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Prime Focus Brings The Last Emperor into 3D

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CreativeCOW presents Prime Focus Brings The Last Emperor into 3D -- TV & Movie Appreciation Editorial


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On November 10 at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, director Bernardo Bertolucci will introduce the new 3D version of his 1987 visual masterpiece, The Last Emperor. The movie, which was shot by Vittorio Storaro and independently produced by Jeremy Thomas, was converted to 3D by Prime Focus World in London and Mumbai, with the participation and enthusiastic approval of Bertolucci. The new 3D version was unveiled at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival; the AFI Festival screening is the movie's North American debut.

Although numerous new movies are shot in 2D with the intention to convert to 3D in post, a handful of older 2D movies also get the 3D treatment, such as Jurassic Park and The Wizard of Oz. Whereas a 3D conversion may seem like a natural choice for a popular action/adventure movie, it appears to be less obvious for a dramatic classic, which garnered a Best Cinematography Oscar for Storaro among its nine Academy Awards.

Yet the filmmakers embraced the opportunity to add a dimension to the 65mm film, a way to literally deepen the movie's many spectacular scenes. The conversion was led by Prime Focus in London, where Matthew Bristowe is Senior VP, Production, View-D and Richard Baker is Creative Director/Senior Stereographer. Prime Focus offers its proprietary View-D 2D-to-3D conversion process, which has been used to convert World War Z, Star Wars Episode 1, Men in Black 3 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


Matthew Bristowe is Senior VP, Production, View-D Richard Baker is Creative Director/Senior Stereographer
Left, Matthew Bristowe is Senior VP, Production, View-D. Right, Richard Baker is Creative Director/Senior Stereographer.

According to Bristowe, Prime Focus was first approached with The Last Emperor project two years ago. "When we watched it again, we realized what a very stunning film it is," he says. "Every frame, every shot, is full of intention. Everything there needs to be there to tell the story. We felt as a creative team that whatever we do cannot distract from that. There was a huge weight on our shoulders to match the expectations of the original."


Vittorio Storaro, A.S.C., A.I.C.
Vittorio Storaro, A.S.C., A.I.C.


At the time, he notes, critics were quick to pounce on 2D-to-3D converted films. "It was a bold move to make a conversion of a masterpiece," he says. "But we knew it could be done. It was a matter of gaining trust with Bertolucci and Storaro." To that end, Prime Focus did 12 test shots. "We did the big iconic sequence of the Emperor's coronation, when he runs through the yellow curtain and you see the army and the people laid out before him," says Baker. "We selected medium shots, close-ups, and wide angles and that represented the style of the film as a whole, and they really liked the work."


The Last Emperor


"There are a lot of wide angle lenses in this film, and it was about getting good balances of depth," Baker adds. "You don't want to detract from the content. It's about being sympathetic to the photography that's already there. We focused on the style of the project and used 3D not as a gimmick but to bring to life aspects in the frame that might not have caught your eye before. Jeremy said he found himself looking into parts of the frame he hadn't noticed before. Then I flew out to Rome to meet Bertolucci and show it to him. His feedback was good, so I was left to get on with it." Baker notes that, from a creative point, Bertolucci was also impressed with the amount of control over the image with View-D conversion tools. Other tools used in the conversion included Fusion, Nuke and Silhouette.

The first step of the process took place at Technicolor Rome: a full restoration of the 25-year old film, which was scanned from the original negative to 4K, and color corrected under Storaro's supervision. Once the scans reached Prime Focus in London, the first step was to ingest the material and create a database with metadata. Next came the painstaking, labor-intensive job of rotoscoping every frame, which mainly took place at Prime Focus' Mumbai facility.


Once the scans reached Prime Focus in London, the first step was to ingest the material and create a database with metadata
Once the scans reached Prime Focus in London, the first step was to ingest the material and create a database with metadata.


Prime Focus London was the creative hub.
Prime Focus London was the creative hub.


