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Flying Monsters comes to life

15 February 2011
Flying Monsters comes to life

After movies and live sports, documentary programming is getting the 3D treatment. To help finance the uplift in 3D production producers are looking to cinema and IMAX outlets as well as to the small screen, presenting unique challenges on location. Adrian Pennington reports.

Atlantic Productions’ Flying Monsters, commissioned by Sky to be a flagship documentary on its 3D channel last Christmas, bagged a number of production firsts. It is claimed as the first film intended for exhibition on an array of formats spanning IMAX 2D and 3D, IMAX Dome; 2D and 3D cinema release and TV. It is the first time an IMAX film has had an on-screen presenter (Sir David Attenborough) and it is the first 3D documentary intended for general cinema release.

The nature of its subject, prehistoric pterosaurs, leant heavily on CGI. Of the 340 shots in the hour long piece, 140 were either CG, stills or post converted elements which needed integrating into live action backgrounds shot in New Mexico, France, Germany, Lyme Regis and the Eden Project.

The multiple deliverables presented the production with some huge challenges, not least having to frame each shot and design the 3D so it worked on both a 100ft IMAX screen and a domestic TV – without the luxury of multiple takes. To cope with the different formats, a pair of Red Mysterium-X cameras were selected, shooting at 4k 16×9. These, along with a digital imaging technician and Element Technica Quasar rig, were supplied by On Sight. The Red RAW data was recorded to cards and checked by the DIT for data integrity

The resolution was of sufficient quality for the largest screens while enabling post production to punch in for a slightly tighter framing for the smaller ones. In addition to the usual 2D crew, two additional people were needed for the 3D – the rig tech to look after the sophisticated 3D hardware and the stereographer who was responsible for designing the stereo.

Ultra prime fixed-length lenses (no zoom) were used to maximise image quality but lens changes required precise realignment taking up to 20 minutes – although this was somewhat ameliorated by needing less cuts in 3D because of the extra information that it conveys. In preparation for this, the script was broken down and storyboarded, specifying every shot size and angle.

“Because wider angle lenses give the best and most engaging 3D we used those even on close-ups rather than switching to longer focal lengths,” explains project stereographer and Vision3 founding partner, Chris Parks. “Being forced to work in a more considered way did constrain shooting a little but it actually worked well since we were trying to achieve a focus on the information and the narration rather than on lots of cuts.”

Capturing to IMAX dome was particularly extreme with DP Tim Cragg mindful that the image ‘loses’ the corners of the frame on projection. “Also, if you frame a standard full shot for TV it’s likely that the presenter’s head will be behind you when projected on IMAX Dome,” explains Parks. “To compensate you need to keep the primary subject framed a third to a half way up the screen and take close-ups much wider than you would normally for TV.

“The broad approach was to keep the 3D pretty relaxed when Sir David was on screen in a similar way to how you might use softer lighting when shooting a portrait,” he adds. “Sir David was placed slightly further back in the shot than we might otherwise have done so that the audience is concentrating on what he is saying, rather than the stereo effect. For close-up shots of the fossils, we made strong use of the depth to help explain an otherwise relatively flat subject.

“For the CGI, where we had close control over the depth, we pulled more out into theatre space to make the audience feel like they were flying with the 50 million-year-old pterosaurs.”

The rushes were prepared in 2D and offlined at Atlantic on Avid. A sequence of 2D selects were delivered back to Onsight where they were prepped into side by side DNxHD 36 files for review on an LG stereo monitor.

With the picture locked, the piece was conformed with the original Red footage in Mistika at On Sight and the final list of CGI instructions handed to Molinare, Zoo, Fido (in Stockholm) and CVFX by VFX supervisor Robin Aristorenas.

Most of the shots were built in full stereo 3D CGI environments but around 20 were post converted by Chris Panton on Shake at Dimenxion in North London. Some were stock footage landscapes to help with the scale of the CG build of the creatures. Others were built from stills provided as additional narrative elements and some were to correct the stereo original, which wasn’t useable.

