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Converting ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ to Stereo 3-D

Stereographer Jeremy Carroll discusses the careful, creative decisions needed to convert animation, including the depth of a scene and how exaggerated the action can be so audience’s eyes don’t become fatigued and ruin their experience.

Stereographer Jeremy Carroll has worked at SDFX Studios (formerly StereoD) for 12 years, overseeing the stereo 3-D conversion of more than 35 feature films including the re-imagining of Jaws this past fall, done in conjunction with Amblin’ Entertainment, Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg. He also supports the team on a large number of Marvel projects.

His work with DreamWorks Animation, most recently on Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and earlier last year on The Bad Guys, presented the unusual prospect of re-imagining finished 2D animation for the stereoscopic space.

We spoke to Carroll about the careful work that went into bringing Puss in Boots: The Last Wish onto 3-D screens.

AWN: Animation can take all kinds of liberties with the laws of physics that live-action shows, even those with heavy VFX, really can’t. Does that fact change how you think about approaching a movie like The Last Wish?

Jeremy Carroll: Definitely. When you're dealing with an animated feature, really anything goes. There are a lot of things in the 2D version that stretch the bounds of reality. We encounter certain things that we generally won’t see in a live-action film, even a Marvel movie, with superheroes and elaborate visual effects. That's the nice thing about animation, and it’s also the challenge when it comes to creating a 3-D version.

This was certainly true of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which is part of the Shreck universe and deals with fantasy and magic. Everything is more dynamic and bigger than life -- the characters, the motions. Everything is more exaggerated.

AWN: For people who aren’t that familiar with what you do for a live-action film, can you give us a quick overview?

JC: Sure. SDFX Studios has offices in Los Angeles, Toronto and Pune, India. We offer traditional 2D VFX and Stereo VFX for distribution in 3-D. A stereographer like myself will look at the 2D scenes and, working with people such as Kyle Pascucci, Digital Imaging Manager at DreamWorks, or Matt Baer VFX Sup at DreamWorks, make decisions about how to approach opening it up into 3-D. Just like a stereographer on a film that captures 3-D on set, we’ll figure out the how the depth of the scene should be represented in 3-D space based on where objects are in the frame, how close the camera, or virtual camera, is to the subject of the shot and other physical elements.

Then we also factor in what the scene should feel like emotionally. It’s not just about making some calculations and coming up with the “correct” way to represent the third dimension. There is a lot of creative decision making that goes into stereography. And, finally, we also factor in how much depth we should represent from shot to shot based on the effect it has on the viewer. You can’t build in extreme amounts of depth for an entire feature. Viewers get fatigued if you do that. You have to be careful going from a shot representing very little depth, where the left and right “eye” are almost identical to one with a great deal of depth, where the two images are significantly offset from each other. In live-action stereography, the distance is created based on how far apart the two lenses are or the interocular distance.

AWN: So, as a stereographer you have a lot of flexibility to determine how much 3-D each shot is going to be? There’s not some “right” amount?

JC: Correct. There’s a lot of creativity involved. And then, when those decisions are made, SDFX Studios does an enormous amount of rotoscope work on every frame in order to reconstruct the two images, the left and right “eye” that make up the stereoscopic version of the scene. A very simple explanation of the overall concept is that the more the parallax is between the two “eyes,” the more depth the image will have to the viewer. So, we get the 2D plates from DreamWorks and do extensive rotoscoping and pixel shift work to generate as a unique left and right “eye” correctly adding in the parallax between the two images to create the 3-D effect. 

AWN: Can you talk about some of what you did specifically on The Last Wish?

JC: There’s a shot in the film where Puss is launched out of a bass guitar and he’s flying towards the “camera” and holding an outstretched sword pointing right at the audience. He’s launched from hundreds and hundreds of feet away flying right at us and he hangs in the frame for a moment way up front and the background is very far away. There was this sense of wanting to play that moment very big in 3-D. And we do, but there is a point where you can't push it as far as you’d like because then it becomes too uncomfortable for the viewer to watch because the degree of parallax would just be too much.  So, it’s a process of playing the distance appropriately without overdoing it and causing distress in the viewer or taking them out of the story.

AWN: So, there are still limits to what you can do even within the freedom of animation?

JC: Absolutely. With anything that we do, we're always thinking about what's going to be comfortable for the audience and what's going to look good, what’s going to help tell the story and what's going to be too much and distract from the story. That's true when we convert any film but it’s more pronounced with animated films.

AWN: Since your work has been almost entirely for live-action projects, did you study other animated films that were released in 3-D before you started these projects with DreamWorks?

JC: One of the things I did when we first started working with DreamWorks was to watch their previous films, because they've been doing animated films in 3-D for a decade plus. We watched their older films to understand what their style was in terms of how they approached 3-D and what we could do to make it still feel like a DreamWorks film. I watched the original Puss in Boots film, Rise of the Guardians and How to Train Your Dragon. All three of those films are excellent examples of 3-D.  I also looked at some of their more recent films to see how their approach evolved and to see just how they play the stereo on certain types of shots like wide camera angles in closeups and how far they push those big 3-D moments. I wanted to make sure we’re doing something that is in line with what they've already established. 

AWN: Did you find that with an animated film like The Last Wish, you were doing more isolating and rotoscoping than you’d do for a live-action movie?

JC: It’s not enormously different but there can be more work like that. As I said, the action isn’t constrained by reality, so you run into sequences that are a bit more intense than you’re likely to find in a live-action movie in terms of what's going on in the scene. There’s just a lot more chaos and a lot more objects in the scene. On a standard shot, we’d roto a little more depending on the details on the characters because there’s so much detail that the animators included in the backgrounds and the clothing and all that. The main character has a lot of feather detail in his cap and in his cape and he has whiskers that we’ll isolate for the 3-D work. I think animated films are by nature more colorful and brighter and more dynamic in just the character movements. The camera movements and the way everything is framed all lends itself very well to 3-D.

I would highly recommend to people who want to see Puss in Boots: The Last Wish to see it 3-D if they can. The conversion represents a lot of work by hundreds of people. But primarily, it’s a film that lends itself very well to 3-D because of the wonderful imagery that DreamWorks and their entire team created.