Thursday, October 29, 2015

360 Rig Reviews: Freedom360

Cost: $499.95 for the rig

6 GoPros - Approximately $2999.94 for Hero4 Black
6 sd cards (at least) - $479.94 for 64Gb sd extreme
Power pack - $194.95 See below for details

$4174.75 plus tax and shipping

Most VR professionals have used or are using the Freedom360 mount. It was the first commercially available, full spherical rig. It's sort of the work horse of the space right now and you'll understand why after reading further.

Among 360 professionals, Freedom360 has a stellar reputation for all things 360. From the gear they sell, to great production practices from their daughter company Koncept Vr, these guys and gals really know the space, and are happy to share their vast knowledge. Beyond their expertise, the founders, Joergen Geerds and Uli Futschik are super cool and friendly, which is all the more reason to go with them.

Their rigs are the strongest, made from nylon/polyamide instead of some of the other various plastics used and there's actually a great video from somebody who was shooting from the top of a car in Vegas and dropped the camera on the road, then a car ran over it, dragging it another 100 feet or so and the rig was still completely functional! To see that video click here. It's entertaining if nothing else, but don't watch it in a VR headset unless you want a huge headache.

Aside from the Freedom360, they also make the F360 broadcaster, which doesn't shoot full spherical video, but is optimized for broadcasting. They even have a way to snake all the cords so you have a nice, neat camera setup when you need it. 

They also make a rig called the F360 explorer, which is waterproof and for your off the beaten path excursions. 


Reputable company, sturdy construction, great support. Their f360 broadcaster is probably one of the best solutions if you are going to live stream high quality, it even has a place to snake your wires so they are organized and out of the way. 

Because the rig is aluminum and well designed, the cameras stay very tight in the enclosure and if you have severe vibrations (like if you're mounted to the hood of a race car), they will vibrate TOGETHER. This may not sound important, but with any of the plastic solutions, the cameras will vibrate independent of each other and can cause big problems when you're trying to stabilize or view this footage.

Also, it's very important to note that of all the other 6+ GoPro rigs out there, these have the least amount of parallax, and that is a very important thing to consider, even after reading the cons.

Slanted orientation of cameras. Basically instead of the cameras being perpendicular to the ground, the are slanted at a 45 degree angle which is problematic to stitch because most architecture is made of vertical and horizontal lines. Also, let's say you are shooting with a host who moves from one camera to the next. You can easily have issues with his or her head or feet being chopped off which unless you are doing horror, is not a good thing.

Also, part of their design is that you screw in the camera to the housing. This creates a lot of the pros above, however if you need to switch out the batteries, it will take you several minutes at least to swap them out, and let's hope you don't forget your screw driver or lose any of the screws. That last part is on the user, but still it's something to keep in mind. Freedom360's solution is an external power pack, which you should consider regardless of whether or not you get their rigs. 

Bottom Line:
You can't really go wrong with this rig if you can afford it. Read the rest of this article to see if another rig might suit you better though.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

360 Rig Reviews: Z2X - iZugar's two GoPro solution

$1699 - Z2X Rig with 2 GoPro Hero 4 Blacks already modified
$159.98 - 2 64gb sd cards
$79.95 - 4 extra GoPro batteries (you could do a power pack instead)

$1938.93 - Plus tax and shipping and potentially customs. 

Don't worry, no one knows how to pronounce iZugar, so you're not alone.

First, I want to start by saying this blog may seem to bash the Z2X, but it is one of my favorite tools! You can easily take it and film in places that you would never get away with bringing a 50 gopro rig and you can save so much time in post production that it can almost make up for any of the issues with it. Just food for thought.

This company makes wider lenses for GoPro cameras and custom holders. They are based in Hong Kong and many people have complained about miscommunication issues, long ship times due to customs and lack of support, but most people who have them, really love them. The founder, KC Lai has always responded to me and I haven't had any issues with him personally, so my thought is perhaps there has just been a language barrier with some of his other clients. 

One of the great things about going with iZugar, is that you can use as little as 2 GoPro cameras, for the purpose of this article, I will use this as the base for comparison.

