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American Cinematographer
June 1998

Encounter In The Third Dimension

by Kathleen Fairweather

Filmmaking via Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is a radical departure from the normal course of cinematography as it turns a pre-production oriented process almost entirely into a post-production event. NWave Pictures current large format, 70mm release, Encounter in The Third Dimension (E3-D) breaks fresh ground and more than a few rules to establish a new benchmark in virtual filmmaking and 3-D cinematography--but not without posing more than a few challenges for its' director, Ben Stassen.

Presenting the history and explanation of 3-D effects by utilizing a combination of live action, photography, and CGI, E3-D blends classic 3-D clips with the latest 3-D innovations. Stassen begins the 3-D lessons with early cave drawings, and the discovery of architectural perspective used by 16th century Renaissance artists. 300 years later, this same perspective was utilized by the inventor of the world's first stereoscopic viewer, Sir Charles Wheatstone. Stassen then introduces the cinematic stereography of the Lumiere Brothers and continues with the campy clips of 50's 3-D films such as Bwana Devil. Later sequences include modern theme park sequences and a Jules Verne-like cinematic thrill ride. This is all punctuated by intermittent appearances of Elvira whose visage is later featured inside hundreds of bubbles that seem to float right out into the audience.

While motion picture 3-D has been around for almost 100 years heralded by the two camera 35mm shoot of L'Arivee du Train by the French Lumiere Bros; the image capture process has evolved into a science. Unlike the technology available to the Lumiere Bros in those early days, the creation of computer fabricated images today allows filmmakers total control over the problems normally associated with the making of 3-D imagery: namely convergence, interocular distance and focus.

Charlotte Huggins, producer of E3D adds that they were also able to overcome another obstacle to large format 3-D filmmaking: the dearth and unavailability of 3-D large format cameras. "We made our film in this CGI manner because the tools available to us were inadequate for this project. According to Huggins, there are only two 3-D large format camera systems available and they weigh 450 pounds, and have no sync sound. These cameras are limited to 1000 ft loads (3 minutes) and have to be reloaded frequently. Plus, they can take as much as 30 minutes to reload. Additionally, it is very difficult to predict the interocular distance until the film is pre-viewed in dailies. Besides being noisy and distracting to the actors, the camera are also known to be unreliable and can have a 20% to 40% down time.

Stassen explains that with the use of CGI, there are more 3-D special effects jumping off the screen in E3D than all 10 of the other 3-D large format films combined. Stassen elaborates further on the production advantages. "What is novel about our film, is that we used the digital technology as a production tool. The computer became our virtual studio and the entire production process was influenced by it, not only technically but creatively and financially as well."

"Instead of trying to bring a conventional dramatic story to the screen and failing at it because of lack of appropriate financial resources, the inadequacy of the production tools, and the challenge of mastering this exciting new language of cinema, I set out to create a film that would break new ground in the use of the digital technology."

The entire set was created on a desktop computer graphics workstation at a digital studio. The animators first created polygonal wire frame models and then added various texture maps and lighting in a typical computer graphics process. Stassen details, "We had to design the virtual sets before shooting the live action, but unfortunately for budgetary reasons we did not get a chance to do any tests for this film. To do a test in a digital production cost almost as much as the real thing. Therefore our philosophy was to go for it without any testing. This was really nerve racking."

If the entire set was virtual, how were the actors incorporated into the 3-D frames? Stassen reveals how the production of a digital film like E3D is so radically different from that of a live action film. "We used our computer graphic workstations as a virtual studio. All of the sets and environments were created in the computer while the actors were shot in front of a green screen."

"In order to do this we first had to design all the sets, breakdown all the camera angles and determine the exact virtual camera position to the inch in order to be able to duplicate the set-up on the live action stage. In other words, we had to pre-determine the physical distance of our digital camera from the subject, the height of the camera from the ground and the angle and the lens."

"Once in the green screen studio we had to re-create the exact same conditions. The accuracy of the whole process is extremely critical in 3-D. The live action elements are not simply integrated over a 2-D background, the actors have to be positioned in space. The smallest mistake and the 3-D effect does not work."

