Behind the Lens: Flying Monsters 3D
COW Library : Stereoscopic 3D : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: Flying Monsters 3D
Flying dinosaurs, Sir David Attenborough, 3D, IMAX: it's a beguiling recipe that was combined to create Flying Monsters 3D - produced by the U.K.'s Atlantic Productions in association with Sky 3D and distributed by National Geographic Cinema Ventures (NGCV). The movie did in fact win awards from BAFTA (the first-ever Specialist Factual at the 2011 British Academy Television Awards) and the 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (Best 3D Film).
Directed by Matthew Dyas -- who has a string of directing and producing credits on numerous documentaries -- Flying Monsters 3D was simultaneously produced for 3D presentation on TV, movie theatres and IMAX.
The project's genesis was in the professional relationship between Atlantic Productions CEO Anthony Geffen and Sir David Attenborough. Geffen reports that he persuaded Sir David to do First Life, his first series not made by the BBC and which won three Emmys®. The two-part series for BBC Two, BBC Worldwide and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (with a two-hour special for Discovery Channel) took the team from Newfoundland to North Africa and Australia to document the beginnings of life on earth.
The Darwinopterus is shown here flying through a Jurassic forest. This creature was about the size of a crow, and is considered a transitional animal because fossils show elements of both early and more advanced pterosaurs. Please click image above for larger view.
As Geffen recalls it, the production was shooting in the Canadian Rockies when he and Sir David got into a conversation about their mutual interest in 3D. "He's always interested in technology and all his series have used technology cleverly," says Geffen. "As we drank a bottle of wine, he suggested that we do something on Pterosaurs -- the flying creatures with 35-foot wingspans. Nobody has captured their world before, and we both thought that was a good idea. Our imaginations were really inspired."
The Quetzalcoatlus could weigh in at over 200 pounds and standing, would have been eye-to-eye with a giraffe. Please click image above for larger view.
Previously, the U.K.-based Atlantic Productions has produced The Promised Land (BBC/Discover), The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (BBC/PBS) and Egypt Unwrapped (National Geographic Channel/Five/FremantleMedia). Flying Monsters 3D would be Geffen and Attenborough's maiden voyage into stereoscopy.
"We realized that 3D would be a great way to portray these amazing creatures, and David had a strong idea of the story he wanted to tell," says Geffen. "We were interested in 3D for some time but had been waiting for it to be more user-friendly, and we wanted to do something dramatic that we could deliver. We were right on the cusp of that being possible."
The Dimorphodon in Flight. Please click image above for larger view.
Although both Sir David and Geffen had worked closely with BBC in the past, that broadcaster had no plans for 3D. That led Geffen to approach Sky, which was about to launch a 3D TV channel. Bringing together 3D, computer generated images, the original fossils and all the science was a great combination of elements to tell the story of these pterosaurs that first took to the sky 220 million years ago and, according to Geffen, Sky and National Geographic immediately understood how ideal Flying Monsters would be for showcasing 3D moviemaking.
Soon after beginning production, Avatar came out. "David and I went to see it and were very impressed by what James Cameron had done," says Geffen. "We realized the bar had been raised for 3D." The pressure was on for these 3D novices to produce a complicated movie, with lots of CGI, for three screens.
The Dimorphodon is believed to have lived in dense forests or on cliffs. The adult Dimorphodon had a four- to six-foot wingspan. Please click image above for larger view.
Like many pioneers in 3D stereo filmmaking, the Flying Monsters production team faced evolving toolsets. "We knew we had to push the technology while we were working since not all of it had been invented," says Geffen. Atlantic Productions relied on their existing crew, but also added some people experienced with stereography, including 3D stereographers Melissa Byers and Matt Smith as well as the expertise of Sky 3D and the visual effects facilities involved.
The production relied on ONSIGHT, which offers 2D and 3D camera equipment rental and 3D stereoscopic post production and editing services, and Vision3, a U.K. company that provides consultancy, supervision and production support for 3D productions. Cinematographer Tim Cragg shot with RED ONE cameras and used the Element Technica [now 3ality Technica] Quasar rig. The team took the 3D rig and cameras into some unusual places, including being mounted on a helicopter for the scene where Sir David is in a glider flying with a giant pterosaur.
Sir David Attenborough glides below a Quetzalcoatlus -- the largest known pterosaur with a wingspan of up to 35 feet. The Quasar was mounted on a helicopter for the scene where Sir David is in a glider flying with a giant pterosaur. Please click image above for larger view.
Cinematographer Tim Cragg shot with RED ONE cameras and an Element Technica Quasar rig. Photograph courtesy Atlantic Productions. Please click image above for larger view.