Shooting with wider lenses have pros and cons and these pros and cons mostly apply to any of the "wider than GoPro lens" rigs.

Less cameras needed. Obviously this can mean lower cost of entry but don't forget about all the accessories like batteries, SD cards and ND filters, this really adds up quick! This can also be very beneficial if you plan to live stream.

Less cameras also mean that you can get the focal points closer together resulting in less parallax and easier stitching (in theory, not always the case in practice). 

Another big plus is that you can film a lot closer to subjects. Need to put a rig between a driver and passenger? Can't do it with other rugs, but with iZugar it's certainly possible.

Some assembly required. They advertise that it's as easy as changing a light bulb, but beware because I have a friend who destroyed a gopro before shipping the others to have someone else mount the iZugar lenses.

Exposure can be problematic. Each camera has to expose for a much wider area. If the scene you are shooting is evenly lit, like an overcast day, this isn't a problem, but if you have a high contrast scene, like a sunny day with shadows you have a big problem. Basically either the sky would be over exposed or the shadows would be pitch black with almost no exceptions. If you look up any izugar footage, you can see for yourself exactly what I'm talking about.

Lens quality. Most professional cinematographers all agree that the lens is more important the camera. Now GoPro lenses are not Zeiss primes by any stretch of the imagination, but in my opinion they are definitely superior to the iZugar or similar rigs' lenses. Also, you have a lot more distortion and aberration.

Once you've modified your GoPros, or bought them pre-modified, you cannot use the waterproof housings that come with the GoPros. This is definitely something to keep in mind if you need/want to be able to shoot 360, but also need to be able to use the GoPros for other things.

Still image of "Kill the Deal" short film.

The picture above is a screenshot from a short film we shot recently as a proof of concept. There are many signs of the pros and cons of shooting with a 2 camera iZugar rig. Keep in mind, this is a rough stitch with no color correction.

First of all, there is extreme warping (pay attention to vertical lines). The person who stitched this is not a seasoned pro, but he did use the Kolor Straightening tool, and this was the best he could come up with. On another rig, those lines would come out straight as an arrow, and maybe we can make that happen with some more work, but it will probably take a trip to After Effects land, and believe me, that's one theme park you can spend a lot of time in quite easily.

I really choose this image to show you chromatic aberration. See the rainbow like effect at the stitch points? That is known as chromatic aberration and you don't get this extreme of aberration with the stock GoPro lens. To be fair,  this is the worst example we have. 95% of the footage we've shot with the Z2X doesn't have issues like this, but it's that 5% that keeps it from being something you can completely rely on, because you cannot know until you're trying to stitch it together in post production.

So right now you thinking, ok, then why shoot on this rig at all? Well, look at the actors, they are all sitting super close to the camera. the main actor in the middle is about 3 feet from the camera. If we set a 6 or 7 camera setup in the same place, there is no way we could make it work. In a perfect world, we would've used the 3 or 4 camera iZugar rig and then we would have enough overlap that we wouldn't see the aberration, and we'd still be able to have actors get as close to the camera as we did here.

Another good thing about this; after a brief training, someone who had never stitched before was able to use a pretty lousy computer and stitch about 10 shots in an afternoon. With the exception of this shot, the others turned out really good. With more cameras he would have had a really tough time stitching and getting his computer to respond, if it would've worked at all.

This is another still image from "Kill the Deal". Notice the warping and chromatic arberration are not as big of an issue, this is the case for MOST of the Z2X footage.

Bottom line:
Great rig and great tool to have. If you looking for an entry setup to vr, get their z2x, their 2 camera rig, looking for more resolution and flexibility, get the z3x or better yet, the z4x and if you want to get into 3D360, they have a 6 camera solution, the z6x3d.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Which 360 Camera should I buy and how much will it REALLY cost?

We will add more camera rigs over time, so check back often if you want to know more. If you have a specific rig you want me to review that you do not see on the list, let us know and we will try to review it and post our findings. Basically in our blog, we will review cameras as we can, but in this specific post, we will link to those blogs so you can have an overview and bottom line here, but get more information on whatever rigs you want to know more about.

