Sony’s 3D filmmaking legend Buzz Hays teaches how to bring content to life

[From TWICE (The Week in Consumer Electronics)]

Sony 3D Legend Brings Content To Life

By Greg Tarr — TWICE, 4/18/2011

CULVER CITY, CALIF. – One of the raps against 3DTV adoption has been a lack of available content, but for a relatively new medium, Hollywood is taking huge strides in eliminating this major concern.

Sony Pictures, one of the pioneering studios in 3DTV production, is generously helping to lift the collective consciousness in the 3D content community by sharing knowledge and training with professional filmmakers around the world, regardless of studio affiliation.

In a recent visit to the Sony 3D Technology Center on the Sony Pictures lot, TWICE heard 3D filmmaking legend Buzz Hays, the 3D Technology Center’s executive stereoscopic 3D producer and chief instructor, discuss Sony’s efforts to bring the world more 3D content to help spark demand for 3DTVs, Blu-ray players, cameras and camcorders.

He has produced seven 3D feature films to date and helped create, along with the International Cinematographers Guild, an intensive three-day course in 3D production for professional filmmakers. It is offered free-of-charge to qualifying participants, in the spirit of “good 3D creation.”

To date, Sony Pictures has more experience in 3D than virtually anyone else in Hollywood, by virtue of the fact that it does 3D work for other studios as well as for itself, Hays explained.

Many of those productions are animated, he said, because in the early days it was thought by the studios that 3D was mostly a medium for kids.

“We’ve since learned, especially since `Beowulf,’ which was one of the first 3D films for an older audience that 3D is for all ages,” he said.

Hays considers “Polar Express” the film that kicked off the current era of 3D.

“Prior to the release in 2004, the filmmakers played with the idea of doing some 3D shots to see what it would look like in post production, and [director] Bob Zemeckis liked it,” Hays explained. “But the only commercial venues where you could show 3D in 2004 were IMAX theaters. It was a bit of a risk, but they did it anyway and it was wildly successful. Polar Express was the film that Jeffrey Katzenberg credits as the reason for taking his Dreamworks’ films into the third dimension.”

From there, he said, theaters gradually started to add 3D projectors, leading up to “Beowulf,” which was the first 3D film to cross the 1,000-theater mark.

Hays credits Zemeckis with helping to revolutionize 3D technique in ‘Beowulf’ by regarding 3D storytelling as different from 2D in its pacing, cutting and other approaches.

“He really started to honor the idea that this really is more like a live event – or live theater,” Hays said. “What’s exciting about shooting in 3D is it is making a connection between the viewer and the content, much like live theater.”

As the medium evolves, Hays said some of the most compelling 3D content is coming from the personal videos of average people.

“Because it is their view of the world and we are learning something through their eyes. Since we started this I’ve been after Sony to consider [3D] personal video. Now it’s here, and I think it is a killer app.”

Sony Pictures opened the doors to the 3D Technology Center following the 2010 International CES, and has been conducting classes for a variety of professionals, starting largely with cinematographers, who were being tasked with making 3D films, but had no experience with the medium.

The course covers everything from theory to physiology (to understand the workings of the basic human vision system).

“We’ve taken a very serious look at how the human vision system works, and how the brain processes images to make sure we are creating experiences that are comfortable for people to watch,” Hays said.

The professional 3D course includes one day in the classroom, devoted to techniques used for 3D, the basics behind the camera system, and about story telling.

“It’s purely about showing how story telling differs from two dimensions to three dimensions,” Hays said. “That’s where most people’s comfort zones seem to be the weakest.”

The second and third days of the course are spent on Stage Seven in the Sony Pictures lot, working with professional 3D camera systems.

The camera professionals are given a situation that is exactly what they would find in the shooting of a film.

Since March of last year, the center has educated over 1,200 people. It is also being expanded to now include directors, editors, and game developers.

“We felt it was really worth getting everybody up to speed – good 3D is good for everybody, that’s the way we look at it,” Hays said.

Among the trouble areas of 3D shooting is an effect where objects appear as card board cutouts with surrounding foreground, middle ground and background.

“The way around that is by capturing what we call, a continuous sense of depth in the shot,” Hays said. “It is important to have continuous points of reference to hold the depth of the frame together. It makes it feel like there is a lot of volume of depth in the space.”

Focal length and camera position will also contribute to the cardboard cutout appearance, he said.

“Often, certain filmmakers will come in the door, and they’ve heard what we call certain myths about shooting in 3D. One is that you can’t cut quickly in 3D; there are various ways of framing a shot that you can never do – they’re not true,” said Hays. “3D filmmakers will often use tools to try and direct the attention of the eye in the frame. One of those tools that have been around since the dawn of anamorphic photography is the use of focus to direct the eye in the shot.”

Hays said while the technique works for 2D, “in 3D your eye will still go to whatever is the closest object.”

“As we create these component 3D images, we are very much creating a situation where you would see it with your own eyes,” said Hays. “In my world, 3D should support the story telling, and the first question that needs to be asked by filmmakers is: `Should this film be made in 3D?’ ”

Bad 3D, he said, occurs whenever the technology reveals itself because it pulls the viewer out of the story.

“We are working with the suspension of disbelief when we tell stories,” he said. “I sometimes refer to 3D as a fragile illusion. It’s a beautiful illusion if done well. But we are creating a situation that is really a single vantage point in space that has to hold up for a wide variety of viewing conditions. If we do things carefully then that illusion will work for everybody. But if we start using a lot of overt techniques it will show up a lot of the flaws, not only in the technology but in the human viewing system.”

The course also discusses the production of 3D content using 2D material.

“I had the fortune to produce the first commercial feature that used 2D to 3D conversion – a film called ‘GForce.’ But the misfortune of being the first was tough because the tools didn’t exist. So, we had to invent the tools while we were making the film,” said Hays.

He called 3D conversion a very valuable tool when shooting conditions dictate the use of 2D equipment.

When shooting in 2D for conversion later in 3D there are certain aspects that filmmakers can keep in mind to make the process easier, he said. “But conversions are incredibly expensive, if you do it well, and very time consuming.”

The going rates for good 2D to 3D conversion run from $60,000 to well over $150,000 a minute.

“I’ve heard some say, `we’ll do some low-budget stuff for TV and take our half-hour episode and convert it to 3D.’ That makes your half-hour episode about $1.6 million.”

Thus, an important part of making something in 3D is knowing what you can fix in post production after you’ve shot it, and what you can’t.

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