Interview with Vince Pace

Vince Pace has been fundamentally involved with 3D technology since the beginning of the resurgence of the art form. His credits include most of the major projects which have unfolded so far, including the blockbuster 3D movie Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and the highly anticipated Avatar, with more to come. Vince has participated in some of the most dynamic 3D sports presentations seen to date. We met during a tour of PACE’s Burbank headquarters and mobile 3D production and post production trucks.

You’ve always been at the edge of the curve in your extraordinarily varied career as cinematographer, underwater expert, entrepreneur, and innovator. How did you get here?
Most people know me from the underwater days where I built a business servicing the documentary and feature film world with lights and cameras. I worked hard to build that business and was proud of the products we designed. At its height, we had serviced Titanic and our inventory contained more than sixty underwater camera housings and fifteen hundred underwater lights. I had designed specialty lights used in Disney Theme Parks around the world including explosion proof units for Tokyo Disney Sea. Pace Technologies was the key equipment supplier for Blue Planet and I also trained the camera operators. I had ventured to the sites of the Titanic, but was never offered the opportunity to go down; my name was never that high on the list.

Everything changed with one conversation with James Cameron. I had worked with him since The Abyss, but during one particular conversation he described his vision of the Holy Grail camera, a camera that could shoot 3D as easily and as transparently to production as a 2D camera. A camera specifically designed to enhance the creative artist’s ability to tell a story; the world where Jim lives as one of the best storytellers of our time. I was one of the lucky few that heard the plan for Titanic from him as he told the story early on. I knew the film would be a success the minute I heard it, and I was equally hooked on this Holy Grail camera when I heard it. He asked me if I wanted to go into a new venture, 50-50, to build a camera. I agreed, we shook hands and the world of PACE Technologies was left behind and PACE began what has become a revolution in entertainment.

In retrospect, I should have realized I was shaking hands with the director of Titanic. But throughout it all, PACE held up to its end of the bargain and Jim held up his. How ironic it was that after hanging up my facemask and snorkel years earlier, our first adventure with the 3D camera would be to the deck of Titanic 2.5 miles down.

Another irony is that after giving up so much of a business that I truly loved, I find myself accomplishing every underwater goal I ever had. I guess when you follow one dream - it doesn’t preclude the others that led to where you are today.

You were enjoying a successful career before 3D, even before HD. You have been involved from the early stages of these incredibly important technical changes. What put you at the head of the curve?
I was introduced to underwater optics at the age of ten and it was very exciting to me to be surrounded by cinematographers who were taking pictures in a world very few people got to explore. My interest was also piqued early on by the dual artistic and technical challenges. From then on, photography and cinematography have been a part of my life.

I built many underwater housings growing up, but I really started to learn the art of cinematography working for acclaimed underwater cinematographer, Al Giddings. I had earned my stripes in the underwater world, but when he secured a project called In Celebrations of Trees for Discovery, it was my opportunity to go beyond the constraints of water and understand light and shadows in a dry environment. I made a deal with Al that I would work for free if he answered all my questions during the shoot. I just wanted to know the reason for everything he did creatively. He agreed (who wouldn’t?) and we worked side by side for almost two years. It was a unique opportunity since the subject did not move, dance, fly, or create some sort of spectacle. You were immensely challenged by the natural foundation of composition and lighting. Al has an incredible eye and sense of nature and he is a great storyteller. Even if he didn’t know the answer to my question, he would make up a great story to fill the void. Eventually, he asked how much I wanted to get paid. It was a sign that he was beginning to feel that paying me would gain him some peace on the project. Towards the end of the project, I was paid and my questions started to turn into actions as he let me from time to time shoot on the project.

Did underwater photography lead you to the spot where you are today?
Without a doubt, yes. There is a picture in my office of me at ten years old machining a part for an underwater still camera housing. My dad worked on the housings for The Deep and other underwater films and I knew at the age of ten the ability to build your own kit and then use it to create images was a path I wanted to take. Little did I know that the desire would be fulfilled bringing back some of the most challenging images in 3D at depths over three miles deep.

