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Taylor & Francis
3D Movie Making: Stereoscopic Digital Cinema from Script to Screen / Edition 1

3D Movie Making: Stereoscopic Digital Cinema from Script to Screen / Edition 1

by Bernard Mendiburu
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780240811376
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 05/06/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Bernard Mendiburu is a stereographer and digital cinema consultant working with feature animation studios in Los Angeles, where his credits include "Meet The Robinsons” and "Monsters vs Aliens”. The author of "3D Movie Making” (Focal Press) he recently joined the 3D@Home Consortium's Advisory Committee on 3D Quality and was an active member of the SMPTE 3D Task Force.
Bernard's lectures and workshops on 3D cinema were selected by CalArt's Experimental Animation department and Laika Entertainment (Coraline). In 2009, Bernard presented a paper on 3D Workflows at the SPIE Stereoscopic Display and Applications conference and at the NAB's Digital Cinema Summit, and a two-day long workshop on 3D postproduction the Paris' Dimension3 conference.

Read an Excerpt

3D Movie Making

Stereoscopic Digital Cinema from Script to Screen
By Bernard Mendiburu

Focal Press

Copyright © 2009 Elsevier, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-087796-9

Chapter One

Introduction to 3D Cinema


The term "3D" in cinema refers to two concepts: computer-generated images (CGI or CG), which relies on 3D virtual models of objects like the famous Utah teapot; and stereoscopic (s3D) movies, in which the images, if seen through appropriate glasses, seem to reach out of the screen. These two 3Ds should be clearly distinguished, even if the current renaissance of 3D cinema was sparked by a dozen "3D animation" movies released "in 3D." CG-3D has been intensively used in 2D medias like movies and video games for the last 15 years, and many "nonanimation" 3D movies are slated for release in next few years.


Chances are that you have recently seen a 3D movie in a theater near you. As you may know, 3D cinema is cinema where landscapes extend far beyond the screen and objects fly inside the room, thanks to 3D projectors and glasses. In the late 20th century, 3D has been falsely associated with cheap red-and-blue glasses. However, even in the 1950s, 3D used sunglass-like, neutral-gray filters that provided a full-color, highly comfortable viewing experience.

We enjoy that visual art, because 3D is the natural form of vision for predators. Stereoscopic 3D vision provides acute trajectory interception and impact point computation. Animals lower on the food chain tend to have wide-angle vision, to look for danger. This is why watching a 3D movie gives us a feeling of visual completeness that was lacking in 2D films, despite the tremendous efforts and skills of the cinematographers.

Eventually, 3D will make its way into mainstream cinema the way color and sound did: it will be considered useless until it's available with a reasonable price tag. And then, all of a sudden, it will be unavoidable and ubiquitous, to the point that the very mention of "3D" will disappear from posters. At some point in the near future, you will go to see a "flattie" for nostalgia's sake, just as you sometimes watch black-and-white movies on TV today.

Before we see this happening, 3D cinema faces challenges. First, how can it provide this feeling of additional depth to the audience via an industry that has gotten by without it for a century? Furthermore, experience in 3D movie making is so scarce that one can count world-class 3D directors on a single hand. The situation is the same regarding 3D directors of photography (DPs) and postproduction houses. On the other hand, 2D equipment and experience is widely available, and thousands of gifted cinematographers have beautifully mastered the tricks that let you forget that your current cinema experience is actually flat. Going into 3D production means leaving the well-known area of 2D movie making for the dangerous, mostly uncharted land of 3D.

We are in a transitional time. The creativity and freedom of directors, DPs, and editors will suffer some restraints until better 3-D production tools are crafted and the audience gets educated to this new cinematographic language. For example long lenses flatten their subjects, camera rigs are bulky and complex, and caution needs to be used in 3D cuts. All this will settle down within a few years. In the meantime, we should remember that we are reentering a mostly unexplored world, crossing a frontier to an unmapped wild land where mistakes hurt, sometimes badly. This will be a challenge to an artistic industry in which the digital revolution and CG images have brought forgiveness to any possible mistake of shooting or creative megalomania. To some extent the whole profession is going back to school. However, we must remember that 3D has existed for as long as the cinema itself, and it has already seen a golden age and an extinction. The purpose of this book is to put together what we already know about 3D cinema and help you avoid known pitfalls while finding a path to your own 3D cinematographic style.

There will be no 3D cinema without these two elements: stories really benefiting from 3D and fully developed 3D cinematography. On one hand, this may not happen soon, just like not all movies have to be in color and people have enjoyed black-and-white movies for decades. Cinema has been flat for a century and economic realities could kill 3D once again. On the other hand, would you choose to watch a recent blockbuster on a smaller screen, or in plain stereo sound, if it would bring you a $2 reduction on the ticket price?


This is not an easy question if we want to get an answer that goes beyond "depth, of course!" Cinematography is all about feeling, experience, and identification with characters-and 3D is mostly a technical trick. Can we put feelings into numbers? The entertainment industry does, and calls it box office. We will see their figures in the next chapter. For now, let's focus on artistic and emotional dimensions.