“The 3D went through various technical stages to ensure that the geometry and colour between left and right eye matched,” explains post stereographer and co-founder Vision3 Angus Cameron. “It went through a preliminary camera match pass to make sure both ‘eyes’ looked the same before grading in 2D. We then tested to DCP and reviewed the results from the point of view of a 3D grade. We next performed a 3D ripple grade in which we apply adjustments to the 2D grade particularly adjusting for light loss when projected on a big screen.”

Nuke’s colour matching tools were used to align both channels before any visual anomolies, such as occasional polarisation, were finessed out. The final stage was the depth grade, a process of adjusting the depth of objects in relation to the screen plane and how that shot relates in terms of continuity and flow to the next.

“Since IMAX audiences are less aware of the edge of the frame than TV viewers we have the ability to push more towards the audience,” explains Cameron, who supervised a separate depth grade, and shorter version, for the format. “Because we had a tight turnaround for delivery and were getting VFX quite late in the process it was important in terms of post to be able to jump between grade, conform and stereo fix within the same Mistika system,” says Cameron.

The production was also mindful of creating a programme that would stand the test of time. “Currently the quality threshold for 3DTV stereo is generally low,” he says. “Audiences aren’t used to seeing 3D so they accept this but if they look back on it in 10 years time the effect could look awfully dated and the errors really standout. Since a Sir David Attenborough documentary is timeless we wanted to create a high quality product that you could replay in a decade and not notice the joins.”

This month Atlantic begins production in South Georgia on a new documentary about the life of penguins for Sky. Again shot on Reds with Vision3 stereo supervising, the Sir David Attenborough-narrated Penguin Island 3D will be more of a conventional natural history which means that planning can never be perfect.

“With Flying Monsters we had a narrative arc with which we could plan the 3D in advance but with penguins we will have to be flexible to their behaviour,” says Parks. “3D should work well with this subject since we can get up close and in amongst them.”

After movies and live sports, documentary programming is getting the 3D treatment. To help finance the uplift in 3D production producers are looking to cinema and IMAX outlets as well as to the small screen, presenting unique challenges on location. Adrian Pennington reports.

Atlantic Productions’ Flying Monsters, commissioned by Sky to be a flagship documentary on its 3D channel last Christmas, bagged a number of production firsts. It is claimed as the first film intended for exhibition on an array of formats spanning IMAX 2D and 3D, IMAX Dome; 2D and 3D cinema release and TV. It is the first time an IMAX film has had an on-screen presenter (Sir David Attenborough) and it is the first 3D documentary intended for general cinema release.

The nature of its subject, prehistoric pterosaurs, leant heavily on CGI. Of the 340 shots in the hour long piece, 140 were either CG, stills or post converted elements which needed integrating into live action backgrounds shot in New Mexico, France, Germany, Lyme Regis and the Eden Project.

The multiple deliverables presented the production with some huge challenges, not least having to frame each shot and design the 3D so it worked on both a 100ft IMAX screen and a domestic TV – without the luxury of multiple takes. To cope with the different formats, a pair of Red Mysterium-X cameras were selected, shooting at 4k 16×9. These, along with a digital imaging technician and Element Technica Quasar rig, were supplied by On Sight. The Red RAW data was recorded to cards and checked by the DIT for data integrity

The resolution was of sufficient quality for the largest screens while enabling post production to punch in for a slightly tighter framing for the smaller ones. In addition to the usual 2D crew, two additional people were needed for the 3D – the rig tech to look after the sophisticated 3D hardware and the stereographer who was responsible for designing the stereo.

Ultra prime fixed-length lenses (no zoom) were used to maximise image quality but lens changes required precise realignment taking up to 20 minutes – although this was somewhat ameliorated by needing less cuts in 3D because of the extra information that it conveys. In preparation for this, the script was broken down and storyboarded, specifying every shot size and angle.