"London was the creative hub," says Bristowe. "Editorially the project was managed through our London studio. As a single company, we have hundreds of rotoscope artists, and we can move pretty quickly. While it was being rotoscoped, we were building a creative script for the show. We spent a lot of time researching to create a 3D style for it that worked really well with the whole film. There were many meetings when Jeremy would come in and we'd look at shots, and he was very quickly won over by our stylistic approach as was Bertolucci."

Baker notes that, in terms of 3D, their work is "more subtle than some projects you see in the cinema at the moment." "It's about drawing attention to the key areas of the frame," he says. "You feel the details of the scenes really come to life." Bristowe points out that 3D came into play in the moments when the scale of the palace is in play. "You don't want to be aware of it on every single shot," he says. "We didn't want to compete with the costumes, sets, characters. We had to be very sensitive all the way through."


Prime Focus didn't the want the 3D to compete with the costumes, sets, characters.
Prime Focus didn't the want the 3D to compete with the costumes, sets, characters.


After we did the initial test shots, Prime Focus proceeded largely unsupervised. "They very much left us to get on with it," says Bristowe. "We met with Bertolucci twice in the final months. But creatively it was left to us to design and do. When we had reviews, we didn't have notes of any scale."

The scale of some of the shots -- which involved thousands of extras -- also proved to be the biggest challenge. "There is a lot more to rotoscoping involved in shots like that," says Baker. Atmospherics was another challenge. Unlike today's digital effects, everything was in camera on The Last Emperor, making it difficult to separate out rain or anything with transparency such as smoke. "But really it was about keeping the detail alive -- the beautiful buildings, costumes -- creatively making sure those were done correctly," he says. "The camera isn't moving fast and there are no quick edits, so the viewer has the time to look at it. If things aren't right, you'll subliminally feel it."

In fact, converting the movie to 3D brought out some unexpected details that had gone unnoticed in the original version. "In the coronation scene, as the emperor goes into the palace yard, you can see some modern buildings that became apparent in 3D," says Bristowe. "That was the only time we changed the original plates. We removed them and put hills in the background."


The Last Emperor


But that was the only image that the Prime Focus team had to rebuild. "When you're not putting so much depth in to the film, that reduces the amount of paintwork," says Bristowe. "The way the film was shot and the fact that our 3D wasn't too deep allowed us to keep our paint down to a bare minimum, so every shot was original."

Baker notes that the composition of the shots also lent to a good 2D-to-3D conversion. "Even when you're shooting in 2D your composition can be 3D," he says. "What works really well is a slightly tracking camera and good layering of foreground, mid ground and background objects, that gives you that perspective. You can get bad composition in native 3D and you can get good 3D composition in 2D. Some directors, filming 2D, do that naturally, and I believe that was the case with The Last Emperor."

It all came together at the screening of the 3D version for Bertolucci. "It was so exciting to be at the theatre, sitting next to him," says Bristowe. "When I first saw the movie 25 years ago, I could never have guessed I would be in that situation -- and it was fantastic."


Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci


"As we came to the final screening with Bernardo, we were nervous about how he'd feel about our approach," adds Baker. "And he told us how beautiful and magical it was. We were very relieved and happy."

Converting The Last Emperor reinforced what Bristowe and Baker have long believed: early involvement in a project to be converted is ideal. "If you have creative input at the beginning, you can get the best in 3D," he says. Baker agrees. "Part of the evolution of conversion is that it needs planning and thought," he says. "More and more we're getting involved in the early stage...being on the set, doing concepts with the creative team, discussing transparencies like smoke."

In the meantime, the successful 3D conversions of movies such as The Last Emperor may encourage other directors to convert their 2D movies to 3D. By doing so, they don't simply give the movie another dimension, but bring it to the attention of younger audiences who never had a chance to see it on any screen, in any dimension.



Bernardo Bertolucci Talks About The Last Emperor 3D at Cannes 2013









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