Imageworks pros talk 3-D

Go deep with the team behind 'Beowulf'

At Sony Imageworks, 3-D isn’t just a part-time interest but a dedicated production pipeline. In 2005, the company helped convert Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” to 3-D, creating a special stereoscopic version of the toon for Imax theaters. A year later, the effects house gave “Open Season” the 3-D treatment, and now it’s wrapping work on Zemeckis’ motion-capture follow-up, “Beowulf,” due to open on nearly 1,000 digital 3-D screens this fall.

Variety sat down with three of Imageworks’ 3-D pros — exec VP Debbie Denise (who oversees the 3-D pipeline), digital effects supervisor Rob Engle (stereo lead on “Beowulf”) and senior producer Buzz Hays — for a roundtable discussion about the past, present and future of the format.

Variety: 3-D has gone through cycles of popularity before, flaring up in the ’50s and again in the ’80s. With all these new 3-D movies being produced, the real question is whether this is another fad, or is 3-D finally here to stay?

Debbie Denise: New technology has made stereo 3-D a more viable option for filmmakers and theater owners because it’s comfortable — you’re not looking through red-and-blue glasses that give you a headache unless you’re 7 years old. And with CG technology getting robust enough to create these virtual worlds, it’s a perfect scenario for 3-D.

Variety: On computer-animated movies, you can actually create a second virtual eye to render the 3-D movie, but live-action requires a special two-camera system. Has Imageworks considered crossing over to live-action 3-D?

Buzz Hays: You can already read the press asking how many animated films we need in a year — we’re already getting backlash about that — and 3-D shouldn’t be limited to that. So certainly, live action’s an option. One of the problems is that everyone’s waiting to see how Jim Cameron’s going (on “Avatar”), but that’s two years away.

Variety: With a heavy-hitter like Cameron onboard, theaters are now compelled to make the transition to digital. Considering that polarized 3-D technology has been around for decades, why would anyone have gone with the inferior experience of red-blue glasses?

Hays: It’s all about cost distribution. With a red-blue (anaglyph) movie, you can literally make a 35mm print and take it to any theater, give out a bunch of red-blue glasses, and anybody can watch it in 3-D. (Before digital, polarization typically required two projectors and a special silver screen.) There is an infrastructure that is needed to do good-quality 3-D, and the way Imax does it is literally with two strips of 70mm film. 3-D technology in theaters has evolved over the years. For example, back when “Dial M for Murder” came out in 1955, they were using two-projector systems for that, and they were actually polarizing them, but because most theaters only had two projectors, they had to put intermissions in these very short movies.

Rob Engle: It really comes down to the availability of the theaters. Had the Real D system (which adapts digital projectors to support polarized 3-D releases) had as much penetration as it does now when “Spy Kids” came out, they certainly would have released it in Real D.

Variety: On “Polar Express,” Warner Bros. grossed $65 million from Imax 3-D screens alone — that’s a pretty compelling statistic. Now they’ve got competition from digital megaplexes, and people believe 3-D could be the “killer app” to drive even more conversions.

Hays: On “Monster House,” the 3-D screens were grossing two to three times (more than the standard version), and that’s proved itself on every feature since: “Open Season,” “Meet the Robinsons.” Basically, what it comes down to is exhibitors still need assurances that they’re going to have product. Most of them have gone digital — that’s the expensive hurdle — and then the 3-D upgrade is an incremental cost. That’s why DreamWorks has already made a pronouncement that starting in 2009, all their animated features will be in 3-D. Cameron’s still a few years out, but it’s setting the tone that this is going to be around for a while.

Engle: The other question is, will the public want to see every movie in 3-D or not? When you go back to why people stopped going to see 3-D movies in the past, I think it’s because 3-D movies became all gags and no content, it was all “House of Wax” stuff being jabbed in your face. “Polar Express” was not specifically designed to be a 3-D film, but the reason it succeeded was because (Zemeckis’) sense of composition lends itself perfectly to 3-D. As soon as you start making a movie that is nothing but 3-D gags, then you start to turn off the public.

Variety: It’s an enhancement, just like sound, and some filmmakers know how to use it, while others make your eardrums bleed. I have a hard time believing that we’ll reach a point anywhere in my lifetime when we see every movie in 3-D, but I think it can be one of those value-adds for the more spectacular films in the same way that THX was used on selective event movies early on.

Engle: When people watch a 3-D movie, we’re asking them to do something they don’t actually do in the normal world, which is to disconnect where they’re focusing — because they’re always looking at the screen — from where their eyes are converging. For a lot of people that causes discomfort, and if we start to make every film in 3-D, you’re actually going to turn off a reasonable percentage of your viewing population.

Hayes: The biggest thing about 3-D is education. Very few directors have any experience with it whatsoever, but if you get them to step away from the video monitor for a few seconds, the whole world is 3-D. They’re so used to this little rectangular box that they’ve disconnected themselves from it. It seems like a bit of a hurdle having two cameras on set, but it’s all fear of the unknown.

