly.

That’s at least part of the reason for that Pretty much in warships and previous projects. But there’s more to it than just giving fans of the games something different in the form of war with Wargaming branding on it.

By akfire1

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