By Gordon Meyer
Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of the International 3D Society at RealD’s screening room in Beverly Hills to catch a screening of the Sand & Sandal epic “Immortals,” which I had missed during its initial theatrical run.
Considering who was hosting the event, I erroneously assumed that “Immortals” was shot in native stereoscopic 3D to begin with. I was wrong. Although that was the original plan, it seems that the additional logistics involved in shooting 3D native were slowing down production considerably and the film’s director, Tarsem Singh Dandwar, likes to shoot fast. After a few days of shooting with 3D rigs, the delays led to the decision to abandon the 3D rigs, shoot conventionally and then convert.
While the conversion was farmed out to several companies, the lion’s share was done by Prime Focus World’s facilities in Hollywood and Mumbai. As an aside, this is the same company that handled the 3D conversion for “Star Wars Episode 1” that Lucasfilm and Fox released theatrically in February.
The discussion following the screening provided fascinating insights into the art and craft of 3D conversion. In spite of the fact that many home 3D flat panel displays offer real time 2D to 3D conversion, as do at least three Blu-ray player programs for PCs that I’m aware of, there’s a lot more to doing a successful conversion than simply applying a computer algorithm to automatically simulate a stereoscopic image.
For many, it begins with the decision as to whether to do a “two eye” or “one eye” conversion. With the latter, the digital technicians treat the existing footage as the left eye image and then extrapolate what would have been captured by the camera representing the right eye. For “two eye” conversions, the original footage is considered a composite center image (kind of like a ghost center audio channel when listening to two speaker stereo) and the technicians then extrapolate both left and right images from that center image, generally resulting in a more realistic final result. Whether it’s a single eye or dual eye conversion, background imagery that would otherwise be obscured by objects in the frame needs to be painted in, frame by frame.
One of the things that panelists from Prime Focus spoke of with pride was the way they digitally sculpted objects (especially characters) to give them dimensionality. I’ve seen a number of 3D conversions that reminded me of the old View Master slides we used to play with as kids. Sure, there was depth, but it was basically a series of flat images floating in front of each other. Digital sculpting technologies mean that, when you’re looking at a human face, for example, the stereoscopic image reveals the natural contours of the face.
Using just these examples, is it any wonder that 3D conversion can cost as $100,000 per minute or even more? For “Immortals,” making an educated guess using industry standard figures, that conversion added at least $11 million to the cost of making the film. Mind you, overall, the conversion was very well done, but mightn’t have looked and felt better to audiences had it been shot stereoscopically to begin with?
If you talk to 3D heavyweights like Jim Cameron or Michael Bay, there’s no question. If you’re going to present a movie in 3D, it’s always better to shoot it that way to begin with. But then you have filmmakers like Tarsem Singh and Tim Burton who shoot in 2D and then convert because they believe they have more flexibility with 2D cameras than with often cumbersome 3D rigs that have to accommodate two cameras.
During the post screening milling about in the lobby that so often accompanies these events, I casually polled several of the 3D experts present about Singh’s experience. They pretty much confirmed what I suspected to begin with. While there are more moving parts involved in 3D production than 2D, with proper preparation and planning, including a 3D savvy camera crew and seasoned stereographer, it’s absolutely possible to do a shoot in 3D almost as quickly as 2D. For some reason, I flashed back to my childhood and my time as a Boy Scout. Seems their motto is just as valuable now: “Be prepared.”