Cinematographer and stereographer offer the inside story

The producers of Relativity Media’s “Immortals,” which opened to a better-than-expected $32 million this past weekend, always intended for the film to be released in 3D. Once production got underway with Tarsem directing it was clear that with the exception of a small amount of footage the film would be shot on 2D and later be converted to the stereo medium. Cinematographer Brendan Galvin – who’s also shooting Tarsem’s Snow White film “Mirror Mirror” – entrusted much of that task to a fellow d.p., David Stump, who has the credit of senior stereographer on the film. Galvin and Stump both talked to Variety’s Inside Production’s Peter Caranicas about the thinking that went into the shooting and conversion of the swords-and-sandals actioner.

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Peter Caranicas: How long have you worked with Tarsem?

Brendan Galvin: Over 20 years, mostly on commercials.

Caranicas: Talk about how you shot “Immortals.”

Galvin: We shot it all digitally on the Genesis camera system from Panavision. We shot many tests before deciding whether to shoot real 3D or to shoot 2D and do a conversion. We ended up shooting just little part of the film on 3D; the rest is a conversion. One of the considerations was the speed with which Tarsem likes to work. Our schedule was very challenging in terms of the amount of material we had to shoot in the time available. Some people say there’s no time difference shooting 3D, some say there’s 10% difference; personally I think there’s quite a bit of difference.

Caranicas: How fast does Tarsem work?

Galvin: There are times when we’ve done just a small amount of work in a day, and other times when he’s just manic, just go, go, go. I prefer to work with him when he’s working faster. He gets a different energy. I can’t exactly explain it. As he shoots, he puts the film together in his head. I’ve never met anyone who does it like him. He’ll remember visual things, every shot we do on a film, exactly.

Caranicas: What’s your view of conversion vs. stereo shooting?

Galvin: I’ve seen both good and bad conversions and good and bad native 3D shooting. Personally, after doing this conversion, I would do the same thing again. I’m not saying I wouldn’t shoot 3D with stereo cameras. I can see situations where that would be a far better to do. But on this particular film, with the ingredients we had, that wasn’t the way to go. I don’t regret the decision we made.

Caranicas: What was the intent at the outset?

Galvin: It was always to release in 3D, so when we photographed in 2D we did so with that in mind. I think 3D is still a medium completely in its infancy, even though it’s been around for donkey’s years. People are still learning a lot about what’s possible and what’s not. They’re learning a completely new language for filmmaking.

Caranicas: Where did you shoot “Immortals”?

Galvin: We shot 100% in-studio in Montreal. We did lots of greenscreen work, but we did have sets. The greenscreen was largely for set extensions. We shot for 62 days, so for about three months allowing for weekends. We finished in early July, 2010.

Caranicas: How involved were you in post and DI?

Galvin: A lot. Because we were shooting digitally we wanted to take advantage of what digital can offer over film. One of the things we could do was set up our grading suite in the studio where we were shooting, so we had a full color correction suite in with digital projection, and most nights we watched dailies there. We also did basic color correction on the set as we were shooting.

Caranicas: Who handled the conversion?

Galvin: One of the most important aspects was to have the whole process monitored by a cinematographer. David Stump handled all of it… managing a team of people. The fact that he’s a d.p. was hugely advantageous, technically and esthetically. David would do certain things and show them to me and Tarsem. When he saw what we liked in terms of depth, perspective, convergence, etc., he would then start applying that. He also contributed some very helpful ideas. The brief was that this has to be a very comfortable 3D experience. We wanted people to forget that they were watching 3D.

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Peter Caranicas: Were you a stereographer just in post?

David Stump: Yes, only in post, I wasn’t part of the photography process.

Caranicas: What kind of look were you striving for?

Stump: One of the commitments we made to Tarsem was to give the characters “human volume” so they didn’t look like flat cardboard cutouts placed in space. And that kind of volume is really hard to achieve in a conversion. We paid special care and attention paid to putting things in the right place, and getting things built with volume – volume of the characters and volume of the space. That’s been a reach for most previous conversions and I think we reached a pretty high mark in terms of achieving volume in this conversion.

Caranicas: How did you do that?

Stump: You have to create depth maps that include roundness in faces and the background sets. You have to do more than just cut out a wall and place it in depth. We added indentations for windows, doorways, architectural features. We did a ton of depth mapping in detail – I’ve always noticed the absence of it on other conversions.

Caranicas: Where did you do the work?

Stump: The lion’s share went to Prime Focus. They did most of the work in India. Small sections were given to 3DRevolution in Pasadena and Mikros Image in France.

Caranicas: Where did you spend most of your time?

Stump: My team and I spent several months in Mumbai, as well as in Paris, Montreal and L.A.

Caranicas: Is going the conversion route expensive?

Stump: Not really. It was probably ultimately cheaper to convert than to shoot native 3D, especially with the number of cameras, the amount of technology and the longer schedule (required) to shoot in 3D. And you would have had to knock Tarsem down from 60 setups a day to 20, with all those extras standing around the block for the battle scenes

Caranicas: Did the greenscreen work make the conversion any easier?

Stump: No, it was just another variable that made it a little harder. In order to properly covert a greenscreen vfx shot you have to have the final version of the shot done, so it just pushed more of those shots deeper into the schedule – which ultimately makes it harder to have the 3D consistent from shot to shot and scene to scene.

Caranicas: Was the color correction done after the conversion?

Stump: In this case, yes, because it was a live cut – the edit wasn’t locked until after I got back from my last trip to Mumbai. There were many things I had to re-jigger; new shots going into the pipeline as late as September of this year, so I had to be involved in the color correction process.

Caranicas: What is it about a d.p. that best qualifies him as a stereographer?

Stump: Probably the level of obsessive-compulsive image manipulation and control that d.p.’s are capable of. The real advantage of conversion is that it gives you is an enormous amount of control that you don’t have in natively shot 3D. If you shoot something in 3D and you aren’t committed to converting anything, and you get a shot wrong, there’s not a lot you can do about it. You can’t go back and say, I want to pull the cameras closer together and make this a less deep scene. (All you can do is) resort to converting the shot – throw away one eye and convert the other.

Caranicas: Is 3D here to stay?

Stump: Some predict is will last, others that it won’t. In the last 10 years since the advent of digital cinema everyone has become a prophet… saying film is dead, film will last forever, 3D will last forever, digital will never c
atch on, digital is the future, etc. People love to say “I told you so,” so people are making all kinds of predictions and in the future they’ll dust off correct ones.

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