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Mon 16 Aug 2010 04:00 AM

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Decent on a budget

With debates raging in Hollywood about the cost of 3D and the merits of post-production conversion, how can local production houses expect to get in on the action? Technology expert Clyde DeSouza shares some top tips and explains why producing mind-blowing 3D needn't blow your budget.

Decent on a budget
Pre-visualisation can be done with high-end consumer cameras.
Decent on a budget
Panasonic’s AG-3DA1 avoids the bulk of current 3D camera systems, and is good enough for adverts and indie shoots.

With debates raging in Hollywood about the cost of 3D and the merits of post-production conversion, how can local production houses expect to get in on the action? Technology expert Clyde DeSouza shares some top tips and explains why producing mind-blowing 3D needn't blow your budget.

While many in the industry have been patting themselves on the back following the recent success of 3D films, the format is still immature. Conversion of 2D material in post-production has divided the industry. Avatar director and 3D guru James Cameron has criticised conversions, accusing them of introducing "inferior product" to the market and devaluing the format.

"There are some people who are advocating filming everything in 2D and converting it in post. As a result there have been a few disasters," says Clyde DeSouza, technology advisor and partner at RealVision, a local production hoise. "If that is your intention from the outset, it still makes sense to plan the movie with 3D in mind. That means bringing in a stereographer."

According to DeSouza, the role of the stereographer is not to supersede the director of photography (DoP) or to red-light all the director's ideas, but rather to reconcile the problems that shooting for 3D can create for each in their respective roles.

"If you have two scenes following each other and the first is a close up and the second, for example, is of a door opening at the far end of a room, it will completely fail in 3D. The depth jump throws the audiences focus back into the screen, which can be uncomfortable.

"If you have a stereographer on board at the storyboarding stage - which is ideal - they can draw attention to these issues then. This saves a lot of time on location. If the stereographer does not become involved until the shoot has begun they can still prevent mistakes from causing re-shoots," claims DeSouza.

Failing either of these options, DeSouza says the third and final opportunity for stereographers to make their mark is during post-production. However, by this stage, time - and money - could already have been wasted. With this new yet crucial position comes a great deal of responsibility, so just what areas of expertise are stereographers emerging from and what exactly are the limits of their role?

"The ideal stereographer would be comfortable with the technical aspects of the camera like a DoP, as well as having some knowledge of direction. They need to be able to connect the DoP and the director and make sure they are speaking the same language when it comes to 3D," says DeSouza. "Soon enough, the stereographer's role could be reduced as DoPs understand the technology better and director's begin to realise what can and cannot be done in 3D. For now, the stereographer is the glue between the two," he claims.

The next decision to make could be which camera to use. Unfortunately, this assessment is not a straightforward one, with different systems providing varying benefits.

"I think there is a big opportunity for camera manufacturers to produce smaller cameras. Ideally you want the distance between the centres of the lenses to be the same as the distance between two eyes. The reason why a large rig is required at present is because you cannot physically put two cameras side by side. If you put any mainstream cameras side by side, you will get a much bigger distance," explains DeSouza.

"To get this distance closer together, a two way mirror is used. One camera shoots the scene and the other camera shoots a reflection of that same scene viewed from a slightly different perspective. That is why the rig is so large, there are harnesses, two cameras and the mirror, which must be absolutely stable. The size and weight of the rig limits what you can do in terms of acrobatics and so on. There are things that only a mirror rig can do, but how do you film inside a moving car using one?"

And this is where alternatives must be considered. The dual-lens 3D camera produced by Panasonic is one such alternative, according to DeSouza.

"The Panasonic camera is a different approach; they have put the two lenses together. It can recreate depth of about 10-15m. The sensors used are mid-range though, not yet at a quality high enough for the movie industry, but suitable for small indie productions and for adverts."

In order to recreate 3D images of wide shots with no object in the foreground, DeSouza says the distance between the centre of each lens must be drastically increased.

What is pre-visualisation?