Because 3D is our natural way of seeing, it brings a feeling of realism to the audience. With 3D, we no longer have to rebuild the volume of objects in the scene we are looking at, because we get them directly from our visual system. By reducing the effort involved in the suspension of disbelief, we significantly increase the immersion experience.

When it comes to close-ups, the effect is even stronger. The actor's head fills the room, and this dramatically increases the emotional charge of the shot. If a person were as flat as a cardboard puppet, we would notice it immediately when we met him face-to-face. We naturally prefer the fine details of flesh structures, the volume and movement of underlying bones and muscles. The increased realism of human figures in 3D movies positively affects the identification and projection processes.

When it comes to landscape shots , the effect is a mixed bag. Because of optical laws, there's a maximum size of what can be shown in a theater, and it's not that much bigger than the screen itself. Until we have the movie projected directly onto our eyeballs, we won't see a picture bigger than the screen we're looking at. As a result, a majestic landscape placed beyond the screen will either look big and flat, or-in order to look nicely sculpted, with roundness and volume-will have to be scaled down to fit the theater's metrics. This effect is usually not detected by the audience, and at worst will make you feel like a giant looking at a scale model.

Overall, 3D cinematography can't perfectly fit all the depth of the real world inside a 3D theater. We have seen the limitations affecting far-away subjects and landscapes. "In-your-face 3D" has constraints, too. Just as a viewer can't look into his popcorn bucket and at the screen at the same time, there's a limit to the intensity of the up-close effects we can achieve. Consider that half the theater's room volume is the area where you'll be able to display floating objects without hurting anyone's feelings.

Not only does scene and picture composition have to be fine-tuned for 3D, but the pacing of the editing and the visual effects need special finessing, too. Because of increased visual complexity and extended reading time, 3D pictures require a smoother, gentler editing style than 2D.

Throughout this book, we will rely on comparisons with the addition of color and sound to movies. If neither of them did actually turn the cinema industry on its head, they both had a significant impact on the storytelling and moviemaking process.


The 3D effect on the box office is simple: on the opening weekend, it generates three-times the revenue per screen of flat cinema. Speaking to this point, Variety had a headline on its web site reading: "3D stands for dollars, dollars, dollars." Furthermore, 3D movies tend to hold an audience after their first weeks on screen much better than 2D movies do.

"3D stands for dollars, dollars, dollars"

It is widely recognized that the 3D renaissance was ignited by the release of The Polar Express in 3D in IMAX theaters in December 2003. We can't really compare 2D and 3D raw box offices figures because the 2D movie was released on 3,650 regular screens, while the 3D movie was released in 70 IMAX 3D theaters. However, if we look at the revenue per copy, then the figures get quite impressive, with a 14-fold increase. And if we consider how well the movie did over time, this is really amazing, with long-lasting high revenue in the 3D theaters. Equally impressive is the fact that The Polar Express was re-released for Christmas 2004, competing against its DVD release, and still made more money than the 2D version's opening weekend in 2003. Further still, in Christmas 2005, some IMAX theaters released it again, even after the 2D movie had been on television, and it once again made more money per seat than the 2D prints had made two years earlier. Eventually, over the years, each 3D print made 14 times more money than the 2D prints did.

This was no isolated event. When Chicken Little, the first 3D Disney Animation Studios feature, was released on November 4, 2005, the average seat occupancy was 96 percent over the weekend. In November 2007, Beowulf 3D was sold out for the first three days in the United Kingdom.

The 3-D screens count

Despite the promising box-office numbers, 3D movies still suffer from the scarcity of 3D screens. Until 2005, only 70 IMAX theaters were able to show 3D movies. Since then, digital projection in regular theaters, coupled with relatively inexpensive add-ons, has allowed 3D projection in regular theaters at a marginal additional cost. As a result, venue owners have converted their screens by the hundreds, allowing 3D releases on 600 to 800 screens in 2007.

Despite these expanding numbers, the issue remains that Hollywood releases big budget movies on 3,000 screens. On 800 screens, you cannot pay back the advertising expenses involved in a nationwide release. Current 3D movies could not be released without the 2D version paying the marketing bill. Experts consider the break-even number of 3D screens to be in the 1,500 to 2,000 range. It was expected that this number would be reached by mid-2008.

This screen count was central in the decision to delay the release of 3D movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Dark Country, or 3D conversions of 2D movies, like the long-awaited 3D version of the 1977 George Lucas original Star Wars. Eventually, Eric Brewig's movie was renamed Journey to the Center of the Earth, with no "3D," and had a coupled 2D/3D release.

Early in 2008, analysts announced that 3,000 3D screens would be available to show two 3D milestones over Memorial Day weekend 2009: James Cameron's Avatar and PDI's animated feature Monsters vs Aliens. As of this writing , both are planned to have 3D-only releases and are expected to signal the definitive entry of 3D cinema into the mainstream.

