3D on track

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By Vijaya Cherian   www.arabianbusiness.com

Vijaya Cherian goes on a journey with the various teams that worked on producing the first live action 3D film in Dubai and brings you an exclusive report.

UK-based Atomic Arts was contracted to create the 3D animation for the project.
UK-based Atomic Arts was contracted to create the 3D animation for the project.

On 9.9.2009, history was made in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), when the region’s first metro rolled onto the tracks in Dubai. The same day marked another milestone in the history of the UAE when a nine-minute 3D film — featuring live action 3D, produced and finished entirely in Dubai — was screened at a specially erected auditorium at Mall of the Emirates.

On the first day of the screening, 3,500 people are said to have thronged to see the film, which provided an immersive experience of a journey on the metro while also taking viewers on a journey through the landmarks and the heritage and culture of the emirate.

What makes this film special is the fact that it is the first live action 3D project to be shot in the Gulf to date. Several companies were involved in this shoot including Dubai-based production house Boomtown Productions; equipment rental firm Filmquip, event organiser HQ Creative as well as UK-based 3D specialist, Vision 3 and animation house, Atomic Arts.

Daz Jamieson, creative producer at HQ Creative, the company that was contracted to manage the launch, commented that although 3D was contemplated several times in the past, the launch of the Metro provided the right occasion to showcase the potential of 3D.

“We’ve been experimenting with stereoscopic 3D for a long time. It’s not cheap; it’s complicated and it needed a client that was worthy of it and could understand it,” says Jamieson. ”Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) proved the perfect client for this project. It’s a nine-minute film that includes live action as well as animation but it has been received well,” he says.

The learning curve has, no doubt, been steep, agrees Shane Martin, executive producer and director at Boomtown Productions. However, he adds that collaborating with the right partners has made the project a little easier to execute.

“There are many different ways in which you can do 3D. We spoke to companies in LA, South Africa, France and the UK and by a process of elimination and negotiation, we chose to go with Vision 3 from the UK,” explains Martin.

Clearly, with 3D, things need to be figured out not just in the production phase but in the editing stage as well.

“You have to deal with two streams of information and then, put them together in a way that makes for a comfortable 3D viewing experience because if you don’t do it right, you can make your viewers sick,” explains Martin.

Having Vision3’s partners, Angus Cameron and Chris Parks on set helped the crew understand the basics of working in 3D better.

Cameron, who was the stereoscopic consultant on the project, says 3D has been around for years although it has not been received well in the past due to bad production.

“It never took off in the 50s and the 80s because poor 3D made the audience uncomfortable. However, the technology is slowly getting a boost now as 3D gets better and we have more specialists on board,” explains Cameron.

One important role on any 3D shoot is that of the stereographer. Vision3’s Parks was the stereographer on this project. A stereographer is the person who works alongside the director and the DoP. He is directly responsible for the 3D deck design; does the monitoring work, works with the camera rigs and does calculations based on various factors. Essentially, the DoP frames for 2D and the stereographer works with the DoP to ensure it works comfortably in 3D.

Parks says when he starts work on a 3D project, the first thing he does is decide how he is going to use the 3D to make the audience’s experience the most rewarding, and help the director, the DoP and the creative team realise the project the way they have visualised it.

“Whereas with a feature I would use the 3D in a relatively subtle way to help tell the story, conveying mood or as a narrative tool, with a short special venue film such as this, I chose to use the 3D to add a more visceral element with more out-of-screen effects, while still using it to show off the textures and space of Dubai in a way not possible with 2D,” explains Parks.

As with any 3D shoot, the team required two cameras to film images simultaneously. This was, however, easier said than done.

For one, the production house needed to narrow down on two cameras that would provide matching colour images as well as depth and be able to withstand the harsh desert clime. They also required a matched set of lenses, a sturdy rig that could hold two camera packages and enable the crew to shoot images in 3D, and a monitor that could help the stereographer see the images in 3D.

Boomtown’s Martin explains that the team decided to work with equipment rental house Filmquip Media and its UK partner Arri Media on the project.

“Dubai, as you know, poses many challenges. We were shooting in the peak of summer so it was very hot. We initially checked out the RED ONE camera but for various technical reasons, decided against it. Arri Media suggested we use the Arri D-21,” explains Martin.

