25.08.17

Immersive history: Russia’s Hermitage Museum embraces VR

producers and directors filming actors for hermitage museum VR experience

One of the largest and oldest museums in the world has embraced the latest modern technology to immerse viewers in its illustrious history. Charlotte Ashley explores Hermitage Museum’s new VR experience.

We wanted to break the rules with this project,” explains Mikhail Antykov, digital director at video production company Videofabrika, ahead of the opening of the latest virtual addition to arguably St.  Petersburg’s leading cultural attraction, the 18th century-built State Hermitage Museum. “A  lot  of  regular  cinema  directors  just  create content  in  the  way  their  used  to  when  they work with 360 video.” But for Antykov and the Videofabrika team and long-term co-collaborator Super8, this would not have provided visitors with the optimum experience of the museum’s iconic past. “We decided that it’s essential to feel yourself between the actors and in the setting – for consumers to feel like an invisible person in important historical moments, and not just view everything from the corner.”

360-degree VR camera in position for filming at hermitage museum, russiaThe  collaboration  between  Videofabrika, film studio Super8 and the Hermitage Museum was somewhat one of chance that later would evolve into a six month project that would see the video team put all other projects on hold to concentrate  on  delivering  the  experience.  “We knew the technology and have lots of ideas of how to use it well for a VR film. The Hermitage Museum (the Tsar’s place for 200 years) was an obvious choice and they used the building and its history to create something different that would inspire a new generation to interact with museum,” says Antykov.

He adds:  “The  museum  was  looking  for  any kind  of  VR  experience  and  we  introduced  our vision of how a VR fi lm could be beneficial in sharing  its  2,500-year  history.”  Unlike  previous work  with  commercials  and  short  videos,  this project offered the content team the opportunity to  meticulously  plan  the  direction  they  would take it in over several months – including casting star actors and using new equipment that could capture higher quality video.

“We  haven’t  seen  a  good  implementation  of VR cinema in Russia yet,” affirms Sergei Zakharov, creative  producer  at  Videofabrika.  How did the production team plan to change this? Firstly, through the clear connection between the video content and the museum itself. “We could have reduced the whole project just to the scale of the virtual tour through the museum, yet that would have left nothing memorable,” adds Antykov. “Creating real art in VR should mean connecting the film to some place or building, not just VR for the sake of the technology,” says Zakharov.  The  technology  used to capture restricted sites of the museum, galleries of the museum’s grand art collections and recreate mysteries of the Russian monarchy – depicted by actors in traditional costume with various historical props  –  would  also  be  upgraded  for  the  project. “We  started  with  GoPros  because  it’s  simple  and we  usually  use  them  for  shooting  this  kind  of production,” recalls Antykov.

hermitage museum VR experience director shooting with red 5K camera

“But when we first started testing, it became clear  that  when  capturing  all  the  small  details of this kind of exterior (such as ornaments) that GoPros wouldn’t allow us to create the most life-like experience possible.” Therefore a Red Dragon Epic 5K camera was chosen to capture key parts of  film,  which  spans  more  than  15  minutes after all involved decided that a 10-minute film was not sufficient  for  telling  the  Hermitage Museum’s story. To ensure the film presented the most historically accurate version of events, the museum made its key historian available to the production team from the start of the project to provide greater detail on the museum’s past.

Post-production also required the team to obtain some of the most capable computers for rendering and creating graphics for parts of the film.  “As well as investing all our individual skillsets into the project,  we  also  had  to  invest  some  of  our  own personal  funds  to  make  it  happen.  Therefore we were naturally conscious of what we were spending by the minute,” says Antykov. “But we were lucky as actors and others involved didn’t want much money from us because it was such an interesting project and they were excited to get involved.”

Producing a high quality VR film in one of Russia’s most famous landmarks to budget and schedule is not without its challenges however. Logistical  issues  meant  shooting  and  creating the filming set could only happen on Mondays (when the museum was closed the public) – this then  had  to  be  coordinated  around  the  busy calendar of actor Konstantin Khabensky, famous locally and abroad for his film portfolio.

“We’re using VR to create a new kind of historical lesson. We let people feel history and be in the history.”

Although  training  was  provided  to  introduce the  methods  of  360-degree  filming  to  actor Khabensky,  the  medium  still  being  a  relatively new  concept  for  all  involved  meant  the production team had to allocate significant time to explaining the intricacies of the VR shooting process.  “We  showed  him  all  our  projects  and explained how the technology works but despite all  of  this,  he  found  it  difficult  to  understand what’s needed to capture in 360 and perform in manner that would keep the viewer’s attention early  on,  but  by  the  last  scenes  he  got  it  and understood  how  it  would  look,”  says  Antykov. “Using  the  RED  camera  we  shot  side  by  side and  sector  by  sector.  This makes everything twice as hard when you’re working with actors as everything has to be repeated,” he continues. “It’s  a  challenge  to  make  sure  everything  is perfectly  organised  around  you.”  Footage was captured using multi-cam rigs in addition to the production team’s own specially developed rig for one-section panorama shooting to achieve a higher video resolution in the final product.

Visitors can’t miss the museum’s new experience – on arrival to the ticket office they are in full view  of  guests  immersed  in  the  life  of  founder Catherine  the  Great  and  the  Tsar’s  that  once wandered the building’s opulent halls via Samsung Gear  VR  headset  in  the  open-plan  20-person cinema space. The museum hopes many will be drawn in by seeing others having the experience. As for the headsets, Videofabrika and Super8 had vast experience with the likes of HTC and Occulus Rift, yet decided SamsungGear VR was best suited to environment.  “For this particular project we preferred Samsung as it had to be mobile and it had to be quick,” notes Zakharov. Visitors join the experience as and when they arrive, and take a seat in the dedicated VR area.

woman watching Hermitage Museum VR experience through SamsungGear headset

Antykov  notes  that  the  VR  cinema  is  an experience  “all  ages  and  all  nations”  now enjoy, particularly in making historical learning accessible to a new generation. “We’re not using VR like Disneyland – it’s not just for fun. We’re using it to create a new kind of historical lesson which teaches people in an interesting way, not with books or an excursion in a museum. We let people feel history and be in the history.”

As for  future  developments,  the  team  say  it is currently  exploring  making  a  sequel  to  its first  fi lm  with  the  museum,  as  there’s  still  “a lot  more  of  the  museum’s  story  to  tell.”  The companies also have plans to bring the film to upcoming VR festivals and Occulus’s VR store so people around the world can experience the Hermitage Museum’s rich heritage, and hopefully be inspired to visit the landmark in real life as well.  “Currently only  200  people  can  view  the story in one day and by commercialising it maybe this can  grow  to  1,000  people  per  day,” says Zakharov.“We see a trend that all the museums and attractions  are  starting  to  incorporate  VR into  their  programme  and  we  expect  this  to grow. This is the first step for our re-imagining of the high-end museum experience that we will continue to foster it,” concludes Antykov.