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Immersed in the story

With a range of projects continuing to expand the possibilities of 3D, John Hazelton explores the front runners for awards recognition.

It started in 2010, when Avatar and Up got 14 Academy Award nominations between them and were both in the running for the best picture Oscar. A year later, Toy Story 3 was up for the big award (as well as four others) and earlier this year Hugo amassed 11 nominations, including one for best picture.

The run of awards attention for 3D films appears to be a response to a new level of ambition from film-makers using the rejuvenated format. And there is certainly plenty of technological and creative ambition on display in the stereoscopic films that could be in awards contention — and might even have another best picture nominee among them — this year.

In the world of computer animation, 3D is now almost a given, since computer animated films are essentially made in three dimensions anyway and shots can be broken out to work for 3D glasses with relative ease.

So the bigger task for the makers of this year’s crop of 3D CG animations — among them Pixar’s Brave, Laika’s ParaNorman, Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph — was to refine the use of the format from a creative standpoint.

In animation, says Wreck-It Ralph producer Clark Spencer, 3D is “a little more mature than it is in live action”. But, he adds: “I still think we’re trying to figure out how to do it as elegantly as possible to help the storytelling.”

The makers of Wreck-It Ralph worked closely with Disney’s resident stereoscopic supervisor Robert Neuman, who, says Spencer, “really understands that 3D should be done from a storytelling standpoint as opposed to a gimmick standpoint. The audience wants to be immersed into a world — they don’t want to spend time being taken out of the movie by having things always jumping out at them from the screen.”

The work on the film’s ‘depth script’ resulted in deploying less stereoscopic depth in the emotional scenes and gradually increasing the depth as Ralph, an old-school video-game villain, ventures into more and more advanced games.

“Those are the big action scenes where you can really enjoy the depth,” says Spencer, “because it’s not as character-driven, it’s more about enjoying that environment.”

In the live action arena there are more options for employing 3D and more variations in technology and creative approach.

After effects

Converting a film into 3D after shooting in 2D is a move that sometimes draws criticism, but it is an option that some film-makers still prefer to take and one that can lead to impressive work.

Disney’s Marvel Studios, for example, converts most of its films (working with specialist company Stereo D) and on this year’s Marvel’s The Avengers it was reportedly director Joss Whedon who opted to shoot in 2D to give himself more freedom of movement on set.

The Avengers executive producer Victoria Alonso (also Marvel’s EVP of visual effects and post production) says advances in conversion technology are “like the sharpening of a knife. Before, it took an incredible amount of time and it was sort of sharp. Now it takes half the time and the precision is remarkable.”

Live action film-makers who choose to actually shoot in 3D face more technological challenges but sometimes find that the creative benefits are worth it.

With Fox’s Life Of Pi, says director Ang Lee in the film’s production notes, “I wanted the experience of the film to be as unique as Yann Martel’s book [the basis for David Magee’s screenplay] and that meant creating the film in another dimension. 3D is a new cinematic language and in Life Of Pi it’s just as much about immersing audiences in the characters’ emotional space as it is about the epic scale and adventure.”

Lee ended up delivering impressive 3D scenes including a massive sea storm, an hallucinatory dive into the ocean and a frightening animal fight. In 2D, Lee noted at a recent Bafta event, the latter would have been “a very different scene. You wouldn’t feel you are in the middle of a fight.”

In the cases of two recent 3D films, meeting the technological challenges led directly to the creative benefits.

On Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man, the film-makers wanted to use 3D not just to boost the excitement during action scenes but also to increase the intimacy during emotional moments.

The film was the first to shoot in 3D using Red Epic digital cameras mounted on the latest rigs from equipment company 3ality. With their larger format sensors, the cameras made it easier to align the two optical paths used in native 3D photography. And the rigs’ feedback system for monitoring optical path alignment helped speed up the shooting process.

But the big advantage, according to Rob Engle, 3D visual effects supervisor at Sony Imageworks, which did most of the film’s effects work, was that the equipment allowed the film-makers almost as much ease of movement as they would have had shooting in 2D.

