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Sometimes a drive-by isn’t enough. Google Maps has used cameras on trucks since 2007 to capture the world for its Street View. But when it comes to the world’s best-known landmarks, the search giant has been taking extra steps to create virtual representations.
Google sends workers to record the surroundings on foot when a vehicle won’t work, such as for Venice’s canals or the switchback paths around Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. All told, Google’s staff have recorded more than 10,000 virtual tours of the world’s wonders.
Valentina Frassi, a program manager for Google Street View, has been one of the hidden hands behind these epic, wraparound photo montages as a founding member of the team recording the landmarks.
The 35-year-old Frassi has been filming locations and arranging logistics for trips full-time for Google since 2011. She began her career at Google after graduating with a degree in international marketing.
At Google’s office in Milan, she helps to pinpoint which touristic and archaeological sites need recording. She then plans trips with colleagues. When it’s time for filming, she straps on a backpack with a Google-built camera, called the Trekker.
Frassi said she loves her job, but snafus happen. Sometimes she accidentally gets recorded, like how she appears as a blurred out face walking near the Great Pyramids of Giza.
“It can be like making a movie,” Frassi said. “You plan to make sure everything will run smoothly. Then on the day, it’s suddenly raining. You need a Plan B for everything.”
Logistical work can include getting permissions from local authorities or venues where needed and booking travel.
Frassi has filmed in more than 20 countries, and she has found that some landmarks are tougher to shoot than others. Some equipment misfired when Frassi was capturing interior images of some iconic floors of the Burj Khalifa, a skyscraper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, costing her a precious hour of filming time.
“Something that might be simple back at home can become quite challenging at a remote location,” Frassi said. “You have to make sure you’ve charged batteries of your equipment, because you may end up at an archaeological site in a desert with no place to charge up.”
The pandemic has grounded Google’s team for now, except for the people driving vehicles with cameras, such as on the North Island of New Zealand in July.
During the crisis, Frassi has been working from home near Bergamo in a region hurt by the pandemic in March 2020. She and her husband tried to lighten the mood by listing places they would like to visit after the pandemic wanes, with places like Greenland and Kenya rising near the top of their lists. They used Street View to explore them, she said, and they checked to make sure there are facilities for their two kids to enjoy.
Frassi grew up in Italy’s bucolic Lombardy region, an area that she says is lovely and worth visiting. Many of her favorite areas were filming locations for the movie Call Me by Your Name.
Destination marketing organizations that don’t have to wait for Frassi or the Google team to drop by. They can instead work with agencies, who will collect imagery and upload it to Google Maps on their behalf. For example, the Bermuda Tourism Authority hired an agency called Miles Partnership to film content that would help people explore the island’s top spots virtually. The goal was to improve discovery on Google Maps.
Frassi’s hard-won photography advice for professionals and amateurs is to wake before sunrise to max out the best light of the day. When she recently filmed Venice’s canals, she recorded scenes early and late. But she avoided the middle of the day, when the sunlight reflecting off the water blurred images.
Unsurprisingly, Frassi can’t wait for officials to lift stay-at-home restrictions due to the pandemic.
“It’s a great job in that one day you’re in an office answering emails, and then the next day, you’re on a gondola in Venice,” said Frassi.