Also, there is no "one camera solves all" purpose. Most professionals have at least two rigs, and some of us have more. Think of it as having the best tool(s) for the job.

The better way to decide is to educate yourself on everything that you can, and then make the best decision based on what you decide is right for you. Feel free to give us details of what you are looking to use the rigs for and we'll give you our opinions. At the end of the day this is nothing more than that, our opinions based on what we have learned. Many others have different opinions and as long as they can tell you why they have those opinions, you should definitely consider them all. 

Yeah, but how much will it REALLY Cost

Before we jump in, remember that each camera you add to your rig, exponentially raises the total cost in the long term. The difference between a 4 camera rig and a 7 camera rig might only seem like $1,500, but the amount of space you will save on hard drives, extra sd cards, etc, is huge and should be factored in. 

In addition to the rigs and cameras, you also have to figure in stitching software, editing software, power solutions, sd cards, disk space and accessories that you might not have considered before.

The stitching software is going to set you back about $1,000, no matter which program you go with. For more about which stitching software to buy, read this blog.

For editing software, I personally like the Adobe CC suite. That's $50 a month, but in addition to video editing tools it also gives you programs for sound mixing and mastering, color correction, motion graphics and more. You can just buy Premiere Pro (the video editing app), and for that you'll fork out $20 a month.

Sd cards are about $55 for one 64gb card, if you have 10 cameras, that's $550 and you should have extras. External hard drives are much more affordable than they were years ago, but we have at least 15 terabytes just for our 360 videos (and backups of course) in the last year. This is without keeping all of the videos that we used uncompressed. That's another $500 or so depending on which hard drives your buying.

Also, you will need power solutions, either a power bank that attaches to your tripod, or a ton of extra batteries. We will touch more on this with each setup as they all have different numbers of cameras/etc. But plan to spend at least $100 in this department.

For accessories, there are a bunch that are helpful, but not really needed, but I would highly recommend getting some sort of stable tripod that looks like a mono-pod. That sentence may sound strange, but if you check out the nodal ninja and this Gear Pack 2, from Freedom360, you'll find a great solution for a stable setup that allows you to have as little in the shot as possible. This route is $600, but you can find cheaper solutions. My personal philosophy, is buy once, cry once. Get the best gear you can afford and you'll be happier with it. If you're not shooting professionally, sure get something else, but make sure it's stable because if you're rig falls over, you risk damaging the cameras and if just one camera fails you, suddenly you don't have spherical footage.

Traditional tripod, leaves a big footprint at the bottom of your footage. 
The purple part is a backpack so you can get an idea of the scale.

Nodal ninja with stackable weights at the bottom, leaves a small footprint and is easy to clone out. The light grey is actually a small sound recorder, so you can get an idea of scale.

A powerful computer is an obviously important factor. I have a custom built workstation that I got half off for $3,000. Expect to spend at least $1,000 in this category, and more if you want a performance laptop or mobile work station.

Lastly, one expense that's often overlooked is buying an extra camera or two, but as I said before, if you have one camera fail, you don't have spherical footage anymore so having a spare camera to substitute becomes important.

Particularly for GoPros, I've heard so many horror stories about them failing for no apparent reason. We've been blessed and haven't had any issues with our GoPro Hero 4 Blacks, but we have the backups just in case.

So, let's sum up these costs.

$1,000 for stitching software
$600 a year for Adobe Suite (primarily for Premiere, After Effects, Audition and Speed Grade)
$100 (at least) for power solutions
$500 hard drives for a year (if you don't keep uncompressed files)
$600 for one of the best tripod solutions
$1,000 for an entry computer

That's $3,800 before you even think about buying a 360 camera setup. Of course you can get away with cheaper solutions, but this give you a ballpark of entry.

If you have a computer and don't get the nodal ninja, we're still talking $2,200 before the camera.

Before you go forward, if this is too much for you, consider two things
1. Hire an existing 360 production company to shoot your projects.
2. Buy a camera system that either auto stitches or doesn't require stitching such as the Ricoh Theta S or the Entapano. This will still set you back, but at least you can get started in 360 video and don't have to buy/learn stitching software.

Ok now let's jump in to the camera rigs.

