Server Room Symphony

Server Room Symphony

Though the linear narrative will always exist, experiential storytelling through Facebook 360 is unlocking exciting new layers and depth to the way we consume and interact with places, products and experiences.

For the audience, engagement is elevated as they instinctively react to surrounding sound and visuals, creating unique journeys and attaching new meaning to preconceived ideas. For the creators, the possibilities are endless. Rather than producing sequences, they're now creating worlds; a 360° space open for exploration with no corner left untouched. 

As part of our ongoing Picture This series, Semi Permanent and Facebook invited Director, Alex Smith to engineer a bespoke film using 360 video. Though Smith has directed numerous documentaries, commercials, short films and over ninety music videos for a range of artists including Kylie Minogue, Coldplay and Olympia - this is his first venutre into 360. 

Here, we ask him what it was like to work with a new format, the challenges it presented for him as a Director and the exciting new opportunities this product presents...

How would you describe yourself (a tinkerer, a perfectionist, experimenter...)

I'd say all of the above, I love to tinker and experiment. I always wish I had more time. I usually want to change something. Is that being a perfectionist? Experimenting with 360 was extremely nerve wracking, but very rewarding, it's not a particularly forgiving format. 

When's the last time you tried something you didn't know?

I always try something new. I love the part of the brain that gets activated when you are problem solving. It's great to be scared and challenged, with the creative solutions that comes with that fight-or-flight situation. I try something new every time I make anything, but 360 is perhaps a more extreme example of that situation.

How much of your life goes into a piece of work you create?

As much as possible. Being given the opportunity to make personal work is rare and wonderful. The more personal the better. Sometimes that can lead to disturbing or weird imagery. I feel like I'm often making escapist work rather than putting a mirror up to life. It's a great source of release and fascination. "Server Room Symphony" does reflect a lousy job I had in my twenties, stuck in a windowless office boxing VHS tapes, up against the clock with impossible deadlines, with a crappy monochrome pc computer in an age when internal messaging was a new thing and I was getting inundated. That nightmarish office anxiety, and the use of obsolete technology came to mind quite quickly. 

"I feel like I'm often making escapist work rather than putting a mirror up to life. It's a great source of release and fascination".

Do you believe in the first idea, or do you mine your brain for a great idea?

I do try to research as much as possible, and then the idea usually comes quickly. And the first is usually my favourite idea. But sometimes it's not practical for the budget, or time constraints. With this format of 360 however, there were so many new things to consider that it took a lot longer than usual to get to the stage where I could come up with a concept. This format is such a different approach to film making that I had a million ideas at the same time. I'm looking forward to making more work in 360.

Do you like working in isolation or in collaboration?

I love both. I'm very different in isolation, and I need that time alone. But once the ground work is done on my own, there is nothing better than collaborating with great people.

What inspiration did you draw from the Dan Winters image?

It's a beautiful image of a nostalgic and obsolete technology. It reminded me of being in my teens and dragged into a photo booth with friends, piled on top of each other waiting for the flash to go off. I love the colour, and the sense of potential you get from a photobooth, of capturing a moment.

"It's a beautiful image of a nostalgic and obsolete technology. It reminded me of being in my teens and dragged into a photo booth with friends, piled on top of each other waiting for the flash to go off".

Photobooth by Dan Winters / Behind the scenes of Server Room Symphony

How were those ideas brought to life with your 360 video?

I went with the idea of too many people crammed in a small space, obsolete technology and a flash going off as elements for inspiration. Then it grew from there, the flash became the scan light of the photocopier, the obsolete technology in the form of old computers, fax machines, telephones etc. The look of the space in general, with the red curtain and the green-ish tint to the lighting was influenced by the photo. 

I wanted the man in the centre, typing on the computer, to be almost part of the furniture, forgotten about and ignored whilst in the middle of all these people who are indifferent to him. That suggested to me the nostalgic, melancholic and obsolete feelings I felt by looking at the Dan Winters image. Whilst also being playful and fun.

"I went with the idea of too many people crammed in a small space, obsolete technology and a flash going off as elements for inspiration".

Server Room Symphony / Alex Smith

What part of this 360 did you enjoy the most (casting, shooting, planning)

The shoot was such new territory that I found it quite stressful, yet a welcome challenge. The location scouting was very exciting, exploring the vast, decommissioned UTS Kuring-gai University, looking for a server room. The casting was very fun too, we saw some brilliant people.

Did directing take on a new meaning with the technical thinking, what parts did you find challenging?

Essentially this was like directing theatre, in that there's nowhere to hide behind the camera. There's no sense in having quick edits, or cutaways. It's difficult to light, most of it has to be practical lighting. Also, the lens we used was 10mm, which is so wide that you have to get right up close to people to see their expressions. You can't control where viewers look, so you have to make visual and audio 'suggestions' to guide people towards moments you want to draw attention to. But even then, it better be interesting. Performance timing is critical. You have to mindful of people's attention spans, and the novelty of the format vs the quality of the content. It was very interesting, and really turned things on their head for me. 

"You can't control where viewers look, so you have to make visual and audio 'suggestions' to guide people towards moments you want to draw attention to. But even then, it better be interesting".

What was your conclusion of doing some extensive research on 360?

It helps to plan as if all the action is happening in a single wide shot. You can't guarantee that your audience is going to be looking at what you want them to. Even if you have a massive arrow saying 'look at this', people have free will and may well just stare at the wall or the floor if they find that more interesting. The novelty of the format can be absorbing enough to be a distraction, which is frustrating when you're trying to be nuanced. It's early days, and until the initial 'wow factor' wears off (which is a value in itself), I found it more of an 'experience' like an immersive environment, rather than a linear time-based format. There are a few brilliant exceptions that really work, where you find yourself looking around to follow the action without even thinking about it. 

What was something you loved through production, that was unexpected?

It's maybe a dull response, but working on an edit where you can see all the action unwrapped into one flat image is great, and then dropping it into a VR viewer is really exciting, to see it working for the first time. For all the limitations of the format, it offers so much potential as well. Essentially in the edit process you're working on a locked off shot, and in the final result you are looking at close-ups of the same lock off. So it's not such a big deal to change parts of the shot, loop areas, or approach it more like a still image in Photoshop.

What do you think (or hope) people will feel when they watch this video?

I hope people find it surprising, funny and worth repeated viewing!

Click here to experience the 360 video and click here to learn more about our ongoing collaboration. 

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