The director of the best Fast & Furious movies recently made another action blockbuster — but you won't find it in theaters or on VOD. It's called Help! and it's only available on Android for now, but the bigger deal is that it's a live-action Spotlight Story. That's Google's format for 360-degree video, which lets you point your phone in any direction as a story unfolds in real time around you. The first Spotlight Story, Windy Day, won accolades for being innovative and the next one, Duet, was created with famed animator Glen Keane. But Lin's take on the format is much more ambitious and much more fun to watch than what came before.
Help! is ambitious because it's a live-action video, which means that the characters and special effects have to play out in real time and without many of the tools that usually hang from a filmmaker's belt: edits, camera moves, cuts, and framing specific shots for the camera were all off the table. It also required that Google's skunkworks R&D division ATAP come up with an entirely new camera rig.
At Google I/O last week, we sat down with Lin to ask him about the experience of crafting the story behind Help! and to see how a traditional director tackles the challenge of shooting in an entirely new format. Google is promising that there will be more Spotlight Stories to come and Lin himself might even be interested in making more of them — but not, unfortunately, based of his next directing effort, Star Trek 3.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Dieter Bohn: How did you think about imposing the narrative in Help! — or were you not thinking about narrativity? Because, obviously, in a 360 degree video, you don't get to tell us where to look.
Justin Lin: Right. When I was in film school I had this great professor, Jerzy Antczak, a Polish filmmaker, and Joe Russo of the Russo Brothers were in my class. It was this kind of Easter European philosophy of motivating camera only through character and motions, and just exploring with lenses. That was the best year of my education in my life. And so when I first saw Windy Day, it just kind of blew me away. And I know that a lot of times when you see [360 degree video], people think that it’s like "Choose Your Own Adventure."
So I felt like the best thing to do is to have a shared narrative. When I go on set every day I feel like my identity as a filmmaker grows with my work, but it's [about] where I choose to place a camera or not place a camera, the lenses I choose. And that's something that I felt like I could share with the viewer. At first I didn't know how to feel, but as we were doing it it felt very liberating.
The best example I could give is when I was a kid and I saw La Femme Nikita. There was a scene, an assassination or something, and the camera just stayed on her and there as an explosion. You never saw it. I loved it. Of course, in the American remake, they showed the big explosion. It's not for me to judge which one is better, but I always felt like that's what a filmmaker is: you decide where you're going to put your edit.
So do you translate the idea of a camera edit to trying to turn all those edits into the narrative?
In many ways, we were learning as we were going. I think that the idea of actually imposing some sort of action element organically into this idea made it a bigger challenge. When I was going in, I had certain lenses that I wanted to use. Ideally I wanted to have a 40 millimeter and the widest I wanted to go was maybe 27, but I ended up having to go wider because of the storytelling, of the dance that needed [to replace traditional edits]. It’s not just a camera setting. When the camera moves, it has to be motivated through character. It was also kind of breaking down character beats and using an element of dramaturgy.
Was there a particular moment where you feel the camera movement was really based off of a character beat?
I think when they get in the subway and they're not quite sure what is happening, and the camera is kind of floating towards the characters — it's trying to connect with them. And I try to do that for every beat.
The subway moment for me was the most tense experience I have had watching anything on my phone and it was more tense than most experiences I’ve had in a theater. Because I want to watch them and see how they're reacting, but I hear the sound behind me and I want to turn around. That tension, of wanting to know which direction to point the camera, was that intentional?
Yeah, very much. Because that's my job as a director, when I go in the cutting room. Deciding what coverage I want to use and what I choose to share or not share, that defines a movie.
Again, I didn't know how to feel before we started. But doing it, even on the day we were doing it, that dance [made it clear]. You can prep. We did pre-viz. We built the sets. We built it in the computer and I was doing all the moves. But then once you get the actors in there you're now doing this dance, and trying to make that come to life. I mean, it's the scariest ... I've never [been on a shoot] where you show up in the morning, you're rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing because it's a one shot, and by about 10PM you're like, "Holy crap, I don't think we have it." And in that one moment where the camera moves, [you see the] character motivations, everything clicks and it comes to life. It was such a unique and special experience. I've never had that in filmmaking.
Did it feel like theater more than filmmaking at that moment?
Theater — and I probably can relate it most to maybe my experience on Community. You can't cheat comedy. You know, it either is going to be there on the day you capture or it's not.
Do you think you ever want to do another Spotlight Story?
Oh, yeah. I'll tell you what I was thinking about when I first saw Windy Day, two things kind of came to me. One was Help!, and another one was kind of an ensemble film — I kept [being reminded of] Robert Altman. Like ensemble drama and comedy. And I would love to explore that.
And that there's a lot of different genres you can do. Kind of like the way you're explaining the subway sequence, I don’t think it's limited just to action. It could be action, it could be comedy, it could be horror.
It's a shared narrative. I think at the end of the day that's the most exciting thing.
Thinking about this as a new form. Do you think that that narrative is ever going to be more than a couple of minutes?
I think it could go [longer.]
There are a couple of limitations still. The lighting [is hard to figure out]. In film, when you're lighting the closeup, it's a different than when we do the wide shot.
And here you can't. We're doing tricks just to be able to light [the scene]. And again I push the technology because, you know, the best thing to do is shoot it during the day. That's why [most people use] GoPros. But I said no, I want to shoot at night, which means we had to light it and they had to do some special filters into the RED camera. I think once we can shoot with a little bit longer lens and be able to light it, I think you could see feature-length potential.
That's what I'm excited about. I come from old school kind of filmmaking. I love Kubrick. I love films where even if you don't like the film, it doesn't matter. It's about respecting a point of view.
And then coming [to 360 degree video], where you're sharing it and you're letting the viewers [choose their point of view]... You have a world, a narrative, and then the viewer has to decide on that specific viewing what point of view they want to take.
Is it ever frustrating to you? Like, "I really hope they're not looking over here during this scene."
Oh, no, no. I think with any kind of good, creative shared experience, it's hopefully done multiple times. Even when I was playing along with it I would do passes where I'm just looking at the sky. That's part of the fun of this new medium. It's kind of undefined, and we were learning on the fly as we were developing it, shooting it, and as we were going into post-production.
Now I'm interested to see the reaction from the viewer. That's something that's so new and so unique that I don't know what other time in my life I'm ever going to have this experience again.
Do you think that this is fundamentally harder? Both technically, and in crafting the narrative. What sort of stories do and don't work in this format? Do you think that we're anywhere near figuring out this medium?
No. First of all, we went from seeing animation to trying to do live action, and trying to do live action with a [one-shot] with different levels and action. And I'm impressed and humbled by how many people that it took to just come in and figure it out. So I think the technical aspect is growing and evolving.
I think anybody that sees this now, they're going to have an opinion, whether they like it or not. Those opinions are going to be important in the evolution of this medium. Personally, I want to keep pushing it, but I know that other people are going to have strong opinions [on which direction it should go.] And that's going to also help the evolution of this medium.