“3D rigs are getting smaller and smaller and thus are able to mimic some of the fluidity that we had [before 3D],” Engle says. “Because the rigs are lighter the camera people can move the cameras a lot more easily and thus the actors can be a lot more free in their movements.”

On Warner’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the film-makers were also using Red Epic cameras and 3ality rigs — 48 cameras on 17 rigs, to be precise — but their task was complicated by the fact that the film was shot at 48 frames per second rather than the traditional 24.

The equipment set-up allowed director Peter Jackson and his crew to monitor and adjust the 3D effect while they were shooting a scene and also, by mounting a pair of cameras on a hand-held rig, to shoot in the tight spaces of the film’s Hobbit-size sets.

“Mobile camera work has always been very important for the films that I’ve made,” says Jackson in one of his video blogs from the New Zealand set of The Hobbit, “and the last thing I wanted to do when we went to 3D was to restrict or change the shooting style.”

Combining the higher image resolution of 48fps with 3D, Jackson goes on, enhanced the impact of scenes such as the film’s almost psychedelic excursion into the story’s Mirkwood forest: “Once you add stereo and it gives you that extra ability to control depth you can devise ways in which it can become part of the storytelling of the film.”

The enthusiasm of US audiences for 3D films appears recently to have dipped: whereas Avatar earned 83% of its domestic gross from 3D screenings only 32% of the opening weekend audience for this summer’s Brave, for example, chose to pay a premium to see the film in an extra dimension.

But audiences outside the US are still flocking to 3D screenings and the international demand looks strong enough to keep the Hollywood studios investing in stereoscopic projects and technology.

The investment could lead to a wider range of 3D films being produced, which in turn could pique the interest of awards voters, who appear to be increasingly receptive to the format, especially when it is adopted by prestigious film-makers in the service of artistically ambitious films.

And if the voters’ interest is maintained it might not be long before Hollywood welcomes its first 3D best picture Oscar winner.

An added dimension

Innovating with 3D was a key discussion point at Belgium’s recent 3D Stereo Media event. Ian Sandwell reports

“We are at an absolutely critical juncture now where there needs to be support if the 3D medium is to be taken seriously as a mass medium,” Anthony Geffen, CEO and executive producer of UK-based factual production
company Atlantic Productions, told Screen at the 3D Stereo Media (3DSM), which ran Dec 3-6 in Liege, Belgium. “What we desperately need is a lot of very innovative films showing why 3D is unique.”

Holding its fourth edition in 2012, 3DSM is organised by Image&3D Europe and attracted a range of 3D experts. These included Chuck Comisky of Chromium Labs 3D, who was one of the keynote speakers alongside the likes of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Robert Neuman, and True Image Company’s Buzz Hays. Comisky, who worked with James Cameron on films such as Ghosts Of The Abyss and Avatar, spoke of considering 3D right from the origin of a production. “Even if a production is going to know in advance that they’re going to convert, they should shoot that 2D picture with the 3D in mind,” Comisky noted. “It really depends on composition, lighting and myriad other things. If you’re going to make a photographically good movie, it’s probably going to work in 3D.”

Alongside the decline in 3D box office, 3D film-makers have some notable obstacles in their way. “The future depends on the technology. My DoP always says this is still a science project: the technology is not quite there yet to be able to make it transparent,” said Ben Stassen, founder of nWave and director of projects such as A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures and the upcoming African Safari 3D, which received its world premiere at 3DSM.

This year saw the second edition of 3DSM’s 3D Film Mart, with 20 projects pitched in contention for the $3,899 (€3,000) prize. Italy-France co-production Calcio Storico, from Cow Prod (which also screened Ride & Fly at this year’s 3DSM, a project that was pitched at last year’s market), scooped the top award. “We want to have a good overall energy around this market and we want people to know that here, you can find your partners because you have the support of the right people to help you develop your movie,” said Pierre Collin, executive manager of TWIST, a co-organiser of the market alongside peacefulfish.

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