Virtual Reality vs. Traditional Music Videos: An Honest Comparison
10th June 2021
By now, most people have heard of VR (Virtual Reality) Music Videos. Also known as 360˚ Music Videos, they’re immersive experiences that place the viewer in the story with a first person perspective. In some ways, they’ve very similar to traditional music videos; they serve the same promotional purpose by being short films that complement and illustrate a piece of music.
However, it’s their differences that need to be understood by anyone choosing between creating one or the other. From concept approach and technical production, to the final user experience, they’re vastly different and, in my opinion, difficult to compare. But let’s try!
Point-of-View (POV) vs. Traditional Cinematography
Let’s start with the viewers perspective and experience. There are two main things that make a VR Music Video ‘immersive’. Firstly, a VR Music Video gives the viewer 360˚ of footage to look around from a POV angle: they have control from a 1st person perspective, looking at different areas of the content as and when they want. Whether this is on a screen, or in a VR headset, they are their own director and experience the scene as a character within it. Secondly, VR music videos often use spatial audio: this means specific sounds are distributed within the same 360˚ field as the footage. For example, if you heard a bee buzzing to your left and you turned your view to look at it, the buzzing noise would then sound like it’s coming from in front of you. If the bee then moved in a circle around you, that buzz sound would follow the bee, mimicking reality and immersing us - both visually and audibly - in the content.
A traditional music video tends to use classic ‘flat’ cinematography where you cannot move your view. Where VR offers the ability to convince someone they are living in the content, traditional film-making offers a more artistic, edited and pre-designed style that doesn’t need to be from a specific angle. This helps quickly achieve specific aesthetics and moods, especially if they are unobtainable views in real life - think slo-mo raindrops or lens flare. The director is able to cut to unique angles, zoom in on specific spots, change colours dramatically and have complete control over what the viewer sees, how they see it and when they see it. There is no alternative viewing and what you watch is exactly what the director wanted you to watch. The artistic nature of cinematography excels in this format as the visuals don’t have to make sense or be anything logical, it is simply the imagery that is at the centre of what is being created.
In comparison, in VR you must constantly think about the viewer. Will this sudden change in environment confuse them? Will this movement make them feel sick? There’s a lot more to consider when conceptualizing the music video as you’re creating an experience that needs to convince someone that they themselves are in that fictional space.
Active vs Passive Viewing
In VR Music Videos, the viewer is asked to actively interact with the content and look around them. While this is at the very core of immersive viewing by mimicking real life, a downside of this is that it can make the viewer feel like they’ve missed important features of the content. However, this actually presents a huge opportunity - the viewer can now watch the music video multiple times, getting a new experience with each viewing; it now has a much longer life. There are also production techniques you can use to guide the viewer's gaze around the footage, the most simplest of which being text direction (as used by Naive New Beaters) or a clear focus on the main character to draw the attention of the viewer.
By contrast, traditional music videos are entirely passive. They don’t ask for interaction and therefore are a lot simpler and easier to watch. You can put them on a screen and sit back and relax. It’s familiar for the viewer, asks for no engagement and can be projected onto a screen for everyone to watch together, without the fear of controlling the angle or missing something in the scene. There’s a huge number of benefits of this; from immediate compatibility with all social media platforms (helpful in promotion) to viewing equality for everyone. By this, I mean everyone experiences exactly the same thing regardless of their device or movement. Passive viewing is what we are used to - there is no risk, and we know exactly what we are getting.
When conceptualising music videos, producers and directors will always start with the track and the artist; after all, the music is the backbone of the film and dictates the whole experience. So when we compare VR and traditional music videos, it’s only right that we look into the different ways their stories are designed.
As we’ve already mentioned, VR experiences revolve around the viewer: they are experiencing the music video from a first person perspective with a full sphere of content around them. It therefore helps to treat the camera like a person. The concept should involve and ‘speak’ to the camera, it should trigger emotions from the viewer, and make them feel noticed and a part of the scene. Most importantly however, the camera must move in a subtle and considered way so that the viewer doesn’t get motion sickness. You can approach VR experiences from a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective, however this applies best to documentary / education style VR. With music videos, the aim is to create a fantasy and leave an impression, and what better way to do that than by offering the chance to be an involved character in a bizarre, fictional and other-worldly story? They say you learn by doing, and so surely a first hand experience is the way to go. This means concepts are designed around a fluid narrative that mimics how someone might experience a story or scene - no matter how unusual that scene may be.
With traditional storytelling, this boundary does not exist. You can have multiple stories happening all at the same time and jump between them without worrying about making a viewer sick. Conceptually, you have more freedom to be abstract and don’t have to consider the camera to be a person when creating the music video. Close ups, slo-mo’s, unusual angles and unrealistic shots can all be a part of it to achieve that desired tone; with traditional music videos, you have only your artistic vision to satisfy. Something to also consider is that they are also a lot cheaper to execute well; you can create an extremely professional music video - regardless of concept - on a far lower budget than a VR video.
The digital world revolves around captivating visuals that grab the attention of scrollers, and music videos are no different. With both VR and traditional, promotional cuts can be made for social media platforms that lead people to the actual video - this is no problem. But how do they compare with getting and holding the attention of the viewer?
Because VR offers 360˚ of footage that we can never see all at once, viewers often find themselves watching the experience multiple times, looking at different sections of the content and noticing different things. The POV angle also means the viewer is invested in the story - they very much want to know how it ends because it feels like it’s happening to them. This keeps people watching until the end - viewer retention is considerably higher on 360˚ / VR videos than traditional - and watching repeatedly.
If someone is watching a VR Music Video in a VR headset, you can almost guarantee they will watch to the end - even if it’s not a great experience, the engagement and the involvement of the viewer is captivating and they are completely transported into the digital world - almost forgetting they have the option to leave. This way of watching, despite being the most rewarding for both the viewer and the artist, is the hardest to achieve. Putting on a headset is a big step to take; it’s isolating and time-consuming - and this is something that the VR industry has struggled with for years, despite it’s high reward and immense entertainment value.
On the other hand, where immersive media excels in retaining viewers’ attention, traditional video is better at grabbing that attention in the first place. Because everything can be seen in one frame (you’re not only showing a small section of a huge picture) and it’s what people are used to (remember, “we fear what we don’t know”) it receives more initial attention - though it loses it faster. For a quick scroller, you have a matter of seconds to make an impression and traditional videos currently do that best. This is why you’ll frequently find traditionally formatted cuts of VR videos.
So there you have it. We could keep on comparing various elements of these two formats for pages, but as you can see, they can’t really be compared because they are so vastly different. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, telling stories in completely different ways. The best advice we can give artists is to think about what tracks of theirs fit the VR brief. It’s unlikely to be all of them - but when the perfect one arises, it’s an experience their fans will never forget.
Want to compare VR and traditional video yourself? Check out the VR version of Saturnz Barz and the traditional cut, and let us know what you think!