Variety: When it comes to visual effects, it’s hard enough getting CG to blend with live action. How do you do it when you’re working in 3-D, the way Cameron is approaching “Avatar”?

Hays: You pretty much have to use the same technique for all of the elements within a shot. If you don’t, it becomes readily apparent.

Denise: Typically, in a CG feature or a live-action feature, you do lots of cheats just to make that final frame look good, and with 3-D, you have to go back to the rendering phase of the shot instead of doing a composite fix.

Engle: When you’re doing a film like “Beowulf” where you’re simulating humans, people have a really good idea of what looks right and what looks wrong. It’s totally different if it’s a CG bear or an ant, but people expect humans to look human and to have roundness and shape. We really want to be sure that feels natural.

Variety: A number of companies, from Imax to In-Three, are working to “dimensionalize” live-action movies that were shot in 2-D (for example, Imax converted the last 20 minutes of this summer’s “Harry Potter” movie into 3-D). There’s talk that George Lucas will try it with “Star Wars.” How does that work?

Hays: It’s a hard thing to do, as it turns out. It’s not just a matter of slicing stuff out and moving them to various points in space. When you’re pulling apart a 2-D movie, you have to understand that 3-D space and be faithful to it. If things are just slightly wrong in space, it becomes hard to watch.

Denise: And motion blur is not our friend.

Engle: I don’t remember who thought of doing “My Dinner with Andre” in 3-D — the first response is to laugh, but it’s perfect, lots of nice long shots and you could sit there and just soak it in. Sure, it wouldn’t be spears in your eyes, but it would definitely be an experience.

Variety: It would be interesting to see a non-spectacle movie in 3-D.

Hays: What really sells 3-D for all of us are the subtle aspects of it, not the stuff that beats you over the head. When you see “Beowulf,” I think you’ll be blown away by the subtle details that just go right by you in 2-D, while in 3-D, you’re sort of entranced by it. Bob (Zemeckis) knows where your attention is going to be. He’s put a lot of his efforts into making sure that “Beo” looks great in 3-D, and it’s the little tiny details that sell it.

Denise: For instance, there’s a shot where there’s a foreground character speaking, there’s a background character that he’s address, but in between there’s a character that has all this motivation, all this emotion and all these questions in his eyes and in the way he’s moving, that I never noticed in the 2-D shot. I only saw it in 3-D.

Hays: The other shot is Beo talking, and the person he’s talking to is a reflection in the mirror, and again, it gives you this whole sense now that you’re here with these people and you know exactly where everything is in the room, just based on looking at one shot, which you can’t do with 2-D.

Variety: Is there anything that frustrates you now or hasn’t been solved in terms of this 3-D puzzle?

Engle: There are a couple technological issues. One is that the medium we’re working in is really delivering two separate movies, one to the left eye and one to the right eye, and so far there is not a delivery means — Real D, Imax, whatever — that is perfect in (separating the two pictures), which creates “crosstalk” or “ghosting.” “Beowulf” is a really good example of that. Because of the time frame it takes place in, you don’t have electric light, so it’s a high-contrast movie. Scenes with high contrast are more likely to be objectionable in 3-D. The other issue is that we need people to start thinking about the consequences of the choices they make in 2-D, how they’re going to affect the 3-D.

Variety: When will we reach a point where the filmmakers and distributors say, “This is only going out in 3-D? I’m not creating a 2-D version for the other 90% of theaters that can’t display 3-D.”

Denise: When (producer) Steve Bing saw our 3-D “Beowulf” work, he said, “If I could, I would only release this in 3-D.” But there’s not enough theaters.

Hays: But the nice thing is that’s a solvable problem. Again, it’s hard to convince exhibitors to spend that kind of money when we’re all excited about what happens this November, but what about next spring and next summer? We have to make sure we’re giving them enough reasons to convert. Back in the days when all that revolutionary stuff was happening, like 3-D and Sensurround, studios still controlled the movie theaters, and they were giving their own reason to get people to come to their theater. They didn’t care about the one down the street, so it was a very gimmick-driven thing.

Variety: By the time they convert the number of screens needed to support a tentpole opening only in 3-D, the homevideo side may have figured out 3-D as well. Will this be the cure for the wane of theatrical attendance? Cameron and others are positioning this as a reason to get people back into theaters for an experience they can’t get at home, but I see a certain fallacy in that argument.

Engle: I agree. They’re making an argument that 3-D is what’s going to get people into the theaters, but at the same time, they’re saying, the home theater is going to get that technology as well. The way to rectify that is to realize it’s going to take a long time before we have 3-D in everybody’s home, and yet we can build up an infrastructure of 3-D capable theaters right now.

Hays: The good thing for us is, because we’ve already done so many 3-D pictures and we have more in mind, it gives us a chance to keep refining all these ideas and making more and more comfortable experiences, hopefully to the point where you don’t bring up the point that you’re seeing a 3-D movie. Today, no one asks, “Are we going to see a color movie tonight?” You’re just going to see a movie.

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