Walt Disney Animation Studios has been a leader in the current stereoscopic 3-D renaissance going back to Chicken Little, the first digital 3-D feature shown in theatres. Robert Neuman has been there since that beginning, moving from the 2D world of layout on films like Dinosaur to layout supervision on Chicken Little, then into stereo layout and supervision on Meet the Robinsons and Bolt. Robert has since become the studio’s stereoscopic supervisor on Tangled, the recent 3-D conversions of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast and the upcoming 2013 3-D release of The Little Mermaid.
I recently had a chance to talk with him about the growing use of 3-D at the studio and its impact on the creative process.
Dan Sarto: From your perspective, are you satisfied with the way the studio is using 3-D and how your group is being able to make inroads and push the technical envelope forward?
Robert Neuman: Oh yeah. If you’re going to work in 3-D right now, the best place to be working is in animation. Live action, just from a technical standpoint, you just can’t do the things that we can do in animation because we have theoretically perfect virtual cameras and we have at our disposal some techniques which would be impractical, currently, to implement in live action. On Tangled it was commonplace for me to use multi-rig, multiple stereo pairs, each one dialed in to get the exact amount that we wanted for the next part of the shot and then composite it, sandwich it back together in a great resulting scene.
That’s something that would be very difficult, you’d have to have multiple green screens - I don’t know how you'd even do in live action. It would be an impractical thing. So you’re at the mercy of the physical constraints on where you can put the camera. Sometimes the only way to get your shot is with the camera at some distance and you use a long lens. Telephoto lenses tend to make problems for 3-D. They create a cardboard effect where everything looks flat.
So given that, currently it would be very difficult if not impossible to make a [live action] film which looks as good in 3-D as Tangled. Animation is definitely the place if you really want to push the envelope of 3-D right now.
DS: Where in the life cycle of a film do you get involved? At what stage do you get involved and how long do you typically work on a film?
RN: In stereo, I’m there from beginning to end. In the very beginning of the creative process, it’s just helping create a better awareness of what makes for good 3-D versus bad 3-D since creatively the storyboards are 2D-based. That’s the extent to which story boarding is benefited by 3-D. During layouts is when the stereo layout process starts, which is towards the beginning of the production certainly. So [I’m involved] from layout through lighting and the final buy off on the deliverables.
DS: How much additional time, effort and budget does stereoscopic 3-D really add to film production?
RN: 3-D doesn’t come without a cost. There is definitely a price tag. I don’t deal with the numbers and money that much, since I’m doing the creative side, but there is a price tag to it. However, it’s relatively inexpensive when you do it simultaneously the way we’re doing it. If you go back and try to convert something or you do it after the fact as a follow-on process it starts to become more costly. But by integrating it [from the beginning], it’s the most efficient way to do it. So simultaneously we would be creating your left and right images.
DS: Film’s like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, we’re talking something very different.
RN: Yes, it’s like a whole different kind of process.
DS: These films are some of Disney’s greatest theatrical treasures. Does that put any pressure on you because fundamentally you’re changing the visual essence of the original film?
RN: Well, yes and no. As an audience member watching it, it is a whole different experience, which is one of the great things about it. You’re taking a great film that everybody loves and you’re giving them [the audience] a fresh perspective, a fresh pair of eyes to watch it with. But on the other hand, if you were to close one eye, the same exact film that you’ve always loved, it’s there. We’ve had the benefit that all the titles we’ve worked on or are working on have the original filmmakers involved. You don’t have to worry about straying from the vision of filmmakers because the filmmakers are right there.
But then, on the other hand, to be honest, my approach is story first. It’s trying to make the 3-D appropriate for the moment of the story. So I think if you’re looking at what the story is demanding and not trying to do grandstanding with the 3-D, if you’re trying to serve the story and you do it well I think it’s hard to go off track. It keeps you on the rails, I think.
I think I’m pretty much on good ground because of my approach. But beyond that, like I said, it was really nice that we had the original filmmakers involved. And then, at the end of the day, if you close one eye it’s [the film] been basically untouched. Actually, some of the ways they've [the films] been touched has been for the better. Some filmmakers said, “God, we always wanted to fix up that little paint pop that never got fixed.” Well, it’s like we have the hood up and we’re there, so we can tinker with it.
What we did was enhance stuff like effects, volumetric effects like rain. With rain, when you’re drawing 2D rain, it’s a couple of drops. But it’s another thing in 3-D. You want to feel that there is a volume to them. And so to do that we needed to create more of that rain but even then, the approach was to not tamper with the film.
So to create more rain what we did is we multiplied out the original 2D artwork effects levels. I guess another company could have gone the route of adding in some particle effects of rain, but we wanted to keep the original flavor, the original 2D rain art work levels. To do that we would take it and kind of build up the volume of it, duplicate it and scale it up a little bit as it’s coming towards you. And so it all has the same exact flavor of the original artwork, and that’s just for those few cases where there is something volumetric we had to do. Otherwise, it’s the same. Like I said, if you close one eye it’s the same exact film.