“Likewise, Arri tested several different lenses to give us a matched set and eventually, we settled for the Cooke S4 lenses,” he adds.

One key aspect of this shoot was the StereoCam, more popularly known as the Hines Rig.

The StereoCam is a dual-camera 3D rig that uses cameras in a forward-and-downward arrangement and makes use of a mirror.

“There are only three such rigs in the world. This was actually the original 3D mirror rig. It now lives with me in London, and travels around the world with me on 3D projects. It is actually the most rigid 3D rig available today and is ideal for larger cameras like the Arri D-21,” explains Parks.

Cameron explains the role of the rig.

“To create the 3D effect, you have to get the cameras close enough but we are limited by the size of the camera body and also, the lenses. To get around this problem, we use one camera facing forward and shooting through a beam splitting mirror while the other camera angles down at 90 degrees. Essentially, one camera shoots through the mirror and the other shoots the reflection. This arrangement enables us to put the cameras much closer together than you could possibly achieve if you put them side by side,” he explains.

However, this task is not easy. Several technical calculations need to be made, for instance, to see how far apart the cameras need to be to create the desired effects. While some placements can create a miniature effect, others can provide a larger than life image. Accordingly, the distance between the cameras can be increased or decreased and long or wide lenses used.

Martin admits that it’s tricky to get a good 3D effect. Much of it depends on the lenses one uses and also, the size of the screen for which the viewing is intended.

“Besides the interactive distance and the point of convergence being set up correctly, the lenses play a key element here. As a general rule, I think 3D suits wider lenses better than they do long ones. It’s tricky to get a good 3D effect with a long lens,” explains Martin.

Cameron explains that part of the reason for this is because of the cardboarding effect one gets with long lenses.

“When we see 3D, we usually see it at close range. If you’re looking into the distance, you know you usually see objects flat as the detailed texture is lost. When you have long lenses on, you are effectively looking at an object that is far away so it doesn’t have 3D in the first place. The way to get around that is by increasing the distance between the cameras and then, that starts to give more of this shape and you can then balance it,” he adds.

At the same time, increasing the distance between the two cameras also brings a related set of problems, Parks warns.

“It can make the 3D unwatchable through unshared backgrounds between the left and right eye,” he says.

The size of the screen also plays a key role in the shoot, explains DoP Anthony Smythe.

“Initially, we were shooting for a screen that was 11.5×3.5 metres and we realised that we were losing a lot of information and detail on the top and bottom of the screen. Eventually, we settled for a screen size that was 2.35:1 to ensure that we got more of the shots,” he explains.

This project posed several challenges for Smythe as well.

For one, it was his first 3D shoot. Secondly, with such a huge rig in front of him, Smythe confesses that filming was very tricky. As the film was scheduled to be shown on September 9 and the project was not awarded until the first week of August, it was also more a case of learning on the job for all the local players.

“It was all trial and error,” admits Smythe.

“The hardest part was having to alter the way you think. We kept putting our hands over our eyes and taking one hand away and then, the other away. We used to do that quickly to see if a shot would work in 3D,” he adds.

As the head of Filmquip, Smythe also had to ensure that all the right gear was in for the shoot.

In one instance, the Arri gear head Mk 1 broke down and a freight agent had to get another one from the UK in time for the next day’s shoot.

“Balancing the cameras was very difficult as they would tilt more than they needed to in certain positions. To prevent this, we used an Arri gear head Mk 1 version. But we pushed the shots to such degrees that we damaged the gear head. But I got my freight agent to get the 45 kg box on the first plane from the UK and a new gear head was delivered to our set the following morning before we started shooting. So technically, the equipment never hindered the shooting,” explains Smythe.

As with most shoots in Dubai, time was of essence and there was very little prep time allotted for the shoot. The team was given one length of the track in Jebel Ali which allowed them to shoot two trains running in parallel but filming inside the metro posed challenges.

“We had ambitions to shoot all over the train but there was nowhere to fit the camera on top or in front,” says Martin.

The team, however, did manage to get a lot of exciting footage, he says.

“Everything we do in terms of dollies and cranes and camera moves in normal filmmaking are actually 3D cues we use to try and create an impression of 3D and now, we find that those techniques work even better in 3D,” says Martin.