Cost: $499.95 for the rig

6 GoPros - Approximately $2999.94 for Hero4 Black
6 sd cards (at least) - $479.94 for 64Gb sd extreme
Power pack - $194.95 See below for details

$4174.75 plus tax and shipping

Bottom Line:
This rig is currently the work horse of the industry right now and you can't really go wrong with this rig if you can afford it.

Read the full review here.

$1699 - Z2X Rig with 2 GoPro Hero 4 Blacks already modified
$159.98 - 2 64gb sd cards
$79.95 - 4 extra GoPro batteries (you could do a power pack instead)

$1938.93 - Plus tax and shipping and potentially customs.

The bottom line:
This is a cost effective rig that is great if you want to get your feet wet in 360 video, but don't want to commit too much time or money. It's also a great second rig if you already have a 6 or 7 camera rig. Think of it as another tool in your belt, one that you can shoot objects right next to the camera.

Next Cameras I plan to write about:

360 Heros
Ricoh Theta S
Elmo 360
Orbcam VR
Nokia Ozo
Custom Built

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Autopano Video Pro vs. Video-Stitch, which to buy?

In this blog I will talk about the differences between Kolor's Autopano Video Pro (AVP) and Video-Stitch (VS). The good news is you can't really go wrong, they're both great programs! If you're a professional, you might want to consider getting both and you'll understand why after you read this post. 

Also, it's important to note that while you can stitch video in both of these programs without further software, MOST people use other software to do the real stitching work. Kolor's best program is called Autopano Giga and Video Stitch uses PTGUI, so do your homework and be prepared before you make your purchase. For the purposes of this article, when I speak about AVP, I'm talking about the package with Autopano Giga and same for Video-Stitch with PTGUI.

In very broad terms, I think Autopano Video Pro is easier to learn and has some great features like smart iso, and the ability to key frame masking, etc. And Video Stitch (along with PTGUI) has a better way to find control points and stitch. So if we can't seem to stitch correctly in AVP, we can usually make it work better in VS, and if we are having issues at a particular seem in VS, we can usually make it better in AVP.

We'll start with Video-Stitch.
Video-Stitch has many great features and you can stitch video while never leaving the program, but you'll need PTGUI in order to do more advanced work. Ptgui has been around since 1996 and is still a wonderful panorama stitching program. When compared to Kolor's Giga, I find I can work much faster and do more in ptgui. They have shortcuts for everything which I find very useful and can allow you to work more efficiently.

The main advantage of Video-stitch over Avp to me, is the key framing ability for video orientation. For our Sailing with Dolphins video, we had to adjust the orientation every few frames and in VS, I was able to adjust at least 10 times faster than I am able to in AVP, literally saving me hours on one clip. I also find that you can more accurately straighten the video in VS and for AVP I always have to edit and go into Autopano Giga to get it correct.

I find that video stitch works faster on my system then autopano video, and I attribute this to their use of Nvidia technology. So if you have or plan to have an nvidia video card, that's something to consider for sure.

Lastly, VS has an interactive tab that allows you to look around to preview what your video will look like while dragging or looking around and I really love this feature.
Kolor is in excellent company and they have a lot of panoramic tools beyond video and photo stitching, including virtual tours (panotour) and play back (kolor eyes). They were recently acquired by GoPro so it will be interesting to see the future of the company and how it progresses, but I don't see them slowing down anytime soon.

For me, the main advantage of working in AVP is being able to key frame masks. This is not always important, but when it is, it's an invaluable tool.

Another great thing about AVP is one of their blending settings called Smart ISO. What it does is instead of stitching in straight lines, it figures out what's important and stitches around them. If you use this feature you can't key frame the masking or orientation, but for most static shots, you may not need to anyway, and then it becomes very useful. We basically start each project with smart iso and then decide later if we need the other options. Sometimes we find it more important to have the smart iso than to readjust the orientation. In that situation, we will export it with smart iso and then bring the file into After Effects with Mettle's SkyBox studio plugin to do the reorientation. More on this in a later blog.

I hope this blog is helpful for you, please feel free to ask any questions or leave any comments.