DS: How much does making a 3-D film impact the design work? How much of your work involves helping others learn and get more comfortable with the process?
RN: It’s an evolving process. I don’t think this is as integrated into those earlier phases of design and story as it eventually will be, as 3-D becomes more ubiquitous. But currently I’d say it’s more of an educational process and an awareness process at the studio, done through just turning out good content and having everybody be exposed to that. Also [it involves] doing seminars and giving 3-D classes to make people aware of what makes good 3-D stereo composition versus 2D.
I think we’re reaping the benefits of that as we plant those seeds. But it isn’t to the extent where we have a stereo guy working with the story department. But like I said, I think just having a creative culture at the studio where we’re turning out really great 3-D and pushing the inflow of it, and as everybody is coming to see the results happen on the screen they’re taking that back with them. When they’re doing storyboarding, a part of their brain is thinking about this. They’re getting to have an idea and concept of what it’s going to look like when it lines up going through the whole process of being on the screen. So I think that it’s [the impact of 3-D on design] on that scale versus a more proactive thing.
DS: What have been some of the greatest challenges in integrating new 3-D technologies, new methodologies, and new paradigms into Disney’s existing production pipeline?
RN: Well I think I’m fortunate, because it’s animation and we have all these tools. I can allow filmmakers in different parts of the pipeline, the layout artists, the lighting artists, I can let them basically do their work largely unhampered without having to worry about the 3-D because I have enough tools in my tool belt to create a really great end result. If this were live action and the cinematographer made a particular camera choice, it could be the doom of that shot. That shot would be relegated to being second-rate 3-D. But largely speaking, I do cycle back and forth with layout for some things. There are some things and cases where it’s just the most efficient way and it makes no difference to the esthetics of the 2D to make a certain change for 3-D.
For example, a typical one that we run into is low camera angles. If you have a low camera angle shot where if you’re looking at the composition of the frame, your horizon line is going to be really low in frame. That type of shot.
Well if you’re talking about a 2D graphical composition, what they're interested in is where that horizon line is falling, keeping that really low horizon line. But what they’re not looking at is depending on where they’ve physically placed their camera, that little sliver of ground plane, the bottom of the frame, may be representing two feet of ground plane, or it could be representing 20 feet of ground plane.
So Z axis-wise, for stereo composition, it makes a big difference. For 2D composition, graphically it’s the same thing. So it makes my life a lot easier for some of the shots to nudge the camera up a little bit. It keeps the integrity of the shot from a 2D standpoint great, and it gives me a better result in 3-D.
In some cases we work back and forth between layout trying to get a better result. But in other cases, for example, in live action, if the only way the director could get a shot is to go with a 200 millimeter lens, that shot would make for terrible 3-D. I have these techniques at my disposal, as somebody working in animation, where I can use multi-rigging. I had shots in Tangled where we used 8 separate stereo rigs to sculpt the depth of the shot. So I’m able to take something that wasn’t, nominally speaking, in a good place for 3-D and make it great. I think that’s been one thing that has allowed the process to flow, and maybe not have to create as many rough points in terms of integrating 2D into 3-D.
DS: It sounds like, unlike live action, you really have the luxury of working in and around the people making the film without imposing a tremendous amount of structure in how they’re working.
RN: Exactly. And at the same time, getting all the benefits of, as we’re creating, as we’re having all this great looking 3-D come through the pipeline, having everybody along the way start to realize the potential, and as part of their own process, just kind of in an organic way, start to adopt it.
DS: What is the next big 3-D innovation going to be?
RN: Well I’m not sure if there is one on the horizon, a single kind of game changing thing that I’m looking towards. So far, we’ve had a lot of ideas that really were innovational for 3-D that we introduced in our animated films. I don’t necessarily know how many more of these there are. What I've seen is a refinement of our technique, with each film just trying to keep on pushing the envelope a little bit more, using most of the same techniques that we’ve already developed. It's been more of a refinement, integrating it more into the process, and just seeing where the opportunities are to tell a better story. Like I said, as you get more and more acceptance from the 2D filmmaking community, it starts to lend itself to more opportunities. So it’s been that kind of organic growth that we’ve been doing. But yeah, with every film we have we’ve pushed things more. We did a lot of ground breaking stuff on Bolt. On Bolt we did this multi-rig technique, as an example of one of the things we developed.
We had maybe 10 shots on Bolt using the multi-rigs. On Tangled, certainly on over 30% of Tangled we were using multi-rigs. So it’s refining the technique, getting it to fit more into the process, and then allowing that to expand our use of it. On Bolt it was tougher. On Tangled I didn’t have to compromise on a single shot esthetically from a 3-D standpoint. I was able to get each shot to where I wanted to get it, and so that was just pushing, taking these techniques that we started on Bolt and pushing forwards on Tangled.
And like I said I’m continuing to do that, continuing to improve the technique, integrate it more into the process, and then start to see the benefits come from having a studio that’s becoming more and more immersed in 3-D, seeing what kind of opportunities that lends itself to.
Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.