Behind the Lens: Sky Soldier: A Vietnam Story in 3D
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Sky Soldier: The Vietnam War in 3D -- Only on 3net
Although Major Glenn died in 2007, his widow Judy and son Tom played a role in the making of the documentary. The result is a tribute to Major Glenn and to all Vietnam veterans.
Sky Soldier: A Vietnam Story in 3D was produced by Tom Jennings Productions for 3net; Jennings and 3net's Vice President of Production and Development Tim Pastore were Executive Producers.
Creative COW had the opportunity to speak with Jennings and Jason Tobias, who served as Producer, 3D Graphics Artist and Post Supervisor. Tom Jennings Productions had done a great deal of work for the Discovery Networks -- including the History Channel -- over the years, so when Discovery, along with Sony and IMAX, started up 3net, the 24/7 3D network, Jennings was intrigued.
"I'm very familiar with stereo photos which go back to the Civil War, and I really love them," says Jennings. "When Discovery started 3net, I went over there to talk about the hundreds of thousands of photos that detail the past in away people have never seen before. The executive there told me he was really looking for a Vietnam story but that there were no 3D photos of it at the Library of Congress or National Archives. He said, find me 3D photos of Vietnam and you've got a show."
In fact, 3D photography during the Vietnam War was strictly for hobbyists, so Jennings turned to Stereo World Magazine, the magazine for stereoscopic photography enthusiasts. The editor John Dennis had a booklet of 50 photos from 1985 that was privately published by Joel and Judy Glenn. "John said that these are the only 3D pictures he'd seen from Vietnam," says Jennings. "And if this guy hadn't seen any, you know they don't exist."
The only information on the booklet, in addition to the names, was a location: Gainesville, Florida. Jennings called 411 and got the phone number of a Judy Glenn, not in Gainesville but Fort White, 30 miles north. "I called her up and said, this is going to be a strange phone call, but are you the Judy Glenn that published stereo photos of the Vietnam War?" he recalls. She was, and she had carefully maintained her husband's massive archive of thousands of 3D photos.
Judy related that, when he went to Vietnam, her husband had felt that regular 2D photography simply didn't adequately convey his experiences there. "That's why he got the Stereo Realist camera," says Jennings. "And here we are, so many decades later, fortunate that he did. I certainly remember the strife and anxiety the whole nation going through and here are two people trying to deal with it and, at the same time, creating this unique record." The Stereo Realist camera was manufactured by the David White Company from 1947 to 1971 and was reportedly the most popular 35mm stereo still camera made.
Glenn made some scans of the photos, and Tobias began looking into how to convert photos shot to be seen via a View-Master or special projector. "The photos from the Civil war were better because they were taken by professionals," says Jennings. "Joel used a point and shoot camera and we had to prove to the network that it was going to work."
Jennings and his associate producer Ellen Farmer did a lot of pre-production work before getting the greenlight from 3net. "I spent a lot of time on the phone with Judy and [Joel and Judy's son] Tom Glenn and did a lot of pre-interviewing so I knew what the story was. We had found the 3D Vietnam photos and Judy sent us TIFF files so we could present them. As I got more and more information about the story, 3net asked if there was anything else, and that's when I found out about the tape recordings. This was before they even bought the show, and it was the tapes that put it over the top. I knew that it wasn't going to get any better than that. Once we were able to prove that was possible, then it was off to the races."
But making it work was not a simple matter. First, Jennings bought a Stereo Realist on E-Bay to get a better sense of what it looked like: two very basic side-by-side lenses with "a pretty big interaxial," says Tobias.
The Glenn family archive contained a mere 100 stereographs from Vietnam, with thousands more from the family's life over time, all of them in good shape. "They gave us slides not photos," says Tobias. "The first challenge was figuring out how to best handle them. I took them to Fotokem and had them scan each slide as an individual image, a right and left TIFF file that we were able to put together for 3D images. I realized later that if I had one file with side-by-side images, I could have aligned it that way and would only have been dealing with one file. Media managing ended up being one of the challenges."
One of the main challenges was finding the sweet spot between the natural format of the 3D photos and 3net's requirements. "3net doesn't want the image to converge off the screen that much," says Tobias. "That was hard because the camera has everything converging in the middle of the frame."
