Ed Sheeran taped his second “Austin City Limits” show on Sunday. Photo by Scott Newton, “Austin City Limits”
In 2017, our city’s signature show, “Austin City Limits,” turned 43, passing the British program “Top of the Pops,” which ended in 2006, to become the longest running music television series in history. To mark the occasion, the show’s producers launched a new virtual reality documentary series called “ACL: Backstage,”produced in collaboration with Google and local virtual reality production house, SubVRsive. The first three episodes, released online Thursday, feature British pop star, Ed Sheeran, Georgia country act the Zac Brown Band and “Unsung Heroes” from the show’s staff and crew.
“I thought it would be cool in this season, where we’re celebrating this milestone of longevity, to also demonstrate that we’re always looking for cool and cutting edge new ways to bring live music to the fans,” Tom Gimbel, general manager of ‘ACL’ said on Wednesday.
Shot with 360 degree cameras, the videos are short, running five to eight minutes. That’s long enough to tell a meaningful story, without becoming too disoriented (and nauseous) from the virtual reality. Also, without overheating your phone from the heavy processing demands.
The episodes include live performance footage. At various points in each video, you stand on the stage, in the front row of the crowd, up in the balcony, looking down, but presenting a virtual reality concert experience is not the objective of the series.
“We didn’t want to do the usual, set the VR cameras around the stage and do a live music performance,” Gimbel said.
As the title implies, the series takes viewers behind the scenes to hang out backstage with the artists.
“They have a narrative story arc,” Gimbel said. “They take you through a day in the life of the artist. They take you around the town to live music clubs. They take you backstage with our crew.”
The use of 360 vision is carefully thought out. In the Ed Sheeran episode you wander through the club and meet the fans in front of the venue who camped overnight to secure their spots in the house. You lounge in a green room backstage and watch an interview with Sheeran. The Zac Brown episode goes even further. At one point you sit in the center of a circle while the six members of the band warm up around you.
They videos showcase our city beautifully. The Ed Sheeran episode opens on the boardwalk on the Southeast banks of Ladybird Lake. In the Zac Brown Band episode we watch from a distance as the bats take off from the South Congress Bridge. With stunning 360 degree shots, the viewer is able to look around and experience the natural wonder in the center of our city.
The Zac Brown Band makes its “Austin City Limits” debut at ACL Live on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. Scott Newton/courtesy of KLRU-TV
Gimbel said future episodes take the viewer to Stubb’s with Spoon and to the Continental Club with Dale Watson. Other featured artists for the season include Father John Misty and the Run the Jewels. The episodes will be released periodically through early next year.
It’s possible to watch the videos on a desktop or phone without special gear. You can use a mouse or touch pad to shift the camera angle, but with a VR headset they come to life, in a dizzying immersive experience.
Over the past few years, virtual reality headsets have become readily accessible. Cardboard models can be purchased for less than $10. But the medium is still a playground for tech enthusiasts and early adopters. Most likely, it will be a few years before we see widespread usage.
“I think it’s still nascent in its development,” Gimbel said. “But I do think live music and sports in particular, I think there’s a special place for VR in those mediums, because it brings you one step closer to the action and it gives you that experience that you may not get in a 2D live music television or online experience or sports experience. You actually can feel like you’re a part of the crowd.”