What Does it Take to Make 3D Work?

The last time F&V spoke with Fred Meyers, he had just finished work as HD supervisor on Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, helping the Lucasfilm production get up to speed with HDCAM SR 4:4:4 recording. (The previous Star Wars movie had been shot in 4:2:2.) More recently, he's been working behind the scenes on Journey to the Center of the Earth, engineering the pipeline for stereo HD photography. Below, we asked Meyers to answer some general questions about the workings of a successful 3D shoot.

Briefly describe your responsibilities on "Journey to the Center of the Earth".
I was the chief engineer, the HD supervisor, so I was there throughout all the shooting. It was all multicamera work where the systems were, for the most part, tethered to a movable engineering tent that had the ability to remotely record the cameras. I operated that equipment. I aligned the cameras to address uniformity issues and look, and I worked with [cinematographer] Chuck Shuman to get what he was looking for in the imagery and with [director] Eric [Brevig] on what he needed to do to shoot. I dealt with monitoring and projection back on the set, and I worked closely with Ed Marsh [3D consultant and VFX editor] on the workflow for shooting – what formats were used, what pieces of equipment were used, and how things were handed off to editorial. I also worked with how the data that was specific to 3D — so-called metadata — flowed, and also with the process of turning the video into digital files and maintaining that data so that when editorial completed a cut and selects were handed off, the post facilities had the data they needed and understood how to ingest the material and display the imagery. Besides the set engineering, it was the HD-to-digital workflow.

How significantly does working in 3D complicate the digital acquisition workflow/pipeline?
Where a project has been planned in 3D from the beginning, with time set aside along with a budget for it, that could mean that it doesn’t complicate things at all. In a case where it really wasn’t planned — it might have been an afterthought of the studio and maybe a desire to jump on the bandwagon — it could complicate things significantly, all the way from labor and the necessary expertise for shooting to the process of going through the editorial and post-production and delivery pipeline. There’s not really one answer. It’s in a similar vein to the question, “How much more does it cost?”

What were some of the specific technology challenges on the "Journey to the Center of the Earth" shoot? What pieces of gear were the most important to making it all work?
One of the big challenges is the lensing. We are dealing with stereoscopy, and that’s all optical sleight of hand. The 3D camera rigs employ beamsplitters, and the alignment of the left eye and the right eye is a technical as well as an aesthetic task. To see those work well, you need to have the proper tools to monitor when you’re preparing for a shot as well as executing it. If you think you’ll just push a button and be shooting something in 3D, you’ll face lots of challenges. An example of the tools is a high-resolution monitor, such as a Cine-tal monitor that allows you to do wipes and splits between two different views. It might be processing that allows you to flip and invert and offset images, such as Evertz Microsystems might make. You put those monitors and processing tools into the package you have — the digital-acquisition rigs and the 3D rigs — and that gives you what you need to deal with the challenge of getting the stereo effect that you had in mind.

What are the keys to making 3D production a seamless experience for the director, DP, editor, and other creatives?
That’s related to the other technology and gear that’s needed. Having enough equipment is key to a positive experience. And having a crew, a technical team that actually works as a team in the process of doing a 3D project, is key to a seamless experience. Over the years, motion picture departments have had boundaries – the camera department, the editorial department, post-production. They all showed up on the set, but they were separate departments, and they did things the way they’ve been done for years and years. For a 3D project, some components are identical. But there are going to be new components that require learning on the crew’s part in many different groups. Even if they’ve done 3D projects before, they’re undoubtedly going to be seeing new applications and technology. The key to making it work is cross-department teamwork. People don’t just do the things they’ve always done. With digital production, looking at the whole workflow, we’ve got to see more of a combination of departments, a merging of camera and editorial in post rather than them being distinct. We’ve got to see more crossover and teamwork among the groups to have it be a good experience.

How quickly/effectively is technology being adapted to make working in 3D easier?
Well, it’s slow. It’s slow kind of because of a wait-and-see attitude that’s prevalent in the industry. Everyone wants to claim that they’re doing something new and different, but nobody wants to be the first person to do something new and different because they don’t want to flop. That wait-and-see is causing the delays.

How long will it be before a 3D workflow can rely on off-the-shelf tools as opposed to multiple kludges and workarounds?
It’s not so much that there’s kludges and workarounds. It’s that an all-digital workflow requires new solutions, and there’s time-to-market for all of that. The manufacturers want to know, “How many of these are we going to sell?” Yes, there are workarounds. There are building blocks — you get several different components from several different manufacturers, and you put them together and you’re able to come up with a 3D workflow. We’re starting to see manufacturers want to be involved in that, and they’re offering more 3D-ready versions, plug-ins and features. But they’re looking at how many units they’re going to sell. It will probably have a nonlinear curve, especially as other markets just do it, and they’re not averse to taking risks.

What's the biggest misconception about 3D today?
Here’s a good one. You just throw a switch and 2D is 3D. Or it’s just an incremental cost — you’re just going to spend a third again as much [on a 3D production]. This is a misused analogy, but were we thinking the same when we went from silent to sound? From black-and-white to color? We’re doing a new kind of presentation. The media in 3D is potentially different. Maybe you’ve got something now that you never saw before — it’s no longer a movie. I’m sure the vested interests in 3D are saying, “This is not your grandfather’s movie, it’s not your grandfather’s 3D. This is something entirely different.” There’s going to be marketing and spin on it. But the misconceptions have a tendency to trivialize that it’s a different kind of entertainment. You’re creating something that’s new.

At the same time, the editors on the film told me that they were always editing for story. They didn’t behave, creatively, as if they were working in a different medium. Is that the ideal? Or does there have to be some new thinking involved in how you conceive what you’re creating?
I completely agree with the editorial representation of the narrative. You should be telling the story. And on the technical side, you’re trying to provide the ability for them to do that without getting distracted by technical details. Beyond the story, the narrative, some people are including action, excitement, something visually new that provides an additional form of stimulation. It’s visual content that works with the story. It may be along the lines of some of the things we saw at the beginning stages of visual effects, when you were able to create a new world that hadn’t been photographed before.

And it sounds like you’re saying that a 3D production is more likely to be successful if it’s conceived from the start for 3D — and if there’s a respect for the demands of that process.
That’s probably one way to look at it. As a producer, you may be concerned about costs and below-the-line issues. But if the producers and the directors had a vision for this being 3D from the get-go, they’ve done their homework and they’ve realized that they’re putting the people and the systems in place to support that vision. There’s time, planning and an education process built into the production level. You’ll find professionals, whether it’s a post facility or camera rental company, who will step in and provide that level of expertise to avoid the complications. But it’s still a business, and a market, so the production can still get in a bind by not giving the respect to that part of the process. It takes strong people in key department positions to negotiate those waters. Eric did a great job of just standing up for what he needed technically to complete it. Ed and myself, we found ourselves in positions where we just had to say to Walden and New Line, “We need this. No, it’s not an option. This is part of the process. We know it, we’re convinced of it, and this is why.”

By Bryant Frazer, StudioDaily