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Behind the Lens: Air Racers 3D: Flying to an IMAX Near You

COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: Air Racers 3D: Flying to an IMAX Near You
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Air Racers 3D: Flying to an IMAX Near You -- Cinematography Feature


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The first air race was held in Reims, France in 1909, and an American named Glenn H. Curtiss won the prize with a top speed of 46 mph and two laps of an air "track" completed in 15 minutes. He was the first champion "air racer" in a long line of many. The National Air Races in the U.S. settled in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929, in which airplanes race simultaneously around a closed ovoid course marked by pylons.

Today, competitors soar around those pylons at heights as low as 50 feet above the ground, reaching speed of over 500 mph. Biplanes, jets, and a variety of performance planes follow the basic rules: fly low, go fast, turn left.

That's exactly what you'd see if you attended the Reno National Championship Air Races, which has been held in Nevada since 1964 and continues the tradition born in 1920.

Now, Air Racers 3D brings the thrilling races to theatres, beginning its rollout in IMAX 3D and Dome theatres throughout the country on April 5. At least 50 IMAX theatres are expected to release the film in the next six to eight months. The film is directed by Christian Fry and Jean-Jacques Mantello, with a screenplay by Fry and Rick Dowlearn. Fry and Raul Leckie produced the film, with François Mantello, John Constantine and Jeffrey Pierce serving as Executive Producers.

Fry, who is a pilot and head of Pretend Entertainment, came up with the idea of Air Racers 3D after attending his first Reno National Championship Air Race in 2004. "The minute I stepped foot into that event, it was clear to me that it was perfect for a giant screen film," he says. When he learned that there had never been a production about the National Air Races, he became even more determined to move forward with a giant screen film in 3D. "The speed, these amazing machines and the great passionate characters who are the pilots were all elements of a story that needed to be told," Fry says.



With a helicopter mounted Pictorvision gyro-stabilized aerial 3D camera rig, a wing-mounted camera, and cameras inside the cockpit, viewers will travel visually at speeds exceeding 500 MPH at heights at times of merely 50 feet off the ground.


Through a producer on a show he'd done for The History Channel, Fry was introduced to Stereoscope, a development-to-distribution 3D studio, and the two companies partnered. Then producer John Constantine introduced them to the Mantello Brothers, who initially came on as distribution partners and quickly became production partners. Jean-Jacques and François Mantello and their 3D Entertainment Films had already produced numerous large-screen 3D films, including Ocean Wonderland 3D (2003), Sharks 3D (2005), Dolphins and Whales 3D (2008), and Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World (2010). "It was serendipitous," says Fry about the coming together of the different companies. "This was my first project for the giant screen and 3D. We brought our expertise in the aviation community and then 3D Entertainment brought their unbelievable expertise in giant screen and 3D. It was a really great collaboration..

In fact, 3D Entertainment began making stereoscopic films in 1992. "We made a lot of CGI movies for motion rides," recalls François Mantello. "And 20 years ago, we didn't have the tools we have today. We shot analog Betacam for our first 3D movie. That was quite crazy. Then we went to Digital Betacam, then HDCAM and other formats. Suddenly, we were one of the few companies with a lot of expertise in 3D production..

Producing Air Racers 3D took somewhat over three years. The first two production periods were shot at the National Air Races in June 2009 and 2010. Air Racers 3D was shot almost entirely with RED cameras, both 4K and 2K, with ten percent shot with the SI2K. "A typical shoot, we ran four cameras on two separate rigs," says Jean-Jacques Mantello. "On location, we always had a crane, and we used several different kinds."


The main aerials and stun aerial sequences were shot during a one-week period in Jun 2011. Click on images to zoom.
The production held a specific aerial shoot in June 2011. "We got onto the course with a group of select airplanes to recreate the racing sequences," explains Fry, who notes the production also used a Pictorvision Cineflex Gyro mount. "When you shoot complicated race scenes, we made sure we weren't creating any breach of safety conditions. For this reason, all the shooting was ground to air, no air to air." He also credits the great work of aerial cinematographers Kevin LaRosa and David Nowell.

Coordination was key in successfully producing the tricky aerial sequences, says Fry. "We did a lot of pre-production to know exactly what shots we needed," he says. "Using someone as talented as Kevin LaRosa to coordinate was key. Once we had a shot list and visuals, we had to communicate that to the pilot. I speak 'pilot language' and we had fantastic pilots to do these aerial sequences. You can't just find anyone to fly these WWII fighter pilots. In our situation, you also don't want to endanger anyone by asking them to do something that wasn't safe." In fact, the FAA was involved in every briefing.


4K 3D camera rigs, left, with fighter plane during the filming of Air Racers 3D at Reno-Stead Airfield. Photo credit: Andrew Shapter for 3D Entertainment. Click on images to zoom.


