Demand for new technology in high gear

With the cost of digital projectors so much higher than that of the film projectors they’re replacing, exhibitors need a mighty compelling reason to make the change.

If this year’s ShoWest is any indication, 3-D is quickly becoming that “killer app.” Warner Bros. Intl. Cinemas prexy Millard Ochs went so far as to say, “From a distributor’s point of view, the whole reason for purchasing a digital system is that I saw what (3-D provider) Real D was capable of doing for the future.”

And that was a day before a preview of footage from concert film “U2 3D” left exhibs buzzing.

With 3-D driving adoption of digital projection and more 3-D content on the way, demand for a 3-D pipeline is inevitable, especially in post-production. Yet while 3-D filmmaking teams are now dealing with two views — one for each eye — it’s a misconception to think it creates twice as much work.

Instead, say 3-D pros, it creates a different kind of work, forcing filmmakers to rethink everything, from shooting and editing techniques to color timing and sync issues.

Making 3-D comfortable for the audience, not to mention useful for the story, means paying attention to new variables: depth, the distance between foreground and background objects; convergence, the point at which the audience’s eyes focus; and the interocular, the distance between the two cameras, or “eyes.”

“Frankly, almost every 3-D film you see gets tiring on a cut-to-cut basis because your eyes are constantly adjusting to the depth of each shot,” says Steve Schklair, founder-CEO of 3ality Digital, the company making “U2 3D,” which will screen out of competition at Cannes. “That’s tiring, because these are muscles that never normally get exercised.”

The trick is to control depth and convergence, which 3ality manages through proprietary software that begins a few frames before the edit point and merges the depth to meet the next shot.

“So instead of snapping your eyes across cuts, we’re leading your eyes through the depth across the edit, which makes it incredibly comfortable to view,” says Schklair.

It’s also vital to get the two images perfectly aligned. Even tiny misadjustments give viewers headaches, and today’s digital cameras weren’t made with that in mind.

So 3ality designed a special image analysis process, called 3post, to solve the problem. A technician sets a few key frames, then the program goes through and aligns everything automatically. “We come back in the morning, and we’ve got pretty perfect footage to work with,” Schklair says.

3ality has gone so far as to have a dedicated post facility for 3-D.

Company does most of the assembly in 3-D. Using digital projectors outfitted with the same Real D systems used to create 3-D in theaters, they’re able to view the footage in stereo or flip back and forth between the left and right eyes.

Triple task

Where live-action films like “U2 3D” have to cope with the limitations of digital cameras, computer-animated films have the luxury of simply rendering a second image of each frame.

“Because all the elements are digital, the cameras are digital, the lenses are digital, it’s quite possible to go back after the fact and say, ‘That shot is too extreme in 3-D, I’m going to change it,'” says Ben Stassen, director of the first full-length animated feature conceived for 3-D, “Fly Me to the Moon.”

On animated projects like that and “Meet the Robinsons,” the filmmakers do their work on computer monitors, using red-blue glasses — not what auds use in theaters, but close enough. They make adjustments, then screen their work, refining as they go. For those with little experience, the process can be time consuming, and therefore very expensive.

In the case of “Robinsons,” creating a 3-D version of the film was actually more than twice as much work, says computer graphics supervisor Kyle Odermatt. “When it comes to post, we are creating three sets of images: One set for the mono version and two sets for the stereo version.”

The pic was edited in 2-D, then the 3-D team went through the entire film and rendered a 3-D version according to a predetermined “depth script.”

Stop-motion, by contrast, brings different challenges.

Director Henry Selick is at work on “Coraline,” the world’s first stop-motion 3-D feature. Unlike computer-animated 3-D projects, where interocular distances can be decided in post, “you’ve got to get that right when you originally shoot,” Selick explains.

“When you’re working in 3-D, you get used to it and you tolerate a lot more, so I always have to test people coming in who aren’t looking at it all the time.”

Selick is developing tools that will give the stop-motion creators the same flexibility as CGI animators, allowing him to push objects forward and back in post.

The rising popularity of 3-D may wind up having even more profound effects on filmmaking techniques.

There have been complaints that the quick-cutting style popular in action films is difficult to watch in 3-D because it forces the viewer’s eyes to refocus so fast.

Director James Cameron, however, insists that “You can cut fast. “That’s one myth that we managed to dispel before we did ‘T2 3-D’ 10 years ago. ‘Terminator’ was all about fast cutting, (as quick as) 1.5 to 2.5 seconds per shot in the action sequences.”

With new tools, 3ality’s “U2 3D” pushes the speed even further with six- and eight-frame edits.

Cameron, however, has been working in 3-D for years. It may not be long before his peers will need to match his 3-D skills — or find their work as obsolete as silents.

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