Monsters vs. Aliens: The 3D Experience

As the television industry continues to catch up to movies with technological innovation (larger flat screens, HD, Blu-Ray), it’s now time for movies to take a larger step forward. And according to Jeffrey Katzenberg, 3D is the way to do just that.

“Monsters vs. Aliens” represents a first for the studio…the first film totally authored in the 3D format–and not just any 3D format. InTruJ 3D combines DreamWorks Animation’s state-of-the-art, proprietary authoring tools with the latest Intel technology, allowing artists to tell a more compelling story and give filmgoers a more exciting, immersive 3D movie experience. The ongoing use of InTruJ 3D (from “Monsters vs. Aliens” forward) is not just something employed by DreamWorks, but rather a mature, enhanced medium that enables filmmakers a better way to tell their stories–in an entirely new and innovative manner.

Katzenberg reflects, “I think that the innovation of the new generation of 3D has the opportunity to change the movie experience in a way that literally has not happened since we went from black-and-white to color. When you say, ‘3D,’ I know that people think of those cheesy old glasses and rinky-dink special effects of reaching out into the audience. That kind of moviemaking is a theme park attraction more than it is movies or storytelling. But, I think that what has happened now–and it’s only in these last 18 months or two years–is a convergence of the tools that enable us to make and exhibit 3D films in such an innovative way that the resulting breathtaking experience will change the way people think of movies.”

The CEO of DreamWorks Animation reasons that the current, next-gen InTruJ 3D offers such clarity, beauty and precision that the old imperfections of the format–ghosting, motion blur, eye strain–all vanish. Through the use of digital equipment, these separate left- and right-eye images (which the brain marries into a three-dimensional image) can be made to sync perfectly. And the result, as Katzenberg puts it, is “that the storyteller can actually bring the audience into the movie, making it a completely immersive experience. We have made audiences believe that what they were looking at–a classic, 2D experience–is, in fact, three-dimensional. It’s not. Now, we can actually deliver that third dimension. And it just creates a spectacular opportunity to make the emotions of storytelling even better. So now, ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ will stand as the premiere feature conceived and authored in 3D, using these new state-of-the-art digital tools.”

Now, moviegoers’ eyes are free to look anywhere within the scene–focusing behind the main character into a background, say, on a piece of wallpaper that fascinates. As a result, filmmakers have to be ever cognizant of drawing the eye where they want it directed within the scene, using such things as lighting, sound or composition to focus attention where they wish.

Conversely, there are 2D techniques to which viewers have become accustomed–such as quick, MTV-style cuts–that can’t be utilized within the 3D format. The brain is unable to process that much information that quickly. So, to convey pacing (such as during Susan’s San Francisco battle with the robot) the makers of “Monsters vs. Aliens” had to find other tools to get the same emotional responses that these 2D techniques would elicit.

To make sure that these and other tools were used to their greatest advantage, the production brought aboard Phil Captain 3D McNally (that is his legal name–ask him, and he’ll show you his driver’s license), to serve as stereoscopic supervisor.

McNally began by educating filmmakers through visual example–he would display an early onscreen image of a tree in 2D, which was not the most compelling, visually speaking. Then, the same image was projected in digital 3D; suddenly, the tree had depth, visual interest. The eye was unfettered to roam up a leaf, along a branch, and trace a path at will.

McNally explains, “Think of a traditional 2D movie, and the largest dimension is probably the width or the diagonal width across the screen. But once we go into 3D, the largest dimension we can work with is actually in the depth of the shot. And so, it really opens up the possibility, not just across the screen, but now in the depth of the space as well. And so that’s something that’s new to the filmmakers–to be able to use that space as part of the new composition language that we’re trying to develop.”

Director Vernon remembers the 3D 101 classes this way: “He put us in a theater and showed us 3D images until our brains hurt, and he’d sit there and dial the levels. It was like one of those torture sessions. ‘Is this painful’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, how about this’ ‘Yes, it’s painful.’ ‘How about this’ ‘It was painful literally three times ago. You don’t have to keep cranking it up.’ But along the way, we started understanding how to compose in 3D. We are composing X and Y all the time. But now, we could compose in Z, in this way, behind the screen and in front of the screen. It’s been an amazing experience, and Phil knows this stuff better than anybody on the planet. He should really be a general.”

DreamWorks Animation developed proprietary in-house tools for 3D filmmaking, allowing the artists to be able to see the shots they were working on in 3D as they worked, not having to wait for projection onto a screen. These tools not only allow seeing the 3D scene while it’s being created, but also measuring what the artists are doing and informing them how the scene will translate once it gets to the big screen. At the computer, the artist can manipulate the 3D elements of the scene and be assured that the work that they do on their computer monitor will translate correctly to what is shown on a full sized motion picture screen.

Authoring a picture in 3D–from beginning to end of the pipeline–allows filmmakers to: design the shots in both left and right dimension, as well as depth, including blocking, staging and camera placement; edit; and view rough animation and visual effects, as well as work on any aspect of the film at any juncture in the pipeli
ne…all in 3D.

For such exacting artistry, a joined-at-the-hip sort of relationship was forged between “Captain 3D” and head of layout, Damon O’Beirne. McNally says, “Damon literally sat next door. We saw each other every day and we were always in dailies together looking at the scenes. Because there was always a decision to be made: Shall we move the camera Shall we change the stereo Change the edit The lens All of these things are not isolated from each other. It’s not like 3D is separate from camera. They’re really part of the same list of files that we could work our way down. And sometimes we’d change one thing. Sometimes, it would be the other. It could be the lens, it could be the stereo, it could be the edit. So we were always there together, working out all of the possibilities.”

And those possibilities fascinated and enabled director Rob Letterman: “That was one of the things that attracted me to the project, was just pushing it as far as we possibly could. And the funny thing is, we were already pushing the visual effects before we started down the road of 3D, so the 3D made it even bigger. The interesting thing was that 3D proved beneficial to our film’s scale. Ginormica is 49 feet 11 inches tall; Insectosaurus is 350 feet tall. And we have other characters that are six or eight feet tall. So we were dealing with a lot of scale–it would have been very difficult to put that kind of scale on a regular movie screen. But the 3D actually helped us enhance that and get the feeling of standing below a skyscraper, which is the size of some of these monsters. So it’s not a gimmick as much as it’s something that actually helped us, which is what attracted me to the whole process–it enabled us to tell our story.”

In fact, the process for “Monsters vs. Aliens” actually flipped the standard practice of ‘2D first, 3D after’ on its head. As not every theater is equipped with digital 3D capability yet, 2D prints were also created…but after the 3D version. Rob Letterman: “We made sure we were telling our story first in 3D. And then, when we did the 2D cut, what we changed were such things as pacing–for example, 3D shots need to go longer because the human brain cannot absorb all of that information as quickly as in 2D. So what works in 3D may not have the same energy and pace in 2D.”