Pre-visualisation can be conducted using two ‘prosumer’ camcorders shown in the circular mount (pictured). Because these are not gen locked, they are limited to recording 3D in bursts of two minutes. This new technique has drastically reduced the cost of stereo 3D pre-viz. The purpose of pre-viz is to determine what shots can be conducted in 3D without creating undesirable side effects for those watching. It can also allow the director to assess which framing works best for a particular shoot. The pre-viz clips can also be used in pre-production to show proof of concept or to encourage investment in a project.

"Another good option is to use two SI-2K cameras. They can be used side-to-side and if you need to separate them for a wide shot, you have that choice. You can't do that at all with a dual lens camera and a mirror rig will only allow separation to be increased to around ten, perhaps 15, inches. In reality, you need to use a combination of cameras," says DeSouza.

So what obstacles lie in the path of a production house looking to equip itself with 3D infrastructure?

"The cameras used by most of the production houses at the moment are sufficient, what is missing is the rig itself. Acquiring one could involve buying the mirror and the gen lock box [to sync the pair of cameras] and having the rest machined together as per your own specifications," says DeSouza.

"Everyone will tell you 3D is very expensive to do; that is not as true now as it was previously. In the last two years, the cost has come down. Almost monthly, a new product comes out that makes the process more affordable. You can get a camera with a gen lock for around US $8000. Creative Suite 5 has a non-linear editor that can handle work in realtime. So indie houses can go and produce a 3D movie without having to think it is going to blow their budget. There are small affordable 3D screens for colour grading and very cheap 3D projectors - less than $1000 - for watching material back."

There is one money-saving route that DeSouza says must be avoided, however.

"People will be tempted at the moment to shoot video for 3D using DSLRs, which give you great depth of field, but there is no way to gen lock them so everything you shoot will be out of sync. The temptation is to use an audio clapboard and to try to sync it in post. You might be able to get the frames in sync, but you can't get the scanning of the lines to precisely match. What that means in real terms is that any movement on screen will be out of sync and will create a strobe-like effect. This can cause headaches - and worse - for audiences," he says.

Overall, the advice from DeSouza is consistent. 3D should not be an afterthought. Conversion is not necessarily a bad thing, but the industry needs to realise that conversion alone is not enough to produce acceptable visual results and due care and attention must be taken throughout the process.

"The key is to think in 3D. Do some pre-visualisation to show you can get it right when you get on set. Plan each shot with 3D in mind," says DeSouza.

As for the local industry, the initial opportunities for 3D are less ambitious than full length features, but the incentives for production houses to get involved are very real.

"There is an opportunity for the production of adverts in 3D in the Middle East. When you go to the cinema to see a 3D movie, you are sitting there with your glasses on and the ads are still playing in 2D. You couldn't really have a more captive audience, it's a missed opportunity," claims DeSouza.

"The people who are missing out on 3D at the moment aren't the moviemakers; it's the advertisers and the creative agencies. They need to play catch-up now and think about how to create compelling adverts in 3D."

In the short-term, DeSouza would like to see an increase in the number of educational and training initiatives in the region in order to wean the industry off its current dependence on international expertise.

"There needs to be more education for 3D production in this region. The training institutes need to start offering 3D courses and teaching stereography."

Until this happens, the Middle East production industry is likely to remain two-dimensional.

Top five tips for 3D production

1. Never film un-synched 3D “You need it ensure the cameras are gen locked. It’s not enough to try and sync them in post. You can match the frames that way but not the scanning lines,” says DeSouza, adding that this can lead to a strobing effect on the finished material, particularly if filming motion.

2. Adapt to the right camera If the camera you are using can not adequately support the intended shot, one of the two has to change. If the right camera is not available, switch the shot. Don’t try to force it.

3. Do a round of pre-visualisation Conducting pre-visualisation on proposed locations can highlight the limitations of a particular shot. This can save time when filming or can help to rule out certain shots and locations altogether.

4. Use a stereographer Better still, involve a stereographer at the earliest stage possible. Why have them tell you a shot isn’t going to work once you are on location if they could have told you during pre-production.

5. Don’t break the bank, there’s no need 3D equipment doesn’t need to cost the earth and much of the infrastructure already available to you could well cover most of your requirements. There’s no need for heavy investment in specialist kit.