Case Study: The Wall

Having immigrated to the USA himself, Claudio Lai has a lot to say about crossing borders.

Claudio Lai was born in Rome, Italy and migrated to Sydney, Australia at a young age. In 1991 Claudio moved to the United States of America. For a couple of years, Claudio produced and directed numerous documentary projects. In 2007 Claudio started a company called FluidCast Technologies of which he formed multiple new branches focusing on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies in 2016.

For his film The Wall Claudio combined his own experiences with immigration and his know-how of VR productions to create an interesting VR documentary.

“The production was complex because of the fact that I wanted to create the first VR and non-VR film at the same time.” 

 

 

The heartache of leaving home

“I am an immigrant. I was born in Rome, Italy and at the age of 2 I moved to Sydney, Australia. Then, in my 20s, I immigrated again to the United States. I am now a U.S/Australia/Italian citizen. So, I understand a lot about immigrating.”

“About a year ago, I started hearing a lot of talk about “The Wall” in the media. I have lived in El Paso, Texas for almost ten years now. It is one of the safest cities in the country. For a long time I thought that someone should make a film about crossing the border, especially since I live right next to one. I thought about using Virtual Reality to immerse a viewer to understand how difficult it is to leave one’s country for another. Relating it back to my own experiences.”

“I did not just want to portray how difficult it must be for immigrants to leave everyone they know but how, just like my sister, they can feel ripped from the only homes they know and the heartache it can cause. I met with Joe and Barbara Cueto about six months ago and realized then that it could be possible to make this film a reality. We started working right away creating the script, getting actors and this lead to the creation of the film “The Wall VR.”

 

Writing the script

“It took about one year to develop the idea. I needed three weeks to write the script and one week to write the treatment I did. I had a professional screenwriter writing the screenplay based on my original treatment. The script was changed constantly during filming to make sure that what the actors said was accurate to reality. We had expert Border Patrol agents and other officials telling us what the actors should say. We also changed the dialogue depending on how it sounded during filming to try different versions. The main screenplay action elements were not changed although we did remove some scenes when we felt that they were unnecessary.”

 

A film created like a play

“I was the filmmaker, DOP and sound person for the entire movie. Because it was filmed in virtual reality I could not have any crew helping me during filming. The way I first developed this film was to create a very detailed storyboard. I am a very visual person, so it helped me to explain my actors how we were going to film this project. I worked with them in the studio beforehand to block out any action. In many ways this film was created like a play. The actors had to play out the entire scene without any editing and I filmed it from different angles. In some cases, I could not even be in the view of the camera, which meant I had to hide behind a tree or wall. I did have the screenwriter on set to make sure the script was being followed exactly and we also had to time the music the actors would be hearing or playing.”

 

Shooting with VR cameras

“This project was completely self-funded for $8000 USD. The cast and crew were found through the screenwriter’s wife who knows many actors in the El Paso, Texas area. In most cases we used friends and family to help out. The cameras in VR only allowed 2-3 hours maximum shooting time per day. They would overheat and shut down. There were 14 cameras in total. These all had to be charged and monitored and I could not see what they were producing since I had no way to compose a complete panoramic video in real time and had to wait days to see the results. It took about 11 days to complete, filming only 2-3 hours per day. Basically one scene per day.”

 

VR and non-VR at the same time

“The production was complex because of the fact that I wanted to create the first VR and non-VR film at the same time. This film has been broadcast here on local television in regular non-VR so doing this required skills I had never used before. For example, we could not light anything without using practical lighting. I had to consider everything around the 360 space which included cars driving by behind the set and actors moving around the set. I had to consider that I could not move the camera too much or get too close or have people cross the camera too often. I could not use a boom mic and had to hide microphones on the actors using wireless microphones. I had to reshoot a couple of the scenes because they either did not work out or did not look that good. We re-filmed the family dinner scene because the original location was not available, and we used another location which did not look authentic.”

 

The difficulties of large VR files

“It took over 3 months to edit the VR version and 2 months to edit the non-VR version. The script called for extra scenes we did not use. We also had to make some changes in the family dinner scene to reduce the number of people in the scene as we could not get enough actors for that scene. Other scenes such as the one where the Coyote meets the mother and child had to be tweaked because of the lack of extras we could not get on set at the time. I have lost count on how many times this had to be reedited, my estimate is 500.”

“I had to break this project into small segments in order to edit it because the files were so large. 14 cameras become a 8k video which I edited using After Effects only. I tried using other editors like Premiere but none of these could handle the large files. I had 4 computers rendering the video 24/7 for many weeks. For example, it took 14 hours to transfer the files from the cameras to the computer. Then it took 2-3 hours per shot to change it to an 8k panorama, so I can actually see it. Then I edited it shot by shot using After Effects after I figured out which take I liked. I also had to sync the audio to the best take.”

 

Capturing the sound on 360

“We had created original music for the film and had to make sure it was in sync with the actors who were playing instruments during filming. I used a composer and he was also the screenwriter and was on set, so it helped a lot to have his input. He and his wife were invaluable to the creation of this film. The audio was very complex. We used a 360 VR microphone to capture most of the audio which was placed under the camera tripod to provide the 360–3D audio effect. We also had to sync multiple wireless microphones for each actor. In many cases this did not work, and we had to redo the audio in the studio using ADR.”

 

Color correction

“All the scenes were color corrected multiple times. We also had to balance all 4 cameras using 360 editing software to make sure all the cameras matched as well as the final scene. It was complex to match the colors scene by scene because in some cases we had to process the video using many different software programs.”

 

Tips and tricks

“In general, for short low budget films I guess it is important to think about your locations and the number of actors you want to have per scene. The cost goes up and the ability to realistically portray a scene goes down the more complex it is. Thinking a lot about how to storyboard the shots and visiting the locations prior to the actual shooting in order to find out what is the best time of the day to film at that location and to estimate which difficulties might occur, is also a good thing to do. Get permits if you need them where you are filming. Make sure there are no people walking around your set which you may need to get releases for. Get as many people to act as extras as you can so you can make a scene (if it requires extras) more realistically. Think about audio and how you will get “good audio” pick locations which are not very loud but which you can control. Try to reduce the size of sets you need to build and try to use existing locations.”

 

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