Young technology, inexperience makes dicey process harder, costlier

The visual effects industry’s ability to handle huge changes at the last minute has cultivated some dubious habits at the studios.

One exec sardonically calls it “postponing creative decisions.” Basically, it means re-tooling and recutting pics until harrowingly close to release.

Since there’s usually excess vfx capacity available worldwide, it all gets done. If one shop is overwhelmed, “911” calls go out to other shops, who step in to complete the show, though at a premium price.

Now we’re seeing studios applying the same thinking to 2D-to-3D conversions, but that’s a much riskier bet.

3D conversion is “visual effects” in the sense that it’s done by artists using computers and CG techniques. But visual effects are a well-established business with large, reliable companies that can take on “911s”: Industrial Light & Magic, Weta Digital, Sony Imageworks, Double Negative and more.

3D conversion is a new business. The techniques and technologies are in their infancy. There are a few established conversion companies, but none have a lot of capacity.

Some contracts to convert tentpoles are going to companies with little experience and only tests to show. I’m hearing that 911 calls are going out on 3D conversions already announced, but some of the more established companies are already booked.

Compounding those issues, studios continue to tinker with pics during the conversion, which makes the processs tougher and costlier while hurting quality. That seems to have happened to “Clash of the Titans.”

We recently saw a 3D test of one of this summer’s tentpoles that ended up going out in 2D only. Through 3D glasses, it was unbearably dark — predictably so, since the test footage hadn’t been re-graded to compensate for the light lost in 3D viewing.

I have, however, seen one 3D release that looked as dark: “Clash.”

Problems with a 3D conversion present a dilemma to the studio: Miss the release date, cancel the 3D release or put out an inferior product. The first has become unthinkable; no major release has missed its date due to post or vfx problems since “Titanic.”

The second entails eating a very large expense and angering exhibitors who’ve made room for a 3D pic.

So there’s a lot of pressure to go with option #3.

That may work until auds get more discerning, but at events I go to, “Clash” has technophiles — the prime demo for 3D — pretty angry.

The danger for the studios, though, is that until the 3D conversion business is more established, these new companies are signing up their clients for a piggy-back ride on a tightrope. There’s a pretty good chance one of them will fall off — and take a tentpole down with them.

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Most of the attention on high-tech production has been on CG and digital workflows, but technology is marching on in lighting as well. The Motion Picture Academy held an event at the Linwood Dunn Theatre last Saturday on the arrival of solid state lighting.

LED lampsfor movies and television hold great promise. They’re smaller, lighter and more efficient than tungsten lamps, while running cooler. Given the HVAC costs on soundstages, that’s no small thing.

Daryn Okada hosted the event, and presented a high-powered panel assembled by the Acad to evaluate LED lights and present the results: set decorateor Rosemary Brandenburg; cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, lighting designer and production designer Arthur Max; makeup artist Robert Ryan and costume designer Michael Wilkinson.

The group delivered discouraging results.

The Acad compared tungsten lighting with three kinds of LED lamps meant to replace tungsten. All looked good and were indistinguishble from one another with the naked eye, said the panelists, but on film the LED light was unflattering to skin tones, costumes and props alike.

Worse, there were noticeable differences even between individual lights of the same type.

Deschanel said “What scares me is we all looked at these lights on the set and they all looked the same. … You can no longer trust your eye.”

Acad Sci-Tech Council veteran Jonathan Erland followed up with a presentation that explained the problem. LEDs put out red, green and blue light in narrow frequency bands that don’t match up with the sensitivity of film, so the color balance of the filmed image is off.

Bottom line: LED lighting is almost surely the future, but manufacturers are going to have to work on making lamps more consistent and tweaking their color output so they won’t fool the eye.

BITS & BYTES:

The Hollywood Post Alliance has announced the opening Call for Entries for the Fifth Annual HPA Awards. Rules and entry information at http://www.hpaawards.net…. Australian vfx/animation studio Animal Logic has hired vfx producer Matt Lynch. Animal Logic is in production on two pics for helmer Zack Snyder: “Sucker Punch” and “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” … Sony Colorworks did the 4K restoration of Visconti’s “The Leopard” that was shown at Cannes. John Persichetti was the digital intermediate-colist for the project. … Update from London’s Double Negative on what they have in production: “John Carter of Mars” for Disney and Pixar; “Inception” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” for Warner; “Paul” for Big Talk Productions/Working Title; “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for Disney; “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Attack the Block” for Big Talk. DNeg has completed work on “The Debt” and “Prince of Persia.” … Paprikas, Technicolor’s Bangalore-based animation studio, has been officially remonickered Technicolor India. … Look Effects completed 350 vfx shots for the “Lost” finale. Hollywood-based Look worked on all of season six and did more than 1000 shots over 18 episodes. … Prime Focus vfx in the U.K. delivered 150 shots for “Robin Hood,” including digital bees. … Blastwave FX is distributing five new sound effects libraries from the BBC, with over 33,000 sounds.

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