By Carl Hansen
(Publisher’s note: If you’ve studied IMAGINE’s Masthead in our printed and online version, you will have noticed the name Carl Hansen as our Boston Correspondent at Large. He is from Beverly and has been writing for IMAGINE ever since he graduated from college (eighteen years). He now lives in Los Angeles with stints along the way that included Co-Producing Sharks Tank (Emmy Nomination); he is now Director of Production at Fox Sports Original Long Form Programming. Imagine a New Englander with this enviable assignment: covering the greatest come-back ever, Super Bowl LI in virtual reality! This is it, in his own words and you’ve seen it first right here.)
Standing on the turf of NRG (pronounced “energy”) Stadium in Houston, Texas, I looked around at 70,000 screaming fans as the Patriots and Falcons competed in historic Super Bowl LI. A week before, I never would have imagined this scenario and knew what a coveted experience it was. As director of production for Fox Sports Original Long Form Programming, I was tasked with producing and overseeing some new content that we’ve just started to try out: documentary virtual reality production.
VR or 360 degree storytelling is just starting to emerge in mainstream media. It’s still quite experimental and in some ways feels like I imagine it did in the early days of cinema, when the Lumière Brothers showed the locomotive chugging toward the screen with audiences allegedly ran screaming from the theater. This new, totally-immersive medium really gives 21st Century audiences the opportunity to step into a world that they might not ordinarily have access to, by using their phones, tablets, and ideally VR goggles to view content unlike ever before. It truly feels as if you are where the camera was placed, being able to see up, down, left, right, and even behind you, so don’t be surprised if you jump out of the way if you see a train moving toward you.
My first time putting on VR goggles was to experience what it was like riding in a Red Bull Air Race plane, feeling as if I was truly flying 250mph through giant inflatable pylons as they do in real competitions. It gave me a sense of what was possible with this new medium, though unable to really see how it could be used narratively. I thought it was much more experiential, and not so much a storytelling device. CLOUDS OVER SIDRA would change all that for me.
Attending the Film Independent Forum last October, they had a VR suite where attendees could choose various 360 content to watch. I chose SIDRA because it was a documentary and I wanted to see how this new technology was used in that genre. From the moment I put on the goggles I was transported into a Syrian refugee camp. Narrated by a 12-year-old girl about her year-and-a-half there, it truly let me walk in her shoes and see first-hand the discolored Unicef tent with mattresses on the floor where she and her family slept and the rusty fan in the corner or the concrete soccer pitch in the middle of hundreds of tents with children playing. This was their real life. Only 8-minutes long – about the maximum length of a VR experience without really making your head swim – it was incredibly moving and opened my eyes to the possibilities of virtual reality.
So when my boss approached me with an idea to cover Super Bowl week in VR, I loved the possibilities and jumped at the opportunity. The concept was to produce daily content – about 2-3 minutes in length – and give fans an all-access pass to everything that goes into the lead-up to the Super Bowl and the big game itself. It was going to be me and one talented VR filmmaker, Ismael Corpas Moreno, who would shoot and edit everything. One person doing it all would prove a challenging (though not impossible) workflow, but would allow us to be nimble enough to move quickly and be as inobtrusive as possible.
Because Fox televised the game this year and with the presence the company had in Houston on Discovery Green, the ability to get behind-the-scenes footage was truly incredible. We shot everything on Samsung Gear 360 cameras, which are a little larger than a golf ball with 2 lenses on opposite sides.
FS1 alone produced 46 hours of live programming during Super Bowl week and we were able to have a number of our Fox Sports talent help drive the VR experience, from Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock, to Rachel Bonnetta and Joe Buck. We got to go behind-the-scenes for the player profile shoots and the Lady Gaga interview for NFL on FOX’s pregame show. And we were the closest cameras during the Patriots last media availability before the game.
And then, of course, the game itself. I stood just outside the tunnel where the Patriots entered the field, the flames from the pyro cannon warming my face as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady ran past me. I wrestled a spot on the sidelines to capture the Patriots first touchdown and stood underneath the goal post as Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal over my head. And to witness the most amazing comeback in any Super Bowl, from the ground level, was truly an epic experience, especially being in the middle of the post game celebration with the confetti landing on my head as Belichick hugged his players directly in front of me. Check out all the vignettes from Super Bowl Week: