Adventures in directing digital 3D

Digital 3D has radically changed the viewing experience. It has also changed how that experience gets produced. For anyone planning to enter the new realm, here are a few hard-won lessons from the frontlines, courtesy of James Stewart, founder of Toronto-based Geneva Film Co.
June 23, 2010

Digital 3D has radically changed the viewing experience. It has also changed how that experience gets produced – particularly from a technical and creative point of view. For anyone planning to enter the new realm, here are a few hard-won lessons from the frontlines.

In 2004, I was given the opportunity to produce one of the first digital 3D projects in the world – a product launch film for a large automotive manufacturer. Back in those dark days, there were no digital 3D cameras, no digital 3D editing suites, no digital 3D anything.
We built a custom rig with the help of a company that would later become 3ality Digital. We had a ‘video village’ following us everywhere, swapping lenses in and out – there was no zoom capability – and keeping them aligned. We piled up the air miles flying to Los Angeles and used a 3D demo suite at a start-up called Real D. All in all, it was a lot of trial and error, but the audience reaction when it played on a 50-foot screen was an enthusiastic two thumbs-up.

In the intervening five years, the industry has accelerated at an unbelievable pace. In the last six months, 3D TV went from ‘It’s coming’ to ‘It’s here.’ At the recent NAB Show in Las Vegas, I saw myriad 3D camera rigs, 3D monitors for professional use and mobile trucks specially designed to shoot live-action events in 3D.
The upshot is, even with all of the much-needed technological advances, the art and science of producing and directing a 3D shoot is still in its infancy – rife with experimentation, open to interpretation, filled with challenges and the joy of problem solving. Along the way, a number of rules – which, as always, are meant to be broken – have begun to manifest themselves.

Setting a depth budget
One of the first decisions that needs to be made is how much 3D to employ. More specifically, how much 3D should take place in front of the screen (negative parallax) versus how much 3D do you want behind the screen (positive parallax). Then, stay within your budget as you block out the script.
The new school of 3D preaches an immersive experience. Avatar is a big reason for this. The movie’s restrained use of 3D as one more storytelling device allowed the story itself to take center stage and confines talk of the technological achievement to the background. In addition, negative parallax effects demand more work from your audiences’ eyes.
I set my depth budget based on the type of story and the audience. Kids, for example, love to dodge stuff that’s flying off the screen. Music videos can be more in your face, getting you up close to your favorite rock star. Think of those moments in U2 3D when Bono leans out into or reaches out to the audience. Movies – with the exception of horror films – tend to be immersive, inviting the audience into the scene. 3D is another storytelling device – so let the story tell you how best to use it.

Planning the shooting script
The next step is to plan and design each shot. 3D is driven far more by visual richness than 2D. Shots are still designed with framing and subject in mind, but now they must take into account factors like spatial distribution and depth.
Since there’s more to the screen, audiences take in more detail and art direction takes on an elevated importance. Objects, for example, can’t just be window dressing. Everything needs to be carefully considered and placed, especially near the frame edge – touching the edge breaks the 3D illusion. And you can’t fake depth. Forced perspective simply doesn’t work in 3D. If there’s a set window with a backdrop skyline visible through it, that skyline needs to have real depth. If not, the audience will know.
The audience also has a different relationship with the screen, and a far more active moviegoing experience than in 2D productions – especially on an IMAX scale. Eyes are constantly traveling around the screen, taking in objects and actions. And every seat in the house offers up a slightly different 3D experience. People in the front rows, for example, perceive less 3D than those in the back of the house. These types of details need to be taken into account in the planning process.

On the set
Once on location, 3D shooting imposes changes to the process not encountered in the 2D realm. The camera rig, for example, is generally larger and not so easy to manipulate. It’s often better to employ several camera systems for different applications – one for wide (Steadicam or crane shots), one for close-ups (dialogue and inserts). By default, additional crew is required. The bottom line: as a director, you have to adjust your speed to 3D.
Lighting also changes. Foreground, middle ground and background all take on more importance than with 2D. Like art direction, lighting should be approached as ‘layers.’ And you can’t knock things out of focus and just wing it. With 3D, you have to take the time to ensure that everything – EVERYTHING – looks just right. Lens flares, reflections, smoke and rain, all take on new life in 3D.

In the end, it’s not about 3D, it’s about the story. 3D is another storytelling device, just like lighting, editing, music, art direction and movement. The most important decision that needs to be made is how to use 3D to tell a better story. Get that right, and the audience will love you. *

James Stewart is one of a handful of directors worldwide working in 3D and is founder of Toronto-based Geneva Film Co. This past Tuesday, he presented a 3D workshop at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival. This article, edited for, originally appeared as part of a series called ‘Opinions and Observations from the 3rd Dimension’ which debuted in the May 24 edition of Playback.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.