This type of placement is similar to challenges met before in films like Mary Poppins, Roger Rabbit, and Tron that placed actors in the same frame with synthetic elements that were to be added later in post production. However, in this film the entire green screen is than replaced by the virtual 3-D set and effects. Stassen and his animators had to fit the actors precisely within the virtual set and at the same time accommodate the 3-D scope.

"It is extremely difficult to direct an entire film like this. You have to edit the entire film in your head before you shoot the live action. Once a decision is made as to were the camera will be place and what lens to used, you are stuck with it. You cannot re-stage the scene as you go."

Stassen reviews the trials of this process, "One of the biggest challenges to this kind of picture was viewing the dailies. We could only see them screened in large format 3-D to make sure the effect worked. I also had to learn how to read it from the computer screen. Sometimes we'd think we had a 3-D effect, and would discover later that the image was flat. We could only see this on the big screen." Huggins adds, "That meant sometimes driving from Los Angeles 30 miles to Ontario at midnight through the pouring rain to look at 5 seconds worth of footage. Ben was also flying back and forth from Belgium to look at the dailies.

Stassen elaborates further on the difficulties of this methodology," One of the challenges of digital production is that it is a very slow process. By the time the creative work is done on a particular scene it can take days and sometime weeks to complete the rendering and the final compositing of the various layers. It will take several more days of film recording. Furthermore, at $750 minimum per screening, we cannot afford to screen dailies everyday. I came up with a very rigid structure. First I planned the film on a spread sheet--Excel to be exact Once the plan was done, it was locked in."

"We started the production in October 1997. The first two months were spent designing the sets and breaking down all the camera angles. Then in early December we shot the live action on a stage in Los Angeles. From January to August 1998, 12 animators, one system operator and one film recorder specialist worked at breakneck speed to integrate the live action in the virtual set and to do an incredible amount of CGI animation."

With that kind of intensity, mistakes are bound to happen in the rendering of 3-D effects yet Stassen only had to re-shoot a single segment of a shot. He acknowledges that there are a few little glitches in the film that because of financial constraints, were not corrected. According to Stassen, correcting all of the little problems would have easily increased the $6 million budget by 50%. He explains that, "Corrections are not necessarily labor intensive, but they require the re-rendering of the entire sequence and re-compositing of all of the layers."

He also adds that it is very stressful to be both the director of the film and the CEO of the production company. "As the director, I want to strive for perfection, as the CEO I have to keep an eye on the purse. What is reassuring, however, is that the viewing of a large format 3-D film can be such an overwhelming experience that few people even notice any technical glitches."

Stassen breaks down the type of hardware involved in this process: "We used Silicon Graphics (mostly Octane with R10,000 processors. On the software side they used Alias Wavefront, Explore, Dynamation and the Wavefront composer--most of which were problem-free. Stassen discovered a few limitations however, "One scene was done with the new Maya software (also Alias Wavefront). It turned into a nightmare. Most new software packages, while they work well for feature film applications, are not adapted for the very high resolution manipulations (+2K resolution) at first.--they are full of bugs."

How many gigabytes were needed to store the completed film in digital format? Stassen reveals that, "The picture resolution in the film varies from 5.5 K, to 4 K and 3K per frame depending on the kind of shot. Fully CGI shots have the lowest resolution, (3K) CGI shots with live action
elements were rendered at 4K resolution and whenever we do live action shots with some CGI elements we need to work at 5.5K resolution. Therefore the size of a frame can vary from 12 Mgb to 40 Mgb. It takes about 17,250 gigabites of storage space to do this kind of 3D large format. The rendered images are stored on four hundred twenty seven 40 gigabites DLT."

How many Megabytes does it take to stored one IMAX frame? From 12 to 40 Megabytes for rendered frames. However live action scanned images at 5.5K are about 92 Megabytes in size before the color correction process. The digital file contains all kinds of data enabling us to do color correction. Once the color correction is done, the size of the file drops down to between 25 and 40 Megabytes.