"Depending on how far apart the lenses are, the right and left eyes will overlap," he continues. "Everything in front of that in space is going to jump off the screen and everything behind will look like it's going back into the frame. The way 3net wants the image to look on TV, the image had to fall back. But if we pushed things back too much, the image became too painful to view. Our challenge was to find that perfect convergence point where not too much of the image came off the screen but the background was still reasonable to look at."
Tobias notes that getting the images into 3D for TV was "a big learning curve." "There is no single defined workflow," he says. "And there are lots of ideas out there on how to proceed." At the beginning, Tobias started out converting all the footage into Cineform 3D files, but about halfway through the project, in March 2011, Cineform was purchased by GoPro and its immediate future as a workflow solution was dubious enough for Tobias to abandon it in favor of an Apple Final Cut Pro 7 internal workflow.
"At the end, we took the right eye and left eye timeline and made sure they were in synch," says Tobias, who notes that David Tillman was the project's editor. "We edited in 3D with FCP 7 and also had a 3D monitor."
When Tobias was uncertain how to create the left eye/right eye sequences, he turned to a source he often uses: Creative COW. "I religiously follow Creative COW," says Tobias. "I found a post by Chris Keller with a basic After Effects script that he wrote to create left eye/right eye sequences and was able to use his scripts to generate left and right eye comps and manipulate them individually in After Effects. He has a really good set up that links sequences and let you make adjustments live as you go."
"A lot of the solutions I found were so expensive," he adds. "Finding this free resource online was a big part of creating our workflow."
Another challenge was creating an entire program around the approximate 160 to 180 stereo photos, the majority of which were from Vietnam. "We wished we had more photos all the time," says Jennings. "I called Judy all the time to ask her to look again in the vast archive they have in their home to make sure they didn't have any more. That's how we ended up with those photos of the Glenn family in Europe, because there were such a limited number of Vietnam photos. The photos from Europe [where Joel was stationed] helped us to flesh out the story."
Jennings points out that although perfecting a 3D workflow -- the first his company had done -- was a challenge, his company is very experienced when it comes to the "2D" skill of storytelling. "The script hardly changed throughout this process," he says. "It was tweaked and refined but the majority of the work was figuring out how to bring these photos to life in a way that made sense on TV. It was the technology we had to figure out along the way. Our biggest challenge was dealing with all the media that goes into handling a 3D project."
Sky Soldier also features a 3D trick that Jennings says is probably a first. "The Glenns have a 3D projector that they use to project the 3D slides onto a screen and wear glasses to see the 3D," he recounts. "I was naïve, but as we shot the Glenns watching the 3D slides, and I asked the stereographer if we could also see the slides they were watching in 3D."
When the stereographer said that it wouldn't read 3D because "you need the glasses," Jennings though, Why not put the 3D glasses over the camera lenses? Judy Glenn -- who had dozens of 3D glasses -- sacrificed a pair to the cause "We found a pair she could part with where the lenses were big enough, broke it in half and put them on the lenses," Jennings says. "So at the end of the movie when you see the Glenns watching 3D slides -- they and the slides are both in 3D. It's 3D in 3D."
"These photos go back to the Civil War, World War I, Teddy Roosevelt," he adds. "Even when younger people look at them, the photos are mesmerizing. You're so used to seeing these images in 2D, whether it's on TV or in a book. To see these archival images in 3D, they pop to life. It's like seeing history for the first time. Whatever you learned, you learn all over again."
Though the titles of the upcoming 3D documentaries based on stereograph photos have yet to be announced, Jennings says they're looking at World War I, the expansion of the U.S. into the West and Native Americans, the era of railroads and robber barons, the age of immigration in the early 20th century, and the golden age of baseball through the retirement of Babe Ruth.
"TV is a beast that needs to be fed," Jennings says. "Creating 3D content is not cheap but 3D content already exists in these hundreds of thousands of amazing stereographs. Let's take advantage of them and put them to work to tell these stories in new ways. I'll be very proud to tell those stories."
Sky Soldier: The Vietnam War in 3D -- Only on 3net