Civil War Action…VR Goes to War – A Letter from the Trench

Seventy Plus years before the British landed troops on the bloody beach, the center of the action in this year’s WW II action movie “Dunkirk,” the U.S. experienced its own struggle, the Civil War.

To retell the struggle that pitted neighbors against neighbors and family against family, Discovery Channel’s American Hero Channel (AHC) produced Civil War: A Letter from the Trenches – and on the Discovery VR app.

To help viewers get a true feeling of battle and the struggles troops had to go through, AHC turned to virtual reality (VR) filmmakers, Cream 360.    The collaboration with Discovery VR marked the TV channel’s first venture into the immersive virtual world.

David Brady, CEO of Cream Productions, said the company was able to produce the short VR segment on a tight budget because the VR team could use the show’s locations and actors after the 2D shoot was completed.

“For the very immersive scene, the trench was already there,” he noted. “All we had to do was add our own camera dolly and jib and take advantage of some exceptionally gloomy weather, which really added to the ‘desperate’ feeling.” 

While moving cinema cameras is very common, most VR shoots have been with a stationary camera and the action going on all around it.  In this segment, the crew wanted to move the camera in the trench just as a soldier would do, running and huddling while the battle went on around him.

The VR segment tells the story of a fresh recruit, Private Corley, who was sent to the front line and ordered to take a message to General Beauregard, a prominent general of the Confederacy.

The VR stream lets the viewer experience what it was like to trek through the mud in the trenches and dodge enemy fire.

“The action had to be fast, smooth and gritty,” said Andrew MacDonald, Creative Director of Toronto-based Cream 360.  “It couldn’t be jerky because that could adversely affect the person wearing the VR HMD (head-mounted display); but at the same time, you had to help the viewer have the true stress of a youngster experiencing war for the first time.”

The biggest challenge for MacDonald and the crew was to capture all of the action of the battle and the period.

“It was rather obvious for film crews on the set,” he noted, “but we had a lot of 21st century equipment out there – generators, lights, booms and other equipment – which is pretty easy to ‘hide,’ when you’re shooting with conventional cinema cameras.  But with a VR rig, you have to be mindful of everything, everywhere and make certain it’s hidden from the lenses.”

“Sometimes, that can be the most difficult part of the shoot,” he grinned, “And it isn’t something you can fix in post.”

While most 360 VR is optimized for HD (high definition), the crew captured the action in full 4K quality, counting on MacDonald’s production expertise to stitch images in a higher resolution so the action would be smooth and mentally jolting. This also provided a great base for the hundreds of layers of effects and particles that were added in post.

Tristan Cezair, the other half of CreamVR, and an expert in motion graphics and VR, is a valuable asset to Cream’s VR department. Tristan’s effects really bring this battle scene to terrifying heights. With the mix of practical FX and CGI FX, it makes for some very intense moments.

Especially when shells are exploding all around you.

A Letter from the Trench is a companion piece to Discovery Channel’s Blood and Fury: America’s Civil War which aired early this year.  The series transports viewers to tumultuous battles like Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg from a soldier’s point of view.

The VR segment – (link to where it can be viewed) – transports you back to the 1860s to experience what life was like for the young cadet in the trenches.

The Cream crew captured the content with their four-camera VR rig; and even though the finished segment is only four minutes in length, MacDonald said the project produced 1.3 Tb of raw footage.

“We were grabbing time from the total project for this streaming segment,” MacDonald said. “And while Discovery executives felt the VR segment was an important part of the total series, they also couldn’t afford to have it have a significant impact on the overall production schedule.”

To ensure they safely and efficiently had every frame from every camera, they stored the content on two OWC ThunderBay storage units.

“The ThunderBays are RAID-ready,” he explained, “and that should protect all of the content. But still, an immediate backup of all of the data is cheap insurance … just in case.”

Back at the Cream studio, MacDonald and Cezair stitched the scenes together, working with 4K cineform files at much higher resolution to deliver the highest visual impact possible for the segment.  MacDonald added that throughout the production process the transfer speed for the computer and storage units allowed them to complete the 360-degree VR segment a full day ahead of their delivery deadline.

Watchful Eye –  Even though MacDonald and Cezair occasionally take a break from their production work, their ever-present HMD mannequin keeps a close watch on the firm’s production schedule.   

How well was it received?

Discovery loved it and featured it on their VR app with a reach of almost 2M and 155,000 views on their Facebook link in the first week –

One of the viewers wrote, “Now I know … war is hell! And maybe more so when it’s close to home.”

Andy is Owner and President of Marken Communications Inc. a Marketing and Communications Consultant, located in the San Francisco area in August 1977 to Present.Marken Communications is a full-service agency that concentrates on business/market planning, positioning, development, and communications. The 30 year agency has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Experience includes strategic and market planning and execution with communications and Internet firms including AT&T and CERFnet as well as in storage, storage management and video solutions with firms including Philips, InterVideo, Ulead, OWC, NewerTech, Sonic, Corel, Matsushita, Pinnacle, Dazzle, Cyberlink, Mountain Computer, Nikon, Plasmon, NTI, ADS Tech, Verbatim, Mitsubishi and Panasonic.
Andy Marken
Broadcast Beat - Production Industry Resource