The movie contains 24 minutes of computer-generated imagery, most of which was done at ZOO in London. ZOO, which led the high resolution CGI work, also utilized Fido in Sweden, which is an expert in modeling. "Producing CGI for 3D IMAX screens meant that we needed to create every detail and every detail needed to be accurate," says Geffen. "The CG team worked for months with scientists to build accurate creatures based on the original fossils."
Please click image above for larger view.
"The CG team worked for months with scientists to build accurate creatures based on the original fossils," says Geffen.
In production, the team quickly discovered is that the 3D process requires more people and more collaboration than a 2D film. "And you cannot work as quickly," says Geffen. "The stereoscopic equipment is huge; the camera unit weighs 56 KG and consists of two cameras, a 3D rig, lots of wires and a very large tripod. It takes four people to move a single camera unit." And change lenses, which could take up to three-quarters of an hour. Geffen reports that each shot took one or two hours to carefully adjust to make sure the cameras were precisely aligned. "The limitations were positive in a creative sense," he says. "We had to learn to think and work differently."
Since Draco Lizards have a membrane that stretches between their front and back legs that allows them to effortlessly glide from tree to tree, they are occasionally used to model aspects of pterosaur flight. Please click image above for larger view.
That included having to take into consideration the plan to shoot for three, very different screens. The initial plan was to release Flying Monsters 3D as a TV film but the costs of making the film had to be amortized across other platforms. The production team also saw the potential of Flying Monsters 3D as reaching beyond the TV screen, to the movie theatre and IMAX. To make the three-screen plan a reality, the team had to figure out how to shoot once and then repurpose the footage for all three screens. "You have to frame things differently," says Geffen. "TV tends to work better with more close-ups, whereas for IMAX lots of close-ups look horrific on the big screen. For IMAX, you need more vistas, more scope; wider is better. The regular movie screen was a combination of the two. So we often did two or three combinations of each shot so we knew we had it covered."
The Dimorphodon is noted as a relatively small, fish-eating flyer. Please click image above for larger view.
Shooting simultaneously for three screens also required the production to be meticulously organized. "At the same time, there was a special atmosphere during the production," says Geffen. "We felt that we were working on something very unique." Amazingly, production only took 10 months.
Editor Peter Miller cut the 57-minute TV version first, which was aired to 100,000 subscribers of Sky 3D in Britain. Next, the 40-minute IMAX version was cut, and, lastly, the 67-minute movie theatre version. Geffen reports that a few aspects of the movie had to be adjusted for IMAX, in particular reducing motion blur on the CGI shots.
The Tapejara, with a name derived from Tupi Indian mythology meaning "the old being," boasted a 13 foot wingspan. The Tapejara is conjectured to perhaps manipulate its body to "sail" across the ocean surface in search of prey. (Source: National Geograpic) Please click image above for larger view.
Lessons learned? "We learned just now organized you have to be," says Geffen. "But we also learned that there are some 3D sweet spots that you could never do in 2D." He points out the scene where the Pterosaur comes out of the computer, animated, and perches on the bench between Sir David and the audience before it blows up on the wall. "That is a very special, magical shot," says Geffen. "It's that kind of scene that taught us how special 3D can be. When David flies with the Quetzalcoatlus, the largest animal to ever fly, you get the scale of the creature. It gives a dimension you could never have in 2D."
Pterosaur CGI. Please click image above for larger view.
Sir David Attenborough glides eye-to-eye with the Quetzalcoatlus. Please click image above for larger view.
Geffen notes that BAFTA awarded Flying Monsters 3D with the first ever award for a 3D film. "That's pretty special the first time out," he says. "We all took a risk, but to deliver on that scale was fantastic.
Two Quetzalcoatlus Scavenge a Dinosaur. The Quetzalcoatlus lived up until the end of the Cretaceous period. Please click image above for larger view. Please click image above for larger view.
Atlantic Productions, again with Sir David Attenborough, is currently in production on the 3D TV series Kingdom of Plants, to be aired by Sky 3D in 2012.
"We're concentrating on very high-end 3D that we can do simultaneously for IMAX, cinema and TV," says Geffen. "The equipment continues to get better and more flexible. We want to keep pushing the boundaries. The stakes are high. But how often do we get a new medium to play with?"
Please click image above for larger view.
Where Flying Monsters 3D will open in 2012:
Sir David Attenborough is a trustee of the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, an honorary fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, England, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He was knighted in 1985. Photo courtesy Atlantic Productions.
Photographs courtesy Atlantic Productions/ZOO EFX.