Film Short: 3D Panels from “Alice in Wonderland” and “How to Train Your Dragon” at NAB
The Content Theater at NAB 2010 featured several interesting panels. Among them were back to back discussions with the technical teams of the 3D hit movies “Alice in Wonderland” and “How to Train Your Dragon”. The Alice in Wonderland: Turning Art Fantasy into Motion Picture Reality panel was on stage first and featured moderator Christina Giardina, journalist from The Hollywood Reporter; Executive Vice President of Visual Effects and Production for The Walt Disney Studios; Ken Ralston, the movie’s multi Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor; stereographer Corey Turner and Tom Peitzman, co-producer/visual effects producer for the film.
Describing Tim Burton as a very visual director, the group told us they had to determine his comfort level with 3D and then provide the right working environments for him. Among the daunting challenges Tim faced was deciding the imagery of the Red Queen, who is standing in front of a green screen, and trying to envision exactly what her eyes would look like. Ralston was there leading the charge and assisting. Adding to the pressure was the aggressive one and a half year production schedule Disney gave them, which began with 900 shots and grew to approximately 1900. Figuring out just how to get the project done including takeaways, time schedules and a way to do the bookends for the film was one of the first tasks the team faced.
The rabbit hole scene was shot on film four days before principal photography started and they were hoping for the kind of black and white to color effect the Wizard of Oz is known for. IN-THREE, Inc. and Sassoon Film Designs had five months to work on that 16 minute segment, which turned out to be a fairly comfortable schedule. It was pointed out that in 3D the diffiiculties in scheduling depends on what variables there are with the type of content being created.
Repola mentioned that with the new technology it’s not easy to meet an exact timeline for producing each part of the film. Logistics are hard to determine from the time when producers come in to when a release date is picked. He stressed the importance of doing this, however. He added, “Hire the best people in the world to do what they do and get it done.”
As for the visual effects, Ken commented, “Tim doesn’t do a lot of storyboards. He hates them. He’s a very interesting guy. I love him.” Still Ralston had to create an environment where changes could be done quickly. This meant doing Previz and allowing Tim to get to know Ken. “He had to trust me,” Ralston continued. “I try to get with the director and get to know him as well as I can,” he explained. In this case that included reading Tim’s book in an effort to gain some insight. When designing the shots the production crew had to be aware of everything. In order to facilitate this, they built miniatures to give the actors an understanding of what it would look like, which was often difficult considering what Ralston referred to as the “vast sea of green” of the screens.
They decided to try blowing up the Red Queen’s head and putting it on her body to see how it would look. . “What’s great about Tim is he’s an artist to the end,” Ralston went on. This meant that all decisions came from the artist’s perspective and the main actors were shot first without any background cast. Since Burton still had decisions to make about how the scenes would look, everything had to be shot again later and duplicated with extras.
Ken sculpted Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum and put them in front Burton. It was his desire that Tim be able to concentrate on the actors more than the technology, which worked out well judging from the rock solid performances Burton was able to get from his cast. Working so much with the green screen Ralston described as fatiguing and asserted that it had a bad psychological effect. Whatever’s in a shot has to be discussed and analyzed in order “to create the kind of visual effects work that doesn’t draw attention to itself,” he explained. It had to be just Wonderland. “Tim was great cause he’s an animator anyway,” he added.
Tom Peitzman mentioned that Burton moved from London to Los Angeles to do the film and that it had a very positive impact having him in the room with the team of 10+ animators running through the story.
It was decided that most of the human characters would be off physically somehow and that with Depp it would be his eyes that wouldn’t look quite right. Alice would be “only perfect human character in that world,” Ralston told us. He admits there were times when he wondered how they were going to get the show done without driving everyone nuts.
”I think a lot of the old school technologies worked out well,” Peitzman commented. He described how the team working with the green screens had to pull out their calculators and check everything to scale in order to get the eye lines right.
Ralston believes a lot of their success came from getting to know the actors. “You have to have them perform together,” he said adding that he thinks small things can make a shot work, which was the case with both the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen.