As of late 2008, Avatar was rumored to be postponed until December 2009 and Monsters vs Aliens was advanced to March 2009. As of July 2008, there were 1,084 3D screens in the United States using real-D systems. Even with the Dolby 3D and NuVision systems, along with the IMAX 3D theaters, we are a bit shy of the expected 1,500 3D screens. It should be noted that 3D screen deployment forecasts have been regularly overestimated by 30 to 60 percent since 2005. This has been the cause of big disappointments and some angry phone calls in Hollywood but has not seriously affected 3D's commercial reputation.


This is definitively one of the few questions that the whole movie business is trying to answer. Shall we prepare for a complete switchover to 3D, like we did with color and sound? Or shall we consider 3D cinema as passing hype that will fall into oblivion once again? Let's compare the current renaissance with the passing 3D hype of the 1950s.

The 1950s' golden age of 3D and the current renaissance

Both occurred when regular cinema was fighting against a powerful challenger. It was the TV set popping up in living rooms, and it's now home entertainment electronics, including home cinema, video games, legal video on demand, and illegal Internet file sharing.

Both were ignited by the release of a 3D movie-Bwana Devil in 1952 and The Polar Express in 2003. The unexpected box office numbers rang many a bell in the corporate offices in Hollywood, and subsequent 3D movie projects were green lighted.

What is different about the golden age and the current renaissance?

If both involved repurposing existing cinema technologies, the impact on the overall production processes has been deeply different, to the point that the eventual outcome of the current renaissance will be affected.

The 1950s 3D technology was reusing the multicamera technologies developed for early color and panoramic formats. Within years, new film stock and anamorphic lenses had provided studios with single-camera solutions for widescreen color movies, leaving 3D alone with the burden of multi-camera productions. Furthermore, 3D required extreme caution in the projection booth to prevent the 3D effect from turning into a simply painful visual experience. Projectors needed to be perfectly matched and synchronized, which was sometimes beyond the average projectionist's technical skills.

For today's 3D, riding on all-digital production pipelines, the benefits extend far beyond principal photography into postproduction and distribution. Considering that 1950s 3D is said to have been crippled by image quality issues that couldn't be tackled in the analog age, this distinction is crucial. Basically, a digital 3D movie should not give you a headache (unless the director made an awful film)-and not hurting the audience tends to be a key issue when you're selling entertainment.

It should be noted that the development of single-camera 3D in the 1970s and 1980s sparked a revival of 3D movies (Jaws 3D, The Stewardess) but was unable to generate a full-scale renaissance. To the same extent, the digitization of post-processing and visual effects gave us another surge in the 1990s (Spy Kids, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl). But only full digitization, from glass to glass-from the camera's to the projector's lenses-gives 3D the technological biotope it needs to thrive.

The second distinction is the absence of competitive technology in large-venue entertainment industry. Where is today's CinemaScope? All the emerging technologies are actually supporting a 3D switchover. Digital effects, virtual studios, and virtual actors-all these modern marvels are key to high-quality 3D production.

To summarize, for the first time there's a technology-digitization-that addresses the whole set of issues in 3D production. This makes 3D possible. The question now is, "Will 3D be valuable enough to make its way to ubiquity rather than oblivion?"

What are today's 3D challenges?

The real challenge is to improve definitively the cost-to-advantage ratio of 3D. On the cost side, producing a 3D movie will never come as cheap as 2D. Nothing comes for free. Black-and-white stock is still cheaper than color, recording sound requires a sound recorder, and A-list talent comes with hard-bargaining agents. On the other hand, the audience has responded, and the box office is playing a central role in the current 3D renaissance. But will this last for long? Nobody goes to the theater to see technology. Audiences want to be told stories, and they will pay for enjoying them in the best visual experience possible. 3D can be part of that experience.

Cost-effective 3D production will come with computerized 3D cameras and stereo-compatible postproduction pipelines. This is just a time and money issue, and hundreds of engineers are ready to take on the challenge.

Cost-justified 3D production will come with actual storytelling gain, or people will stay at home and see it in 2D. This is a more complex issue. We need the whole movie industry to learn and master this new media, just like it has been able to convert to color, sound, or live TV production. We not only need a new generation of cinematographers and film editors, we also need screenwriters and producers who understand 3D and create their stories with depth.

The objective of this book is to give you an all-encompassing overview of the technical and editorial switchover our industry is facing. You'll see that 3D is not a mere technological plug-in or an additional pass at the back end of production. It's much more like a new spice to be wisely used in film industry recipes, and it affects each and every step of movie making.


Excerpted from 3D Movie Making by Bernard Mendiburu Copyright © 2009 by Elsevier, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction to 3D Cinema
Chapter 2 Stereoscopic Vision
Chapter 3 The 3D Challenge
Chapter 4 Tools of the Trade
Chapter 5 3D Cinematography Fundamentals
Chapter 6 Preproduction
Chapter 7 Principal Photography
Chapter 8 CGI & VFX
Chapter 9 Editing
Chapter 10 Grading & Packaging
Appendix 1: 3D Cinematography Equipment

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