Toon Shops Spark to 3-D

While live-action filmmakers are mostly still pondering stereoscopic 3-D, the stereo revolution is sweeping animation. The biggest CGI animation studios -- Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky -- are all working in stereo. That means new tools for animators, new ways of thinking for animation directors -- and perhaps even different stories to animate.

Animation directors need to think differently about their staging and pacing, says Ben Stassen, director of Fly Me to the Moon, the first animated feature made from its inception for digital 3-D. "When you make a 2-D film, you use the screen as a window, and you tell the story through that window," he explains. "When you make a 3-D film, you try to get rid of the window and the frame and transport the audience as close as possible to the filmic space, if possible to the middle of the filmic space itself."

But anytime a 3-D object touches the edge of the screen, it creates a conflict that the brain resolves by "moving" that object back. The solution: Keep characters and objects away from the edge of the frame. But that takes away many standard 2-D shooting techniques.

Stassen argues directing in 3-D is more like stage directing anyway, an idea echoed by DreamWorks' Phil McNally, aka "Captain 3-D" -- he even has the appellation on his business card. McNally explains that in 2-D animation, "You ask, how are the silhouettes reading? ... If it is two people talking, you don't want them standing in front of each other." In 3-D, he says, it's best to break up any straight lines of characters and arrange them more interestingly in space -- an idea familiar to stage directors.

Stereo also exacerbates strobing during medium-fast camera moves. Some 3-D experts are already calling for higher frame rates to compensate, but in the meantime, says Stassen, "The strobing itself imposes a much slower pacing and a much more deliberate kind of staging in terms of the camera movement and even movement of the characters on the screen."

Movies may actually get longer in 3-D, or at least be edited differently. McNally says that when DreamWorks did a test sequence of Kung Fu Panda in 3-D, it found that -- among other changes -- it was 10%-15% longer than the original 2-D, though it had almost the same number of shots. That's because the brain needs roughly half a second with each new cut to re-merge the left and right images. The cut still feels fast to the viewer, says McNally, because the brain is still working hard to keep up, "but in order to keep it at 'fast' and not 'beyond,' it actually needs a slightly slower pace or very careful blending of those shots."

Animators get some new toys to play with for all that. CG toons have used toys, insects, tropical fish, superheroes and fairy tales to showcase colors and textures that looked great in CG. With 3-D, now they can use giants and mites.

"When you work in (2-D) mono, sometimes it's hard to really tell how big something is, especially if it's not a relatable object. In 3-D, you can tell it's the size of a mountain," says Damon O'Beirne, head of rough layout & previsualization at DreamWorks Animation. On Monsters vs. Aliens, for example, O'Beirne and the DreamWorks animators have monsters and a robot that are hundreds of feet tall. "We shoot past a tank looking at the robot," O'Beirne says. "Graphically and in mono, you kind of get the impression that it's big, but it's an extremely impressive shot in 3-D."

The bottom line, McNally says, is that even experienced 2-D filmmakers have to be willing to let go of their expertise and think like beginners as they take up 3-D, like painters who are asked for the first time to carve stone sculptures. "People are thinking, 'What if I paint it first and then make it a sculpture later?' " he says. "No, it's not going to make a good sculpture. You really have to work in the medium and really immerse yourself and the production into that."

By David S. Cohen, Variety