“We also discovered that some shots work better in 3D. Top shots, for instance, suddenly became more exciting in 3D while they don’t do much for 2D. We took a slow and elegant approach here although it would have been interesting to see how far we could push it in terms of fast cutting and so on. We didn’t have the time to experiment. With it being our first 3D project, we were more keen on providing a comfortable viewing experience,” he says.

The project was replete with challenges at every stage. Contending with the heat was a big issue, explains Boomtown’s production manager Daniel Kilalea.

Keeping the cameras cool was key.

“We turned off the auto shut off on the cameras because they are supposed to switch off at 42 degrees and that was not going to work for us in this heat,” explains Kilalea.

Production kit list

2 x ARRI D-21 camera kits
1 x HD control on board monitor
ESU 1 sync unit
SEM 2 function expansion module units
StereoCam (Hines rig for D-21 cameras)
2 sets of Cooke S4 lenses
ARRI lens control system (Dual focus motors)
2 x SRW 1 Sony recorders
1 x 3D on set monitor
2 x 12 inch HD monitors
ARRI Mk1 gear head
GFM 14 crane
Power Pod 2000 remote head
Chapman Hustler dolly
3103 Astro Vector Scope Monitor
Transvideo 3D monitor

“We would take it from Ski Dubai which was about 4 degrees to the outside and the cameras would hold up. We tried to keep the cameras as cool as possible with fans underneath and ice gel packs. They were reliable despite us being at their upper limit,” explains Kilalea.

Besides this, the team also had to work with heavy camera packages that couldn’t be used on normal rigs. In one instance, the production team used a GFM 14 heavy duty crane with a power pod to carry the camera packages as a normal flighthead couldn’t handle their weight.

The footage from each camera was then recorded onto two separate Sony HRW 1 decks.

Stereographer Parks guided the entire 3D shoot with the help of his transvideo monitor, which gave the best representation of 3D, explains Martin.

The challenges, however, did not end at production. As Martin points out: “It’s not just about the acquisition of material and the ingesting of it and the editing of it but also the screening of it, and they all have variables. The distance of the audience from the screen, the size of the screen and so on are all important factors for watching 3D,” he explains.

For Omar Abbas, head of Post Production at Boomtown Productions, editing 3D footage was a significant challenge. Abbas worked on the Avid DS Nitris 10 for this project.

“A lot of geometric work was done in camera and then repositioned in post,” explains Abbas.

“We had to take two streams of video, align the left and right image separately. Then, we had to get the colours right and then any other aberrations or variations had to be corrected as well. There’s a whole series of tweaks that have to be applied to every single image. It’s a massive workflow and a huge learning curve but the Avid DS Nitris 10 has a stereo workflow which allows us to do this without relying on anything else. The DS pulled through this beautifully and could handle both streams of full resolution HD footage simultaneously with minimum processing problem. However, the full potential of its 3D workflow will probably be realised only in the next version. We have a long list of improvements we have sent to Avid to make its 3D workflow better,” Abbas adds.

In the meantime, UK-based Atomic Arts created the 3D animation, including some compositing of photoreal 3D objects over the live action footage. 12 people from Atomic Arts worked on this part of the project.

Brooke Lyndon-Stanford of Atomic Arts says a unique feature of this project was the use of “a massive dedicated render farm called SendaRender.com to check and render the animations as fast as possible”.

“It’s the biggest render farm of its type in the world. Without this, we couldn’t have completed our work on time as the deadline was very tight,” explains Stanford.

“We needed a variety of software applications and a very talented and thoughtful team of artists to cope with the challenges that stereoscopic work brings.”

The end result was gratifying for every party involved as viewers had the opportunity to view Dubai and its landmarks from a 3D perspective.

However, as Cameron points out, the location and the content is still key to any shoot. 3D only enhances the experience.

“If you have great 3D effects and the content is not good, you will fail. You don’t want to overdo the effects. 3D is not about popping things into your eyes. It is about giving the audience a new and altered viewing experience that enhances their entertainment options.”

Post production kit specs

Product: Avid DS Nitris
Software Version: 10.1
Hardware: HP Workstation XW8400
Processor: Intel Xeon Dual Quad Core 2.33 GHz
Ram: 4 GB
Graphic Card: Nvidia Quadro FX 3500
Operating System: Windows XP 64 SP2
Storage: Avid VideoRAID RTR