How did PACE get started?
When Jim Cameron and I got together to discuss working on a 3D camera, PACE - the company and team that I’d built over the years - was already successful. PACE is a collective of talents under one roof. Some people compare us to Panavision, others still think of PACE as the underwater go-to place, but neither are accurate assessments. The core foundation of PACE is two individuals, Patrick Campbell and myself. Patrick has a Masters Degree from Stanford and I have been building specialty equipment and shooting images since the age of ten. That combination has grown into a team of people who collectively work together to innovate the world of entertainment. As the company has grown over the years, we have been fortunate enough to work on many 3D projects, but also many 2D projects as well. Crank, Speed Racer, Game, and Public Enemy were PACE supported projects.

How do you think that 3D will affect cinematographers and other members of the crew?
This is an exciting time for all of us, and there is a real opportunity to add new and creative tools to cinematographer’s creations. 3D forces you to be at the top of your game in 2D before venturing out to embrace the extra level of creativity in 3D. In animation, 3D experts are needed to define a direction for the infinitely variable pallet they have.

In live action, 3D must transition to the cinematographer as an additional tool, and the crew must be allowed to embrace the medium as well. In my book, if someone shows up on set with a white coat and a 3D patch on it, shoot him. That doesn’t inspire creativity. The act of 3D is VERY rooted in 2D. If you have a creative cinematographer and an experienced crew, you have the right ingredients to migrate to 3D. Now remember, the migration should stampede and trample the guy who says he knows it all in 3D. This is the new 3D remember?

Let’s define the path by what we see, not what we say. The complement of digital and 3D is witnessed in capture and exhibition. Embrace it and any good artist can navigate the waters of 3D.

How do you see the fundamental process changing?
I think that there will be a merger that takes the conversion process and live action process and finds a happy medium. Neither is a cure all for 3D production. The best approach is to try and identify shots in a project that are best served by live action capture, and which ones, due to difficulty, are best suited for conversion from 2D. Live action, although some would argue there is a loss of control or the equipment costs are higher, is a natural form of 3D capture where everything is shot in its right place. Computers live and breathe in a 3D world and the assets generated go far beyond the limitations of a live action shot. I honestly believe that we will see both areas of development improve to the where you will shoot 3D as quickly and as seamlessly as you currently do 2D. The only difference is the cost involved will incrementally increase to roughly fifteen percent.

How will this creative crew catch up and learn?
I hope PACE can play a leadership role in making that happen. With almost forty cameras in 3D and editorial and post solutions in house, we are very aware that the industry needs to learn what the tools are capable of. PACE has lead the charge in capturing significant events in 3D from the U23D project, through live NBA All Star and Finals, to major motion pictures. It is now extremely important to educate the industry and dispel some of incorrect assumptions about the equipment and the process. There are a lot of misconceptions in the 3D community regarding number of cameras, whose camera does what function, why one function is better than the other, etc. I think I’m known as a “put up or shut up” person who doesn’t get caught up with the brochure of the month. PACE and I have been fortunate enough to be called upon to deliver both personally and corporately on many of the game-changing 3D projects in the last eight years.

3D will be driven to the next level by the same artists and crew that are currently contributing to great 2D films. It won’t be created by people who think that the time for 3D has finally come. Until now, PACE has kept a tight hold on its innovations and technology and that philosophy allowed us to build an infrastructure that works. But now it’s time to open it up to the people who want to make the transition. It’s exciting for me to do that, because they will bring the ideas and questions that will take 3D to the next level it needs to get to.

How does 3D production become the standard in production, and not a niche market?
There is a risk that the market goes too quickly and terms like “commercially acceptable” are used as guidelines. Every project we undertake triggers more development and improvement. Beware of the “brochure selling” of 3D where magical solutions to every challenge are offered. The rollout of 3D needs to blow people away. Anything less, such as “commercially acceptable” is a cop out for 3D and will forever keep it in the niche market. If the medium for 3D is not quite commercially ready, we must have the strength to say so and wait until development catches up with quality. Amortization of the added 3D cost must be realized over a platform that maintains an immersive experience. If the delivery method fails to immerse the viewer, we are forcing 3D back in time.

Can you talk at all about the film projects you are involved in at the moment or the recent past with James Cameron? (“Avatar,” “The Dive”)
I continue to work with Jim on Avatar (I think I still am on his good side.) I have been fortunate to be included in the inner circle where you sign a blood oath to withhold any details. I was there during the grueling days of Titanic. I was also with Jim eight years ago when the mere mention of doing a project in 3D was considered an indication you were close to falling off the deep end professionally.

