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3D: The New Sundance Star

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This year at Sundance, the festival’s Technology Center showcased the latest and greatest in technology from Hewlett Packard and Avid, along with several filmmakers discussing the benefits of cutting on the Avid— including its Script Sync feature.

Sony showed all its latest HD camcorders, including the new PMW-EX1 that records to SxS Pro solid-state cards with no moving parts.

But the biggest buzz at Sundance came from the debut of the U2 3D concert film, U2 3D. The company behind the film’s stereoscopic technology is 3ality. I talked to Steve Schklair, a producer with a background as a DP who has been working on 3D for several years; John Modell, another producer who focused mostly on sound; and Sandy Climan, yet another producer, mainly involved with business development for the company.

Projectors are now digital and fast enough (remember, twice as many frames have to be shown, one for the right eye and one for the left eye), and computers are now smart enough for this kind of project. Schklair said the left and right picture have to be aligned perfectly, and the only way to do that via computer. Film moves way too much and could never be synced together properly. Even the slightest movement of the left picture from the right would cause the eyes to constantly refocus, which is what caused viewers of 3D films to experience headaches of the past.

The production used two Sony F950 HD cameras modified by 3ality. They were locked down together on one of several different “flavors” of remote-controlled platforms or 3-D Rigs. None of the rigs are seen in the film. The cameras you do see are either for local TV coverage or handheld.

The close-ups on stage were shot at a dress rehearsal so as to not interfere with the audiences’ view at the concert. Shooting was actually done in reverse, getting pick-up shots at concerts starting in Mexico, then Chile and Sao Paulo in Brazil. By the time they got to Buenos Aires, the main two nights of shooting, there was a crew of 160 people and nine cameras.

The shoot was planned so the cameras could be hidden, but still let the film put you in almost every seat in the house at just the right moment in the concert. U2 uses click tracks, so that allowed the various camera shots to easily be edited together even though they were shot on different days in different locations.

The computer not only controls the motion and various functions of the cameras, but keeps the images perfectly aligned vertically, rotationally or whether moving or zooming at the pixel level—never more than a pixel off. Zooming was un-doable in 3-D before this proprietary image analysis software and computer control.

For proper stereo imaging, the offset between the two cameras must be set or programmed by the “stereographer”—Ray Hannisian—who works much like a focus puller, using a stereo image monitor. I asked how much of the crowd actions they planned or staged, like when the crowd would throw water and other things in the foreground. It made for spectacular 3D imaging. “None,” they replied.

One of the two sets of images was edited on Avid in 2D by Olivier Wicki. That was output as an EDL, then the stereo images were loaded into the computer and stereo leveling was performed. It was conformed just like when you cut a low-res copy then conform your HD original.

After effects and color timing came a new process called “depth balancing.” The depth balancing artist, Hannisian, first balanced the whole film so it’s comfortable to watch. Then he balanced across every edit. In some transitions between shots, fades between shots sometimes seem to start on directly in front of the viewer and then recede into the screen.

The audio was a direct feed with no overdubs or sweetening. They tapped into the bands’ ProTools system with another ProTools system of their own. The main FOH mixer, Carl Glanville, had been the coproducer and mixer on the last couple of U2 albums so he knew the material.

First-time director Katherine Owens, a longtime U2 collaborator, approached the project as a piece of art, shaping it in post. She co-directed with Mark Pellington, whose primary responsibility was camera placement during production. Modell recalled that the final night, when they expected to get the lions’ share of the film, started out with Bono having trouble with his voice. But after the first few songs his voice opened up and for the second half of the set, Modell (after hurling before the show from “producers nerves” because he thought they wouldn’t get what they needed) went out into the crowd and said there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen anywhere. It was the best performance they had filmed.

The film is shown using a single projector modified to accept two input streams, and thus, a stable picture is achieved. The effect is so real, I heard my wife Mary Ann applaud and start to sing along at one point. You truly feel you are at the concert and just when you’re about to get mad at the obnoxious people in the row in front of you, the picture changes and you realize they were part of the show. They tell people to leave their cell phones on when they see the film because, first, they won’t hear them if they ring, and second, because they’ll need them for the several times when the entire audience holds them up for effect.

I asked if the 3-D would work on home theaters. Schklair pointed out the glasses on the table in front of me and the set-top box on the big screen in the room we were in. The glasses were active LCDs, not the polarized ones you get in theaters, and the set-top box emits an infrared signal to control the glasses. The goal of the company is to make it comfortable to watch 3D, and to allow 3D film production at budgets comparable to 2D production.

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