Disruption Scouting With 360

by Tonya Hartz

In March 2020, our world stopped.

The project I had been working on for four months was cancelled. The production designer had just landed only to discover the three-continent schedule was tossed. Many phone calls were made. I was disappointed… I really liked the novel. 

The reality of not knowing when or where the next pay cheque would arrive landed hard. Film industry workers are very familiar with the uncertainty of the “gig economy,” but a global pandemic was next level. Compared to the reckoning of our health and safety, however, finances were a pragmatic concern.  

Surrey Library, BC

Within weeks, the restlessness set in. Then flares were shot into the sky by location manager Mary Jo Beirnes/LMGI. A producer had inquired about 360 virtual tours.

My mind starting bouncing. What was 360? Which scouts were doing it? Do I really need to spend more money on additional gear? Was I irrelevant? I had heard about GoPro cameras for sports but was not tracking the technology. I was content existing in a state of humble ignorance.

I started down the “google-hole.” My inter-web searches weren’t coming up with much … until Bond.  

In 2015, the UK’s national tourism agency funded 360 images for an international publicity campaign. The “Bond Is GREAT” 360-degree experience created crossover marketing to tourists and film audiences.

Brilliant. I live in Canada. Canada is a commonwealth country. Canada’s first filmmaker—James Freer—immigrated from England.  

“Queen and country!” 

James Bond and social distancing? Indeed, Miss Moneypenny! 

The Shipyards, BC

On this side of the pond, virtual tours were common in the real estate industry and Matterport was the standard. The image quality and transitions were superior, but it was expensive, required internet access on site and the company owns your images.

Next in the research lineup was stitching DSLR images shot with fisheye lenses. This system is the OG of the 360 worlds and has been used by the VFX Department for years. Long before consumer cameras offered convenience, there was a whole lot of stitching. This workflow did not seem conducive to our industry’s tight deadlines.

I found my answer in the Ricoh Theta. I acted decisively. I took the plunge. I had no idea how I would pay my bills in three months but investing thousands of dollars in new “toys” seemed reasonable.  

I reassured my credit card that quality never comes cheaply and sang A Tribe Called Quest lyrics.  

“Scared money don’t make none.”  

I settled on the Ricoh Theta V and 3D Vista—a software company in Spain. Within weeks, I upgraded to the Ricoh Theta Z1 for better image quality. 3D Vista’s software and hosting were expensive, but the features were incredible. I was not concerned with the learning curve. In retrospect, I should have been very afraid.

I had a credit line at Henry’s Cameras, but they were closed due to the COVID restrictions.  Unfortunately, my credit line was only available when signing in person—face to face.

With credit plans abandoned, I found a lone star on Granville Street. Peter opened his doors by appointment, and I began the reprogramming of a lizard brain rooted in the darkrooms of yesteryear.   

White Rock Pier, BC

I remember enlargers and hand developing. The big technological advance when I worked on a newspaper was the 35mm film negative scanner! Over the last 30 years, I had abandoned my beloved 35mm Nikon. Then I forgot all about my digital Canon. I was currently mirrorless with the Sony Alpha A7 iii. Now I had to contend to a camera with two lenses?!  

Change is hard.

That was 2020. Recently, I purchased an Insta360 One X2 after chatting with location manager Robert “Fluffy” Millar/LMGI. During the peak of social distancing in 2020, Fluffy used the Insta360 One for live streaming on his television series.  

In addition to livestreaming, my recent experiments have been sticking the Insta360 One X2 out my vehicle’s moonroof and driving through tunnels and over bridges. This camera has given me access to imagery I would not be able to access on foot. 

Now I am editing video clips and have a YouTube channel to document these bridges and tunnels. All of which must seem quite pedestrian to the TikTok generation.  

I was playing with the “multiview” theme for driving footage when I killed it. I killed that Insta360 One X2 within weeks of purchase. I was trying to remove the “sticky lens guards” to no avail. Then I tried dental floss. Then I tried Reddit. 

