The VES Bay Area Section of the Visual Effects Society (VES) presented a panel on “Exploring 3D Stereo Dos and Don’ts” during an industry party that drew over 400 people and was hosted by The Kerner Group at Kerner’s San Rafael Studios.
Panelists included Art Repola, executive vp, visual effects and production, Walt Disney Studios; John Knoll, visual effects supervisor, ILM; John Nicolard, head of digital production, Fotokem; and Bob Whitehill, stereo supervisor, Pixar. Kerner’s CEO, Eric Edmeades, served as moderator.

First, the panelists made sure all attendees understood the terminology. “Interocular means the distance between your eyes,” said Nicolard. “Even if you’re watching the best movie ever made, if your eyes have to keep toeing in back and forth, you’ll get a headache and feel cranky. One of the keys in 3D post-production is making sure that doesn’t happen. Convergence is about where your eye is focusing. It’s important for us to draw your eye to where it would be most comfortable for the viewer.

Whitehill added that humans have two muscular systems in the eyes. “We converge our eyes at different points during daily life, and we’re also focusing at a certain depth away from us,” he said. “When watching a 3D movie, we’re dislodging those two systems. This separation can cause eye fatigue, and if that’s done to too great of a degree, or to a smaller degree over a long period of time, that will create eyestrain. We need to make our 3D choices keeping in mind how those muscular systems work together.”

He noted the artistic use of 3D in Up. “We took the 3D of young Carl and Ellie deeper and deeper as they experienced their young lives together,” he said. “After she died, we took the 3D down. Then, as Carl went on his adventure with Russell, we slowly brought the 3D back up again.” He stressed that “once all the hype of 3D dies down,” filmmakers will learn to use it as a choice, like lighting, costume or set design or a score. “It’s something that can be used if it will enhance the film and make it a deeper emotional experience for the viewer,” he said.

John Knoll enumerated the issues when comping 2D, 3D, and CG together. “The match-moving has to be done very accurately, because you can see very small errors in depth,” he said. “Match-moves in 3D have to be done with a much higher degree of precision.” Whitehill noted that when 3D first came up as a medium for Pixar movies, “it was met with hesitation and skepticism at first. We’ve worked so hard to make every one of our 11 films as good as possible,” he said. “Did we really even need 3D?” He went on to say that the company creatives studied 3D to learn how to make a 3D film that “was easy to watch so it didn’t interfere or distract from the movie-going experience, but also made it rewarding and dimensional, and make people want to experience it in this new way. We had to find a sweet spot between a new, novel experience, and one that’s comfortable and familiar for our audience,” he said. In Toy Story 3, they did a 3D polish on 5 percent of the film. “We broadened the depth of field on some shots, moved cameras to frame certain objects, removed distracting foreground objects and so on,” he said. “The film was conceived and edited as a 2D film, but we made these changes for 3D.”

Disney’s Repola said that “3D production is a very creative process. The post-production schedule can also determine 2D versus 3D,” he said. “If you have a long time to do a conversion properly then there is a choice you can  make. On Pirates 4, we had a 21-week post-production schedule. We shot that film in 3D because we’d never have a chance to convert it to 3D within our post schedule.” He also urged listeners to take the time to decide where they want to set the convergence. “This takes extra time on the set, but it’s important to do,” he said.

“We constantly struggle to answer the question: what’s the cost factor between a 2D and 3D shoot?,” continued Repola. “What’s hard to quantify is the time it takes on the set. Instead of 2D, where the director concentrates on the performances, lighting, blocking, etc., for 3D he has to add another factor—is the 3D working? Are the cameras parallel? Are they lined up properly? Some directors don’t have the patience for this process. There are a multitude of factors that have to be addressed, and some directors don’t want to have to deal with a lot of extra considerations.”

Nicolard noted that the ability to “fix it in post” for 3D has grown with new software. “We recently had a shot on a film that the editor cut in 2D,” he said. “For its 3D version, we had to roto out the performers, use the plate as a 2D plate and then move the performers back and forth, to create a fake 3D shot.”

Knoll stated that it’s a misconception that big vistas are where 3D most pays off. “It’s really the opposite,” he said. “James Cameron says that 3D is best for intimate dramas, when the camera feels closer to the characters. Stereo depends on a broad depth of space, with some objects close to camera and others a little further away. A big wide shot doesn’t show a lot of depth. A lot of shots on Star Wars: Episode One, which we are converting now to 3D, were big vistas, spectacular shots—and by their very nature, we won’t see a lot of depth in the 3D version. The depth will play better in shots where the characters are prominent and closer.”

The topic of 2D-to-3D conversion came up. “If you take the time to do 2D-to-3D right, and do it as an artistic process, conversion can be quite remarkable,” said Repola. “It will never look as good as it would if it was originally shot in stereo, of course, but it can still be pretty damn good if you take the time. Keep in mind, the emotion of a scene and the telling of the story must be kept uppermost in mind as the most important elements of the film. We’re all still writing the conversion language today.”

All panelists agreed that stereo 3D could be used for artistic purposes—or not. “If you treat stereo like a gimmick, then it’s a gimmick, like in Piranha 3D,” said Knoll. “Whenever a new technology is introduced, there’s an initial moment of naïve enthusiasm, but it will usually get abused in a faddish kind of way. Once the novelty wears off, though, if the technology has actually survived this phase, it will take its appropriate place within the filmmakers’ tool set. 3D offers a truly immersive experience, and a powerful sense of presence.”