The main aerials and stun aerial sequences -- which compose approximately one-half of the finished film -- were shot during that one-week period in Jun 2011. "It was a major accomplishment logistically and we had an absolutely fabulous shoot," says Jean-Jacques Mantello. "We had great weather and the pilots knew what was being asked of them.

Fry reports that he had a little mantra that he taped up everywhere for a month prior to the shoot. "Puffy clouds, light wind, no rain," he says. "I had everyone chanting this mantra for months. In Reno in June, it's a crapshoot. It could be beautiful or snowing and we had one week to get everything done. We had literally manifested that mantra..


Vern Nobles DP
Top, at Reno-Stead airfield.
Middle, the RED proved to be a reliable camera.
Below, DP Vern Nobles in a classic shot.
There were, in fact, very few difficult moments in all three shoots. Fry reports that they had one small technical shut-down with the cameras and "almost no technical issues with the RED." Jean-Jacques Mantello reports that, in the June 2010 shoot, one of the pilots had an engine failure and called May Day. "The plane had to make an emergency landing," he recalls. "I was sitting there with a security guy and cameraman and the plane was aiming towards us. The security man said, 'If I tell you run, run,' and I was saying, 'Where shall we run to?' And the plane was headed right towards us but at the last moment turned a little to the right, missed the runway and crashed. This is in the movie because the pilot came out of the crash without a scratch, just a little shaken up. But the plane was totally destroyed. That was quite something to see a plane crashing yards from your feet."

The production had two stereographers: Jean-Jacques Mantello and Jason Goodman; Pedro Guimaraes was both DIT and an additional stereographer. "While we are shooting you have to really know what you're doing with 3D or you can put the footage in the garbage," says Mantello. "I have only made 3D movies before, though, so it's really hard for me to give tips for stereography because I have never done a 2D movie. I don't take a calculator or anything to tune the camera. As soon as I know what I want to shoot, I know how to tune it with my eyes."

"Jean-Jacques has such a level of experience that he can stand at the monitor, and know that we need to move the camera to the left to get a certain level of convergence," adds Fry. "He can look at it without the 3D glasses and know what's right. It's that level of experience that only this level of working with 3D can bring. He just sees it." Nonetheless, the production had 3D monitors on set. "The 3D monitor is a critical tool," says Fry. "It gives you a great reference to judge parallax, and I needed it."

Rather than edit after each of the three shoots, the producers waited until all the footage was in the can to begin post production. "We did a lot of logging and review of footage but we didn't begin post production in earnest until it was complete," says Fry.

Jean-Jacques Mantello explains the post workflow. "In fact, we edited directly with the 4K files," he says. "We went from RED to Cineform 4K 3D and then from those Cineform 4K files, we edited in Sony Vegas. Why Sony Vegas Pro? If you want to edit 3D real-time 4K, I'm not sure there is any other software able to do that today."

Air Racers 3D
also includes archival footage and, again, that's where Sony Vegas Procame in handy. "We had footage in 24 fps and some in 23.97 and some in 30 fps, and some archive material in 29 and 25 fps," he says. "Some of the archived material was in HD. Ten percent of the movie was in 2K. We had all kinds of different formats. Sony Vegas was the only software able to mix those different formats into 4K without converting the HD to 4K. We could use it directly in the same timeline."

The thing with Sony Vegas Pro, you don't need to transcode anything -- you can mix different frame rates, ratios. The editor was Christine Steele.

Mantello also notes that, over the years, 3D Entertainment has built its own tools to enhance the quality of the image, including a Digital Noise Reduction process. "In postproduction, we have developed our own tools that we started designing 20 years ago to enhance the quality of the image. Other post production software included Adobe After Effects and, for color correction, Cineform FirstLight. To record out to the 15-perf/70mm negative, we used a Celco Fury recorder."

"We have both a digital version in 2K and 4K and 15-perf/70mm perf in 3D," explains Jean-Jacques Mantello. "We have also worked on the anamorphic version for Dome displays. When you project IMAX films on the Dome, you need an anamorphic version in order to have great results." There are approximately 80 Domes in the world, notes Jean-Jacques Mantello.





As seen through monitors at Reno-Stead Airfield in California. Photo, Andrew Shapter for 3D Entertainment.


With Air Racers 3D about to hit the IMAX circuit, the Mantello brothers are already in production on their next IMAX films: Kenya 3D: Animal Kingdon, about wildlife and the Masai; another about Patagonia and a third about time and space, featuring Christopher Lloyd and Deep Roy.






Title image: Air Race pilot Major Heather Penney at Reno-Stead Airfield (NV) - Air Racers 3D. All images ©3D Entertainment Distribution.




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