“Because wider angle lenses give the best and most engaging 3D we used those even on close-ups rather than switching to longer focal lengths,” explains project stereographer and Vision3 founding partner, Chris Parks. “Being forced to work in a more considered way did constrain shooting a little but it actually worked well since we were trying to achieve a focus on the information and the narration rather than on lots of cuts.”

Capturing to IMAX dome was particularly extreme with DP Tim Cragg mindful that the image ‘loses’ the corners of the frame on projection. “Also, if you frame a standard full shot for TV it’s likely that the presenter’s head will be behind you when projected on IMAX Dome,” explains Parks. “To compensate you need to keep the primary subject framed a third to a half way up the screen and take close-ups much wider than you would normally for TV.

“The broad approach was to keep the 3D pretty relaxed when Sir David was on screen in a similar way to how you might use softer lighting when shooting a portrait,” he adds. “Sir David was placed slightly further back in the shot than we might otherwise have done so that the audience is concentrating on what he is saying, rather than the stereo effect. For close-up shots of the fossils, we made strong use of the depth to help explain an otherwise relatively flat subject.

“For the CGI, where we had close control over the depth, we pulled more out into theatre space to make the audience feel like they were flying with the 50 million-year-old pterosaurs.”

The rushes were prepared in 2D and offlined at Atlantic on Avid. A sequence of 2D selects were delivered back to Onsight where they were prepped into side by side DNxHD 36 files for review on an LG stereo monitor.

With the picture locked, the piece was conformed with the original Red footage in Mistika at On Sight and the final list of CGI instructions handed to Molinare, Zoo, Fido (in Stockholm) and CVFX by VFX supervisor Robin Aristorenas.

Most of the shots were built in full stereo 3D CGI environments but around 20 were post converted by Chris Panton on Shake at Dimenxion in North London. Some were stock footage landscapes to help with the scale of the CG build of the creatures. Others were built from stills provided as additional narrative elements and some were to correct the stereo original, which wasn’t useable.

“The 3D went through various technical stages to ensure that the geometry and colour between left and right eye matched,” explains post stereographer and co-founder Vision3 Angus Cameron. “It went through a preliminary camera match pass to make sure both ‘eyes’ looked the same before grading in 2D. We then tested to DCP and reviewed the results from the point of view of a 3D grade. We next performed a 3D ripple grade in which we apply adjustments to the 2D grade particularly adjusting for light loss when projected on a big screen.”

Nuke’s colour matching tools were used to align both channels before any visual anomolies, such as occasional polarisation, were finessed out. The final stage was the depth grade, a process of adjusting the depth of objects in relation to the screen plane and how that shot relates in terms of continuity and flow to the next.

“Since IMAX audiences are less aware of the edge of the frame than TV viewers we have the ability to push more towards the audience,” explains Cameron, who supervised a separate depth grade, and shorter version, for the format. “Because we had a tight turnaround for delivery and were getting VFX quite late in the process it was important in terms of post to be able to jump between grade, conform and stereo fix within the same Mistika system,” says Cameron.

The production was also mindful of creating a programme that would stand the test of time. “Currently the quality threshold for 3DTV stereo is generally low,” he says. “Audiences aren’t used to seeing 3D so they accept this but if they look back on it in 10 years time the effect could look awfully dated and the errors really standout. Since a Sir David Attenborough documentary is timeless we wanted to create a high quality product that you could replay in a decade and not notice the joins.”

This month Atlantic begins production in South Georgia on a new documentary about the life of penguins for Sky. Again shot on Reds with Vision3 stereo supervising, the Sir David Attenborough-narrated Penguin Island 3D will be more of a conventional natural history which means that planning can never be perfect.

“With Flying Monsters we had a narrative arc with which we could plan the 3D in advance but with penguins we will have to be flexible to their behaviour,” says Parks. “3D should work well with this subject since we can get up close and in amongst them.”

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