Referring to 3D conversion as “quite terrifying”, Corey Turner explained that his team would figure out the sequences and how certain characters would look by creating a digital version of them. They added some geometry and then projected it. With the cat they didn’t want to play it safe, so they experimented allowing the feline to invade the audience’s space at times, while creating a “seamless stereoscopic experience”. Corey tried to keep up with the cuts being made and that one common method utilized was to use two cameras to offset the images. He joked that because of the tight schedule there was a period when the only time he left his dark room was to visit Burton’s dark room. Blending was essential, taking the audience to a certain depth and then taking it away, so that they could, “ease people into the depth we wanted to achieve.” Corey firmly believes, “It’s a creative process more than it’s a technical process.”
Tom said that they looked at the shots in 2D first, which he did judging the depth with Ken and Corey. He told us that they had a 97-98% success rate doing that first and working in parallel with 2D and 3D, otherwise the process would have taken a much longer time. Ken summarized, “In the end, we did it and we had a blast doing it.”
Next up the panel from “How to Train Your Dragon” consisting of moderator Variety’s David Cohen; the film’s writer/director, Dean DuBlois; production designer. Kathy Altieri; sound designer Randy Thorn and head of layout, Gil Zimmerman took to the stage.
Kicking off the conversation, Kathy told us that she worked with visual consultant and DP, Roger Deacon to support the look and feel of the story in “Dragon”. She continued, “We were encouraged to drop a lot away and let the audience fill it in.”
Speaking next Randy commented on the opening sequence for the movie. “Dean and Chris wanted there to be some open spaces for sound and music,” adding that he had to be judicious in picking what to focus on in the moment. There were lots of handheld shots adding realism to the scenes Gil told us. He and Kathy went on to say that the design for the village was done during a four year period and that they didn’t know what changes might happen to it once they entered production. They explained that people are separated while working on their modules in an animated film. Having designed everything in the movie, they were able to make adjustments for dramatic moments, such as the scene where the boy meets the large beast. They decided to let the relationship flourish with little dialogue. They said that in some ways the role of the dragon compared with Chewbacca in “Star Wars”.
As for sound, Randy said it was a tribute to John Powell, who did a wonderful job with the film, giving it a lot of character. What the dragon sounded like was as important as determining what he would look like and a lot of inspiration came from the horse in “The Black Stallion”. They needed him to be vicious in some scenes and gentle as a pussycat in others, so the main concern was “trying to make good artistic choices.” The voice for Toothless was created from whales, horses and the sound guys after a lot of experimenting. The goal was to imitate the whale, but to sound more human and make him friendlier.
The decision to use 3D for telling the story was a decision made by all of them and it was an artistic choice. They didn’t want it to be the cart leading the horse, however, so they flattened it where need be and pumped it up during the dramatic moments to prioritize story telling. Lots of discussions transpired determining how 3D was going to be integrated because they didn’t want it to appear gimmicky. At that point they believed “Coraline” was the most successful model combining layout, color and sound and visuals.
The team produced ”Dragon” in three ways adding more 3D and volume and discovered that the volumetric version was harder to watch. They realized that it worked best to grow the stereo bringing the audience closer shot by shot with the animation. They also took great care in tastefully setting up their “natural reach moments”, bringing Toothless way out into the audience. In action scenes the use of 3D was easier. Another plus was that by the time they animated, they knew what the cut order was going to be and that no special 3D sound mix was going to be made, preferring to use a normal 5.1 channel.
Kathy said that one of the challenges with using 3D was having enough things for the camera to run through to create the 3D effect. The details in ground surfaces give 3D space. “Be aware of the edges and what’s being cut out of the edges,” she advised. As director, Dean had several stylistic choices to make, some of which came under fire. One was allowing a sequence to go to five minutes, rather than limit it to three which some people thought best because it is an animated film. Dean held his ground because he believed that the scene would be better without a break since rapid cutting doesn’t lend itself to 3D stereo.
Finishing up the conversation, Gil commented on the amount of blood, sweat and tears that went into the production, adding that halfway through he realized they were making something to be proud of warranting the amount of love that went into it. Taking that into account, perhaps the ingredients that matter most when creating films like this are the simplest: great content and talented people with the dedication to turn a dream into reality.