Creating ground breaking 360 content for Sports Illustrated

I have worked with Sports Illustrated previously, but my latest project for them was by far the most ambitious yet. I was commissioned to carry out a special shoot of the USA Olympic Women’s 8s rowing team.  It was certainly no ordinary photoshoot.  Let me explain: in years gone by a shoot for a magazine would be limited in scope to simply shooting a super high quality still image.

So I had to shoot one of those.

However, massively successful magazines like Sports Illustrated have an ever greater video presence online.

So of course, I had to shoot some video.

But this is Sports Illustrated.  This requires nothing but the best. And what could be a better way of giving the viewer a more interactive experience? 360° video. This is the latest technological advance for VR and is one of the most exciting ways to fully immerse the viewer in a way that makes them feel they are right there alongside these amazing female Olympians.  There is no better way to celebrate these athletes.

So – you guessed it – I had to shoot some 360° video.

Doing just one of these shoots superbly well was going to be a challenge. Doing all three without compromise was going to be hard graft, indeed something of a creative mountain to climb.  After a bit (or a lot) of thought I worked out it would be possible – just. But how was I going to tackle this mammoth task?

Planning for success

Planning is key.  Before doing anything at all I got talking with the Women’s 8s team well ahead of the shoot and established the key areas that would be great locations for all aspects of the project.  Now, I’m no American so these gals were a real help. As I was cheerfully informed, the C. Bernard Shea Rowing Centre is the boathouse for all of the Princeton University rowing programs.  With its rich rowing history and award-winning architecture, it was the obvious choice for a key part of the shoot.

But I wanted to shoot a team photo with a difference – and the way to do that was to conduct an interactive 360° still team photoshoot. But where to start?  Firstly, I looked to Google for inspiration. Their ‘Inside Abbey road studios’ 360° tour (go take a look) is a project which I believe shows just what is possible to achieve with VR today.  What Google provides there is beyond the scope of this Olympic photoshoot in terms of both budget and clever coding. So, working with what I had I surmised that it would be possible to shoot a 360° still and then add interactive hotspots onto the rowers themselves. This would enable the viewer to click on the still image and a conventional video would appear with the team member sharing what it is like to be on the team.  Perfect!

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Getting my ideas across

It was important to show the team what I wanted to achieve well ahead of the shoot. The positional images are, well a little rough to say the least, but to come up with a plan that the team would grasp ahead of time was very important, this way they knew what to expect and I had their ‘buy in’.

Boat house positional

I knew I wanted to shoot the still image in Princeton’s Lake Carnegie but how deep was the water and what was the bed of the Lake Carnegie like? To this end I had a willing (sort of) volunteer in the shape of Taylor Ballentyne of Sports Illustrated. I sent Taylor wading out into the lake and she established two things 1. There was a hard and rocky slipway which was uncomfortable to stand on. 2. If you stepped slightly off the hard surface you sank quite quickly into mud – which had quite a smell to it! So it was off to the local store to get some suitable footwear for the team.

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Implementation

Turning in 3 different assets (print, video and VR) of the highest order IS too much for someone to take on alone so I did not even attempt it. I got lucky and worked with an excellent team of dedicated professionals who were all experts in their own field. When working on such a multi-faceted shoot, cohesive team work is essential. After all, when I am shooting a still image which has to be spot on, the last thing I want to be thinking of is syncing and securing a 360° video camera rig to an exotic carbon fibre boat.

Execution

I certainly learned many valuable lessons during this photoshoot, and one such lesson was: once you get a plan that you think will work, stick to it. While I was shooting the still at first light, my team were rigging the 6 camera rig to the boat ready for the 360° video. This meant that once we had shot the still we could quickly move on to finishing the set up and installation of the video camera. This was critical as the Women’s 8 team made it clear we would have just one run at this, so we had to get it right first time.

360 flat btsBelow is the incredible 360 video,very proud of how this turned out:

(best viewed on Chrome)

Conclusions

In my view, there are many lessons to be drawn from this project. The main take-home point was that with good planning and the right team you can pull off just about anything.  For anyone looking to take advantage of the new 360° VR technology, the opportunities are endless.  All that is required is an open mind.  Even without a large budget there is still the option for 360° media, as long as you are willing to get creative.  After all, this is the future of storytelling.

Written by: Drew Gardner

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