When the producers of Saturday Night Live think your idea is a bit crazy, maybe you should think again. On the other hand, maybe you should just agree that it is crazy—but in a good way. Vice President of Digital NBC Entertainment, Michael Scogin has been interested in the potential of virtual reality for quite some time and was looking for an opportunity to create a VR experience with televised content. Like many in the industry, he’s had the opportunity to test different headsets and devices at industry events and check out some of gaming demos. But at Sundance this year, Scogin saw some of the first truly compelling examples of cinematic applications of VR. He was particularly taken with the work of the team at VRSE.works, which debuted its VR film, Evolution of Verse.
“With all of that to back me up,” Scogin says, “I was ready to convince the team at Saturday Night Live that the time was right for VR.” At the time, the SNL team was working on plans for the 40th anniversary event, which Scogin felt was a one of a kind opportunity to deliver a brand new experience. “When I heard who they were inviting and what they were planning… in particular, how they were formatting the event, I knew that it would be a singular moment in time, something that would never happen again that we needed to capture.”
Scogin also feels that virtual reality is offering the media industry a one of a kind opportunity to experiment with a brand new medium, which he likens to the birth of television itself. However, he points out that even in those early days, many producers simply took radio programing and put it on TV, which was far from the best use of the medium. So he knew that not just any experience was going to be compelling in virtual reality.
Thus, Scogin reached out to the team at VRSE.works, led by Chris Milk, who Scogin knew from his work as the producer of music videos for artists such as Beck, Kanye West and Arcade Fire, and whose VR work had really impressed him at Sundance. Scogin says that, “having them on board helped so much because this is such a nascent medium and they already have such a good sense of what is going to work in VR and what isn’t.” He also cited the fact that VRSE.works is working on every available VR platform at the moment (the VRSE app for iOS and Android, Google Cardboard, Oculus VR, and Samsung Gear VR), which gives the content flexibility and accessibility. It also makes them highly informed about the intricacies of this emerging platform.
With the right technical and creative pieces in place, Scogin returned to SNL’s producers to again pitch the idea of leveraging VR for the 40th Anniversary Special. This time, he says they embraced the idea “in the spirit of innovation and experimentation SNL is known for. It is a testament to them and to Lorne Michaels, who approved it, that they helped make it happen.”
To achieve 360 degree footage from the event, VRSE team mounted a VR camera, which Scogin describes as “essentially eight different cameras capturing different perspectives,” on top of the primary broadcast camera. They also recorded footage from backstage and as the star-studded crowd was leaving after the evening concluded to capture candid moments.
The 40th Anniversary Saturday Night Live Special is being released as a series of virtual reality “experiences,” the first of which—an audience Q&A hosted by Jerry Seinfeld—was released March 13. Scogin says this segment works particularly well in VR because of the interplay between Seinfeld on stage and the slew of celebrities in the audience. The VRSE team employed directional audio so that viewers are provided with cues to turn their head to hear the question and then the response, which helps guide them to take full advantage of the virtual reality experience. “Most people will never get to come to New York and experience the show live, much less the 40th anniversary show,” says Scogin. “But now they can put a headset on and have a hundred different experiences of being there because of what we did.”
NBC plans to release several other virtual reality experiences from the SNL Special in the months to come, in part to extend the life of this one-of-a-kind event, but also because post-production work stitching together the many perspectives is lengthy and both NBC and VRSE.workare still figuring out what will work best. It is essential, says Scogin, they take the time to get it right. “We need to ensure that audiences have great first experiences with virtual reality so that they are excited about it.”
And he is excited about having an opportunity to shape the virtual reality television experience. “There are very few times in media when you have the opportunity to be there early and help define the direction a new medium will take. I think it is great that NBC is experimenting in the space and helping define what virtual reality will be.”