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Insta360: Virtual Scouting for the COVID-19 Era

  • December 29, 2020
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Insta360: Virtual Scouting for the COVID-19 Era

The future is officially upon us with Insta360 and location scouting will never be the same. As we move forward into the COVID era, ensuring the safety of our industry professionals is our primary concern. That’s because the people who are on the ground grinding day in and day out are the glue that’s holding everything together. Without them, there’s no industry. So, using an ingenious camera device like the Insta360 ONE R or Insta360 ONE X not only gives you the power to scout locations virtually (to help keep everyone properly socially-distanced) but it also ends up saving you quite a bit on production expenses. 

I actually first started using the Insta360 technology two years ago before COVID-19 hit. Back then, it obviously was less out of necessity for safety and more about its amazing capabilities. I like to keep my ear close to the rail, so to speak. And when I sense a new device that’s going to change how things are done in the industry, I’m all over it. And that’s exactly what I felt with the Insta360 ONE R and Insta360 ONE X camera systems, as well as the Insta360 Studio app. Now in a world where the practice of social distancing is a requirement, the Insta360, ONE R, and ONE X are ever more pertinent. 

insta360 one r

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the Insta360 and its features, and then I’m going to show you how I work it into my scouting routine — in this case, for the movie Safety, a new Disney+ exclusive film directed by Reginald Hudlin that follows Ray-Ray McElrathbey and his younger brother Fahmarr. Ray’s a freshman defensive back who takes custody of Fahmarr as their mother struggles with addiction, forcing him to balance classes and football with raising a kid. 

You can learn more about the movie, our team, and our rapid-fire halftime sequence where we shot 59 setups in 7 minutes and 20 seconds with How to Shoot Sports Action Cinematography Part 1. Or, better yet, go watch Safety for yourself! It’s a fantastic film that transcends the game of football, illustrating a deeper story — one where Clemson and its football organization embrace Ray and Fahmarr as part of the Clemson family. 

What is the Insta360 Camera?

The Insta360 ONE R and Insta360 ONE X Cameras share quite a few similarities. For instance, they both shoot 5.7K 30fps out of two different lenses simultaneously, which creates a perfectly seamless 360-degree world. The cameras also come with a selfie stick that screws into your camera and extends outward to enhance your perspective. One of the best features is how the camera paints out the selfie stick from the rest of the image, so it doesn’t obstruct your view in the slightest. 

How do the Insta360 ONE R and Insta360 ONE X differ? Well, for one, the Insta360 ONE R has interchangeable lenses. The ONE R also has Night Shot, it’s waterproof, and possesses H.265 encoding capabilities, whereas the ONE X does not. The ONE R is also easier to use with its voice controls and touch screen features.

Insta360 One R Hurlbut Academy
Insta360 ONE X in action.

After you capture your image, you’re able to scroll around and see the entirety of your location with its full 360-degree perspective! This is super important because when you’re typically scouting a location, you end up hopping quickly from room to room, considering possible shots, but oftentimes overlooking key factors like the height of the ceiling or if, say, the floor can handle a dolly. 

We alluded to the cost of production above, but how exactly does the Insta360 make production cheaper? Well, to put it simply, you don’t need the whole team there looking at the location. This means that you can conduct a virtual scout without the grip, lighting, art department, transportation, or any department heads that typically take the initial walkthrough. 

This makes the Insta360 ideal for limiting exposure since you can share the virtual videos of the locations to each of your team members, and they’ll have the power to analyze everything directly from their screens.

Location Scouting for Safety with the Insta360

When it came time to scout locations for Safety, I decided to deploy the Insta360. I find that there’s nothing more exhausting than prepping a movie. In fact, I like to think that if I can get through the prep, I’m going to survive because the rest of the process is easy by comparison. So, when prepping, I use tools that make my life easier — and the Insta360 is one such tool. 

We were at Clemson University, where much of the movie takes place, getting an eye for the campus, scenery, and everything else we wanted to capture. For those who don’t know it, Clemson is about a two-hour drive away from Atlanta. It’s not so simple to roll out and see the location. So, if you need something like a last-minute measurement, you’re looking at a hefty drive, possible transportation support, and then you have to coordinate with location support and the location manager. As you probably realize, this is not the most efficient way to operate. 

For Safety, we scouted a number of locations from impoverished areas in Atlanta to Clemson University. Here are a few of the locations we scouted:

Safety Disney+ Location Scouting
Lakewood Heights in Atlanta
Safety Disney+ Location Scouting
Clayton State University
Safety Disney+ Location Scouting
Clayton State University
Safety Disney+ Location Scouting
Clemson University Sports Complex
Safety Disney+ Location Scouting
Clemson University “Film Room”

I like to refer to the Invisible Selfie Stick as the ‘Magic Stick’ because of its vanishing qualities. And it actually makes for a wonderful icebreaker when working with locations. The first thing I often hear when walking in is ‘What the heck is that thing? It looks so cool!’ It’s always a good idea to get the people at locations excited. And wanting to see what the Insta360 is capable of, sometimes you’ll even get access to areas where you would never usually get to see. 

