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Aboard HMS Cavalier, where Wargaming is battling to shape the future of VR films

Sometimes promotion for a video game can go too far, becoming overwrought and vastly inflating the value of what it is promoting. Other times it can be subtle, unique, maybe even truly interesting, and draw in a new audience that might not have otherwise cared. Then there's the Wargaming approach, which seems to be: "make something that doesn't promote any of our games, purely because we can."

Thus, Virtually Inside Warships was born: a virtual, 360-degree video tour of the HMS Cavalier, made with virtual reality headsets in mind, but the kind of thing you can just as easily watch on a smartphone, tablet, or even (with some cumbersome mouse-swiping) your browser. It is a complex technical undertaking, requiring much preparation, technical know-how, and traditional documentary-making chops—and, if you didn't already know ahead of time, there's almost no indication that it was made by a gaming company.

This isn't uncharted territory for the Minsk-based studio, which is best known for developing the game World of Tanks. Its first VR outing was Virtually Inside Tanks, and it followed that with a 360-degree 1941 battle re-enactment, a neat proof-of-concept for where the studio wants its VR ambitions to end up. But Virtually Inside Warships sees a number of improvements to the technology used, including a far more experienced production team and a level of ambition I've yet to see in any VR or 360-degree film to date.

"We're trying to move the concept forward from the two different tank projects we did," says Matt Daly, Wargaming's special projects team lead and executive producer on the Virtually Inside Warships project. "Both were very well received, they broke records and stuff like that, and the feedback from the general public has been overwhelmingly positive."

That feedback has, of course, been taken into account for 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 specific case, that appears to be a bigger vehicle of war, the aforementioned Cavalier. Oh, and documentarian-cum-historian Dan Snow as a presenter, of course, alongside British Army veteran Richard Cutland, who brings expertise on things like weapons.

When it comes to more obvious, tangible changes, though, we turn to the technology. 360-degree filming has come on in leaps and bounds in the past few years, with the likes of Google and Samsung keen to capitalise on what could become the way for us all to watch things. While its natural habitat is a VR headset, there's a lot to be said for just watching a 360-degree video on your phone, changing the view as you move your arm (and phone) about the place.

As there's such a huge investment in VR, the equipment used to make these kinds of videos has been improving steadily. The Virtually Inside Warships shoot used the same rig as in previous shoots—a Freedom 360 GoPro setup that uses six GoPro cameras—which offers high-resolution, 360-degree shooting with only a couple of major issues (stitch lines and differences in light levels, according to Daly).

But there is something new: "We've since also added to the Back Bone modified GoPros," Daly explains. "They're modified to have lens adaptability, so we're attaching these Entaniya [fisheye] lenses from Entapano. One of them is a big 280-degree lens that points up and gives you a 280-degree view—you just lose the bottom part of it, which is an acceptable loss in my estimation."

"We also have two back-to-back GoPros, each with 250-degree Entaniya lenses," continued Daly. "They cover the entire frame, giving you a full 360-degree view just with two lenses. You get one line in the middle, but it's not apparent if you've got everything synced up, focused, tilted at the right angle. The benefit there is you can be more agile."

These static cameras are used alongside a camera-equipped drone, which is able to shoot on-the-go outdoor footage­—a first for the Wargaming crew—and is yet another way it has chosen to ratchet up the difficulty in order to make the documentary more interesting.

Of course, working in this way isn't new to the special projects team, but it is to the presenters who have to learn an entirely new presenting style. The lack of crew in the immediate vicinity—they have to retreat so they're not in the all-encompassing shot—and the tiny size of the cameras used means there's very little indication anything is actually being recorded. While it's something that Snow and Cutland did have to adjust to, the end result is much more natural, almost like a play, according to Daly.

"Think about what a major Hollywood motion picture requires when it comes to equipment, then what it requires of an actor to do their job while there's so many people watching them," he posits. "There's lights, the industry around them, it's such an artificial space. Whereas 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 spirit, disembodied entity that's there with them, and they have to treat it as such."

With the technological strides seen just in the past couple of years, it's obvious that things won't be so low-key for long. Improvements will arrive, and with them the ability—and the need—for things to be more like a traditional filming session. "All that pretence, the apparatus not being there, it's not going to be like that forever," Daly tells me. "Eventually there's going to be an entire infrastructure that's built around how to make this stuff work, and there's going to be more things that are apparent around you. So I think we're in a delightfully primitive stage from a delivery standpoint—it's like theatre."

The fact that right now the technology does have some of these "primitive" elements to it might put some filmmakers off, but Daly and his team enjoy the unique challenges raised. In fact, just a couple of weeks before shooting commenced, a new feature had opened them up to a whole new (for VR) area of convenience: the viewfinder.

"We use 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 get an immediate sense of blocking, positioning—the same thing as a live viewfinder or monitor in traditional filmmaking, so that's a huge advantage. So now we can use that to get a real sense of what this is actually going to look like, should the guys be spread out more, that kind of thing."

This differs hugely to how things were in previous shoots, with the first Virtually Inside Tanks project, by Daly's own admission, being a seat-of-the-pants thing.

"We didn't even get to see what we'd done until [we were finished]," he tells me, "For a variety of logistical reasons we couldn't get a real sense of what we'd created until the entire project was done. So if there was an aspect of it that we weren't predicting—even something like camera motion and how that feels inside of a headset—you can discover that the entire thing you shot, that you got your guys from Minsk out to England and put the resources into, you can discover that everything is unusable. It didn't happen to us, but we were blind."

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

"The advent of every new medium through all of history has always involved this gestation period," Daly says. "The old rear-view mirror adage, that we're moving forward but looking backwards to grasp onto the only things that, tangibly, we can hold on to. In this respect it's similar to traditional filmmaking and game development pipelines. That's a perfect position for us to be in, coming from a background of gaming transmedia, being a games publisher that has an audience really receptive to subject matters like this, which are really film-friendly."

That forms at least part of the reason for Virtually Inside Warships and previous projects. But there's more to it than just giving fans of the games something else war-shaped with Wargaming branding on it.

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