In the Very Midst of Things

VR and 360-degree videos are the next big thing. Hamburg is now home to one of the hype’s youngest enterprises: Helhed.

I am standing on the edge of a cliff in the company of a cliff diver, 30 metres high, palms sweating. I see people waving to my left and to my right. Ahead of me: the sea. Behind me: a diving board of sorts. Before I know it, the cliff diver jumps. Together we fall downward, then there is a change of perspective as I see everything through his eyes. A few near-eternal seconds later I dive into the water, resurface and take off the Oculus mask. I am a little dizzy, and fascinated.

“VR first came about in the 1960s. A lot has happened since. The technology has become very manageable,” says Christian Bahr. The 35-year-old has been working in the field of immersion for six years. He founded his company Helhed in 2014, specializing in virtual reality, augmented reality and 360-degree videos, with clients including Red Bull, Hamburger Hochbahn, HPA and BMW.

Bahr comes from a “classical” film background – both his parents were Babelsberg graduates – and studied series production in Ludwigsburg. This is where he came in contact with 360-degree filming, which fascinated him immensely. “My mother nearly cried and my father considered banning me from his household, as if I’d announced that I was now smoking crack. They wanted me to take the classical path.” Today his parents work with him at Helhed, which currently boasts six employees and two temporary helpers.

He laid the foundation for his business at the Studio Hamburg “House of Young Producers”, where he received a stipend and was supported by the managing director Johannes Züll. The start was difficult as there are little to no VR business models to follow up on. Helhed began in the field of tourism, its first promo video was for the Ammergau Alps, making the region accessible for nun-locals: tobogganing down the hillside, standing onstage with an orchestra, floating through vast landscapes. “We decided to make the cardboard smartphone masks ourselves and ended up folding 5000 of them in the office. That set us back quite a bit! We were very naïve and there was a lot of trial and error,” laughs Christian Bahr. Ultimately, this allowed the Helhed team to improve from project to project.

The new technology requires new forms of storytelling and shooting routines. Locations for 360-degree shoots can no longer be chosen on account of individual image details, as the surroundings are always visible. There is no place to hide a large film crew. And editing is subject to a whole new set of dynamics.

Camera systems differ depending on the field of their application. Many 360-degree rigs are based on six GoPro cameras mounted to create a complete 360-degree view, with their individual images overlapping. The images are then computed together. There are other rigs with 16 or more GoPros, as well as a number of more light-sensitive cameras to choose from. “With the VR the North format, we used six Sony Alpha cameras on a self-made rig that was mounted underneath a helicopter,” says Bahr. Helhed’s VR The North aims to make the North accessible in a consumable, not-too-dynamic way, shot both in the air and on the ground. Two pilot films have already been made. “Many people are interested, but often it remains unclear as to where the money will come from,” says Bahr. State funding, too, has yet to optimize its offers.

When will VR and 360-degrees arrive in the feature film sector? It’s difficult to say. Christian Bahr does not believe the new formats will replace anything in the film sector, but rather exist as a supplement with narrative forms of its own. Helhed have experimented with mise-en-scene, but have suspended the idea until further notice. “For the time being, we question a use of 360-degree films that exceeds twenty minutes. But the future has many developments in store,” says Bahr.

Interview by Daniel Szewczyk, Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein
Photo Credit: Helhed