But, all joking aside, the greatest strength of Avatar is the story. I honestly wish that Jim would crank out project after project as a director but the simple fact is he knows how important the story is to a film and instead of taking the easy road, shooting in 3D, he will turn this into a blockbuster. Jim is working harder than I have ever seen him work to make this film work on the most important level, the story. When you see it, it will be unlike any other theatrical experience you’ve seen before.

What are the most exciting things that you think are headed towards the audience?
A number of theatrical releases are coming down the pipeline in 3D. The new animation products are only getting better and more immersive and they are ahead of the curve in 3D. I had a great time working with David Ellis, Glen McPherson and the crew for Final Destination IV.I believe that viewers will take notice of the difference in watching something in 3D compared to the 2D experience. Avatar, Monsters and Aliens, Jonas Brothers, Final Destination IV, need I say more?

What do you consider the greatest hurdles are in the adoption of 3D?
Maintaining an entertainment level that keeps the viewer engaged. If we fail to do that for whatever reason, we might not have the chance to convince the viewer there is a difference in the new 3D presentation once again.

How about 3D for the home?
This is coming faster than expected. Although some of the earlier television sets released for the home are targeting the gaming community, I have seen positive progress in the last year with sets more designed for feature based home entertainment.

Are there certain types of projects that are well suited to 3D, and some that are not?
This is the glass ceiling of 3D that must be broken. A good 2D product is the only requirement for a good 3D product. People get so caught up in the thinking that 3D must have a 3D need. Remember, we witness life in 3D. Do we ever want to witness life by covering one eye? I consider that a myth to be broken. Entertainment should follow the same track as the human experience and the technology must make the bridge to immerse the viewer into a real life experience.

Do you think that more and more projects will be shot in 3D, even if there is not a 3D delivery?
There is a trend to start future-proofing a project shot in live action 3D. With the potential for home delivery changing in the next five years to 3D, putting away a 3D home copy could be a chance to reap future benefits from the project.

Why is the Hannah Montana project a great 3D “success” story?
A lot of credit goes to the folks at Disney for strategizing the Hannah project so well. There was a notion that it was a project developed in reaction to her success. But, in fact, discussions were being conducted a year prior based on our live feed for the All Star Game. We didn’t know who or when, but we did know we could pull off a project in a short time frame. Organizing a crew to shoot seven cameras in one night in a make or break situation is not for the faint of heart. But the team was awesome and everyone involved should be proud of the effort. We had our own Super Bowl game being played out on the concert field and it was successful. Quantel and Fotokem did a great job on the project. It was a real team of great professional people.

Miley Cyrus, and now The Jonas Brothers -- do you think that by bringing in these young Disney superstars, we are growing a generation of young 3D fans?
3D done right can make everyone a fan. I remember when my Mom and Dad watched Ghosts of the Abyss for the first time in 3D. They had heard my exploits at the dinner table for years and it was just that, conversation. They saw my shows on television and complimented me on a fine show. But when they saw the 3D version, my mom came up to me afterwards and said, “Your dad and I don’t want you diving in those subs anymore.” She is 72 and for the first time it hit her how dangerous the job really was. 3D crossed that bridge. I honestly believe that if we do this right, the generation of fans will be young and old.

Can you put on your future glasses and tell us where you think this is headed? What do you we will be in terms of production and viewing in 5 years? 10 years?
In five years, top home entertainment systems will have 3D completely down. Then, there will be the person down the block with a cool, new 3D system dialed in and showing entertainment content. All features will consider 3D and half will make the decision to shoot in 3D. All animation will be 3D and the tools will be shockingly good. Theaters will just begin to consider higher frame rates for exhibition.

In ten years, the guy on the block from five years ago will have a system too big and too crude for the present standard of 3D. For a competitive price at Best Buy, sixty percent of the homes on that block will have some form of 3D capability. In the theater, higher frame rates will be the norm and the line between real and created will be blurred. People will seek professional help as films take them on a visual journey that comes so close to being real they will have difficulties distancing themselves from the experience. Entertainment as we know it now will not exist, categorized like an 8 track is today. Our favorite films are being re-mastered in Brand X 3D. Complaints will be rampant as viewers ask themselves, “don’t tell me they are remaking Lord of the Rings in 3D. Can’t they come up with something original!”

So basically, nothing will change. We will still want to be the ones with the best entertainment on the block. We will seek out feature presentations because they are the closest thing to reality. And our hunger for new and exciting entertainment will continue.

By Christine Purse, High Def Expo