I blame social media for a lot of things. I also blame social media for making me apply acetone to a camera lens.

Insta360 lenses are not made by Zeiss. They are made of plastic. Acetone kills plastic. Be smart. Don’t be Tonya. 

“I have been able to virtually talk location surveys through The Shipyards—with its many components. The virtual tours have also proved extremely valuable for our staff when assisting clients discuss potential events in this location.” –Clare Husk the Film + Community Events Coordinator for the city of North Vancouver, BC

360-degree cameras convert a spherical image into an omnidirectional planar image. This main image format for 360-degree cameras is called “equirectangular.”  

360 cameras work within the realm of photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is the process of scanning environments into digital assets. With Lidar, this process has been powering virtual production into the mainstream. 

With my 360 equirectangular panoramas, I have created floor plans and measurements by outsourcing them to the professionals. Similar to Lidar tasks, we outsource to niche professionals.

I invested approximately $10,000 CAD between 360 cameras, accessories, software, hosting and failed experiments. The bigger investment, however, was the time. It took approximately four months before I became proficient and over a year before I felt vaguely confident. Most of the work has been filed in the trash bin.

I have the Ricoh Theta Z1 for its superior image quality in a consumer camera. I have the Insta360 One X2 for video or livestreaming. I have a server in the Netherlands, and I use 3D Vista for its customization and videoconference features. I just purchased a drone.

The heavy lifting in this journey was 3D Vista’s software.  

If there is a way to do a computer function incorrectly, I will find it. The software doesn’t come with instructions.  Back in the good ol’ days, we had instructions. Now software companies assume everyone has learned coding since grade school.   

I had to gather bits of instruction from the many random tutorials, blog posts and YouTube clips. I was an early adopter and fortunate to have received generous tech support from the company at that time. I still had to resist throwing my computer out the window repeatedly.

Tonya and Nathanial at God’s Chair, Greenwood Park, BC

360 had my head spinning. I wanted to give up, but compared to my new “homeschooling” duties, this was respite. Through trial, error and dogged persistence, my virtual tours began to take shape.  

Placing “hotspots” is an important step in the magic.  

Hotspots are the white circles the viewer clicks to move in different directions within the virtual tours. Hotspots are the portals from image to image. Some people think virtual tours are video. They are not video. They are interactive images created with equirectangular panoramas linked together by hotspots

With a VR headset, virtual tours are fully immersive and should be experienced. 

The photography portion usually only takes 6-10 hours between the practical shoot and post processing. Creating the virtual tour, however, swallows time.  

“The 360 virtual tours have been instrumental in showcasing the city’s assets to potential productions. We receive hundreds of inquiries from productions per year and this has saved us a lot of time as we can reduce the number of tours we give in person,” –James Monk the Filming Manager at the City of Surrey, BC  

Meanwhile, the municipality I live in was ground zero for COVID-19’s first fatalities in British Columbia. The fear was real, yet the weather was nice. I practiced in my backyard. I was lucky, I had a good backyard. 

The process managed to keep the nightly news anxiety at bay. 

Three months after Hollywood shut down, Bron Studios called. 

I was nervous driving away from my safe backyard for my first scouting gig. I had contributed to the safe scouting practices for my union—I was confident in my new PPE workflow, but I had not yet reconciled getting sick and dying at work in my momma brain. I had a five-hour drive to “pray” to the Creator. 

The logistics were a long-distance consideration. It’s one thing to practice, and it’s another thing to get paid. Simply getting that camera turned on with the right HDR burst mode with the DFE plug-in had me breaking a sweat.  

Nate Parker (The Birth of a Nation, American Skin) credits my 360 virtual tours to a fast and efficient prep. The anchor location was selected before Parker left California. Heck, he had a shot list before he left LAX.  

Ultimately, I was fortunate to not get sick. Earning a return on my investment was a bonus!  

