Immersive history: Russia’s Hermitage Museum embraces VR
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.”
The 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.
“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.
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.