Stassen explains that due to the size of these files, transferring 115,000m digital images to 70mm film is also slow process that takes about two minutes per frame. "Unfortunately, the much faster laser recorders available to feature film makers are not yet capable of recording to 70mm film. Our two film recorders shot 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."

Stassen has several other large format 3-D projects in development and explains the current market conditions for this kind of film. "There are currently 62 large format (870 and 1570) 3D theaters up and running around the world with an 80 additional 3D theaters on order at Imax, Iwerks and Megasystem, representing a total investment in hardware and theater construction of more than $2 billion."

"Encounter in The Third Dimension is only the 10th feature length (+30 minutes) large format 3D film released to date (The 10 films are: Into The Deep, The Last Buffalo, L5, Hidden Dimension, Imax Nutcracker, T-Rex, Wings of Courage, Across the Sea of Time, Mark Twain and Encounter), representing a total production investment of less than $100 million."

"The hardware manufacturers have spent less than $5 million in developing production tools for the large format 3D filmmakers. Imax corporation has built two 1570 3D cameras. Iwerks will soon complete its first large format 3D mirror rig system. Not only are there too few cameras available to increase the current production levels substantially, but as I mentioned earlier, the existing camera are prototypes at best, with many technical drawbacks.


"While I am convinced that large format 3D filmmaking could very well be the most innovative out-of-home entertainment platform of the next decade, It is also clear that the genre is only in its infancy."

"Instead of trying to bring a conventional dramatic story to the screen and failing at it because of lack of appropriate financial resources, the inadequacy of the production tools and the challenge of mastering this exciting new language of cinema, I set out to create a film that would break new grounds in the use of the digital technology and that would hopefully tickle the audience's interest and make them aware that large format 3D has great potential as a brand new form of audio-visual entertainment. Large format 3D is here to stay and I feel it is better to learn how to walk before trying to run."

The "Jule Vernesque" Journey Through The Center of The Earth sequence was created as a ride film sequence. nWave Pictures is the largest supplier of ride films in the world (over 50% of the world market). The reason this sequence was conceived as of P.O.V. continuous shot is precisely because we are also distributing "Journey" as a stand alone ride film (actually Iwerks Entertainment picked up the exclusive distribution rights to that film).

To design such a sequence, we first start with what we call a "motion map" which is a layout of entire camera trajectory through the different environments. We then model all the environments in a very rough and basic fashion and animate the camera movement. This second phase enables us to determine the timing of the film to make sure we do not go too fast or too slow for the ride to end-up at around 4 minute in length (the standard length of a ride film). The next step is to do the full modelling of all the objects and environments, create the textures and the lighting before we do the final rendering of the images in high resolution.

The Elvira sequence were shot in a green screen studio. The only physical set was a 10 step staircase painted green. Her sequences were actually much easier to shoot than the scenes with professor, because Elvira does not interact with her environment, she simply does her song and dance routine in front of the camera. We shot the sequence with A 3D mirror rig, using panavision cameras. The selected takes were then scanned. We composited the live action images of Elvira into the 3D background using Silicon Graphics work stations and the composer software from Alias/Wavefront. We worked at 4K resolution.

Except for the actors, everything in the film is computer generated. The skeletons and the ghost were animated by Anthony Huerta using the Explore software from Alias Wavefront. Animating the skeletons and the ghost is in fact the same process as the animation of any moving objects in the film (MAX, mechanical gismos, video screen, title sequence etc...). For Encounter in the Third Dimension, we did not use any character animation software since the emphasis was on mechanical motion rather than character animation.

For our next film, Alien Adventure which will be completed in less than a month, we took a totally different approach to do the character animation. Alien Adventure will actually be the first animated full lenght 1570 mm 3D film. The animation of the Aliens was more sophisticated than anything we did in Encounter, therefore we used specialized software to create and animate the Alien. We then integrated the fully animated and rendered Alien into our CGI background in the same we we integrated the professor and Elivra in the CGI backgrounds in Encounter.
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