“The depth of exposure we can reach using Tonya’s 360 virtual tours, has increased interest from around the world for all our properties. The turnover times and timely site visits have decreased and optimized our film opportunities. I can’t think of a better algorithm than this formula.” –Jason Black, Senior Property Manager at Quay North Urban Development

Two decades ago, I created a cost analysis of analogue vs digital photography for my production manager on Smallville. Sitting in my office, lined with filing cabinets stuffed with paper files, I calculated the savings between $400–$600 a day.  

I invested in my first digital camera and made my pitch for a daily equipment rental.  

I didn’t get the equipment rental. Location scouts in British Columbia weren’t even a part of the union back then. Digital cameras soon became the standard and the costs associated with analogue film and printing were ultimately transferred from production companies to the location scouts.  

May we all learn from history.

VanDusen Botanical Garden, BC

I believe boots-on-the-ground scouting is necessary. Practical scouting will always be the gold standard. I also submit that virtual tours are a niche tool. Instead of returning to a location five to 10 times, can a virtual tour reduce those visits? As preproduction, because more important in the advent of virtual production, will this tool have a place? 

A virtual tour is available when you want, how many times you want, and every department has the link. 

For recurring locations, different directors on episodic, when a crew member misses the survey, when the production designer tests positive, or a location is simply not available the day of the tech survey, a virtual tour can be a useful resource in a world of mitigating circumstances.  

Byproducts may include reduced hotel days, vehicle rentals, gas receipts and production time.  

A real-life example:

The director looks at photographs of a “select” location and everyone hops into their personal vehicles. The director and driver are in a SUV. Everyone drives five hours to check into a hotel and then meet for dinner. In the morning, everyone drives 30 minutes to the location before the director decides in five minutes the location is not suitable. Everyone drives back to the hotel, while production madly organizes lunch and the Location Department scrambles for alternatives. 

Sound familiar?

Cost Analysis 

Labour Costs $800 x 2 days x 15 people = $24,000

Personal Vehicles $0.41/km x 1,000 kms x 15 people = $6,150 

Hotel Room $300 x 1 night x 15 people = $4,500

Per Diem $75 x 2 days x 15 people = $2,250

Driver $400 x 2 days x 1 person = $800

SUV Rental + Gas $400 x 2 days = $800

Dinner $50 x 15 people = $750

Lunch $25 x 2 days x 15 people = $750

That two-day journey costs approximately $40,000. 

That meal was divine and the team building priceless—but was it necessary?    

For virtual tours, I charge my daily location scouting rate with a $50 (CAD) equipment rental per day. Most locations take two days to create the virtual tour. Vast locations take three.

Virtual Tour Costs

Gross Labour $600 x 4 days = $2,400

Hotel $300 x 3 days = $900

Vehicle Rental $0.41/km x 1,000 kms x 1 person = $410

Equipment $50 x 4 days = $200

Per Diem $75 x 4 days = $300

The virtual tour cost would be approximately $4,000 and includes a tangible asset—a savings of approximately $35,000.

The savings scale up when a production flies to a distant location or scale down when simply driving from municipality to municipality.  

Innovation can feel threatening. The technological revolution is happening at dizzying speeds and at times it feels overwhelming to keep up. Many folks are struggling simply to pay their bills let alone expand their skill set

Canada’s oil and gas industry is a prime example of necessity being the mother of all invention.  

At one time, the oil + gas industry accounted for 40% of Canada’s GDP and the workers enjoyed the highest wages in the country. Decades of climate change required something different. There are now more folks working in the clean energy sector in Alberta than on the pipeline. 

I envision a future when heads of departments will have a VR headset in their kit and production meetings in cloud-based virtual rooms. I hope that the VFX Department will have a place for these virtual tours in their workflow. I dream of collaborating with the Virtual Art Department in the preproduction pipeline blending 3D assets with practical locations. 

The future is exciting when one is receptive.

The film industry is a solutions-based industry. I suggest that 360 virtual tours are a tiny piece in the larger disruption puzzle. 

I want in on that pipeline. It feeds my family. 

Until then, when the world feels a little too big, I will be staying curious behind the camera.

Please find me at https://tonyahartz.me.com