Forgive the distortion of the image below, but we’re melding 360-degrees into a two-dimensional image. We’re literally defying physics! From Insta360 Studio, you then have the ability to navigate the entire periphery of the video. 

Shane Hurlbut ASC Safety Location Scouting
Notice how the ‘Magic Stick’ is painted out of the image.

I’d also like to highlight another example that sometimes gets brushed over. Working with locations is always a give and take relationship in the sense that property owners are graciously allowing us to use their property while their place becomes immortalized on the big screen, giving them something that they can brag about to friends and other good things. However, even though they may start out excited and giddy, you can weigh on their patience if you repeatedly go back. In fact, that’s how you can lose a location. The Insta360 makes for an ideal solution to this pesky problem. So, instead of asking to see the location again, you can simply pull up the virtual location.  

Use Locations to Develop Character

Locations can make or break a scene. The right location can create the perfect opportunity for character development. One such scene didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie but serves as a great example that conveys the power of a location. This scene takes place in Clemson’s auditorium where players review film of upcoming opponents. And in this particular moment, Ray (played by Jay Reeves) sits in the auditorium obsessively studying reel after reel

Safety Disney+ Location Scouting
Still from Safety, Disney+

Suddenly, the door opens behind him and in walks the assistant coach. This was a perfect moment to convey Ray’s headspace and his fixation with the task at hand. It had to be unique. So, when he opened the door, late afternoon sunlight rifled through and blew out the coach’s white shirt and khaki pants. Meanwhile, the sun shafted down the side of the room where it created a major change of ambiance.  

Take a moment to consider why I chose this approach. You’re sitting in a pitch dark room and all of a sudden this huge distraction takes place where daylight pours through the room. Nearly anyone else would turn around to see who was walking in — but not Ray. At this moment, it was key to show Ray’s focus, eyeing up the competition and searching for any holes in their game. And what could have easily been just another scene becomes a moment. 

This is how you emotionally light

Review Insta360 Videos with the Team

Once I shot every location that we were planning on filming with the Insta360, I was able to later take all of that footage and literally work within the virtual world I had captured. With the Insta360 Studio app, all of your team members can preview and edit 360-degree videos, edit Bullet Time video, and combine Interval Photos into a video.

Insta360 Studio is a game-changer because it gives me the ability to block and create shot lists for the whole movie, all based on virtual videos. And if you’re anything like me, then you appreciate being able to see all of the finer details. Again, you can probably recognize how effective this process is when considering COVID-19 regulations. 

Insta360 Studio Hurlbut Academy

Together with the department leads we sat around a big-screen television and went through each of the locations. This is where we were able to break down the specifics, like figuring out where we needed to screw in equipment, controlling can lights and similar directives. 

When breaking down the auditorium location, as mentioned above, we had to determine which way the door opened. It’s these kinds of little things that can make the biggest difference. I was able to easily go back to my virtual scout footage and figure out which way the door opened.

Safety Disney+
Improvement starts with studying the playbook. Still from Safety, Disney+

Pro-Tip: Don’t just shoot the room you’re planning to film in, but get coverage of the hallways and exteriors of the room. That way, you can also determine areas where you can stage equipment, house a generator, run cable, and anything else the G&E riggers should know. 

The door opened outward which is exactly what I hoped for because by pushing it forward it would not light the wall in the background first or give use the light sweep effect. However, by opening the door outward, the lights swing throughout the entire room.  Just outside, we set up the Arri M40 with a kick angle on the door replicating the sun. That’s what gave us the sufficient amount of light so when the assistant coach opened the door, the light swept through the room and side lit the walls of the auditorium. And who do you see but Ray, sitting there, not even glancing over his shoulder. 

Working with Insta360 Studio 

Imagine the ability to share all of your files with everyone on your team, making sure everyone is all on the same page. That’s the genius of Insta360 Studio. To get started, download the Insta360 Studio app. You’ll need the app in order to open and view files. 

Say, for example, you want to show the art department where we need to hang vertical blinds and where we need to hang horizontal blinds. Check and check! Simply note and share within Insta360 Studio to update notes and keep the creativity flowing. 

Insta360 Studio

I was also able to show the art department where we weren’t shooting so they wouldn’t have to dress the whole place. This feature made all of our lives much easier while saving a ton of money in the process. You’re able to be much more precise in your planning, which means that you won’t waste time and resources. That’s always a good thing. 

The Bottom Line

The Insta360 is the perfect tool for location scouting in the era of COVID. Not only does it keep your team safe, but it also allows you to be much more exact in your planning which ultimately saves the production money. 

The Insta360 camera captures every nook and cranny of the room, and your videos are always at your fingertips. So, you won’t need to worry about conflicting schedules or transportation obstructing you from visiting the location any time you please. 

And with the INSTA360 Studio, you can share your virtual locations with team members to keep everyone on track and on the same page. 

And for a limited time, when you purchase the ONE R by following this specific link to the Insta360 Store you’ll receive a free accessory. (If there’s a selfie stick already included with your camera purchase then you’ll instead receive a free battery base.) 

Advance your cinematography in pre-production with our Blocking and Lighting SUPER COURSE, How to Prep Like a Pro Vol. I, and Script to Screen: A Cinematographer’s Guidebook.

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