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Stereo D Converts Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to 3D

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CreativeCOW presents Stereo D Converts Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to 3D -- Stereoscopic 3D Feature


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Milton Adamou
Stereo D Head of Post Production Milton Adamou. Photo by: Alex J. Berliner
If you think that converting a motion picture from 2D to 3D is a post production process, think again. Stereo D just wrapped up the conversion of director Timur Bekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter from 2D to 3D, and the job began before a single frame was shot. "With our company, this is becoming fairly common," says Stereo D Head of Stereography Graham Clark. "We meet with the director, do script breakdowns. We've even done pre-greenlight work by doing proof of 3D concept on concept art."

"We get involved very early in the process on most features, to develop the look of the movie," adds Stereo D Head of Post Production Milton Adamou. "That influences how we convert it and create a 3D version."

Even so, Stereo D's close integration with the filmmakers and VFX houses throughout pre-production, production and post ranks Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as an unusually close collaboration. "We first met with Timur at Fox Studios in Los Angeles and discussed the prospect of doing a conversion," says Clark. "We realized right away that Timur was very creative and wanted to explore digital 3D as a new language."

Stereo D Head of Stereography Graham Clark.
Stereo D Head of Stereography Graham Clark. Photo by: Alex J. Berliner
During pre-production, the Stereo D team had the opportunity to explore creative options and highlight technical pitfalls with Bekmambetov and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC. Clark first met with Bekmambetov on set in New Orleans for a week. "When we started with Timur, we went into the topic of monocular depth cues to show what helps support stereo," Clark says. "Citizen Kane, for example, would be a good movie in 3D if converted because of the strong camera angles. When we convert the movie, stereo is a multiplier to monocular depth cue, which can include size, perspective, color, and atmospherics. What was interesting is that Timur latched onto that idea and he actually took it quite far and had us add more monocular depth cues, because we could add depth cues in post. It was something unexpected and very creative."

Clark then returned to Los Angeles to convert the results of some test shooting with Deschanel. "Caleb was also interested in 3D," Clark reports. "We tried some side-by-side shooting, moving the camera a few inches over, which gave Caleb some education about lens choices, compared to conversion."

Clark says that much of the discussion with Deschanel centered on camera angles and lighting as a means to enhance the 3D experience. "Caleb seemed to concentrate mostly on how he lit things to create a better 3D experience in 2D," says Clark. "Stereo is a multiplier of the other depth cues. Caleb created spatial depth with foreground, mid-ground and background light and color. He also gave good internal volume and separated environments with effective use of lighting."

To further educate the filmmaking team, Stereo D helped them explore a variety of shots that are notoriously difficult to convert. "We tried billowy fog, fast-moving people -- various scenarios that are supposedly impossible to convert," says Clark.

The tests didn't stop there. "Timur wanted us to try things that no one had done before," says Clark. Among those tests was a contra-zoom or dolly zoom shot, sometimes called a "zolly." "We invented the term Zoll-D, where you expand and compress the interaxial to match the dolly so your primary interest stays in the same position, but the foreground and background scissor," says Clark. "It's the same thing that happens in a contra-zoom, but we matched stereographic depth." In another test, Timur wanted to separate the vampires from other characters, so the Stereo D team created a subtle Nosferatu effect, where we also put people on dollies. "This didn't get used in the movie, but it gives you an idea of how experimental and creative Timur is," says Clark. "He was very open to ideas."


The first step is to roto all objects with good break outs to be shaped in depth. Please click on individual images for larger view.

The scene is then recreated in a greyscale image for 3D depth with brighter objects being closer and darker being further away.

Objects are then shaped and rendered in stereo. In multi layered composites, each layer is done separately.

Once the layers have generated left and right images, they are assembled in order back into the composite.

Transparencies and particle layers are important to the look of a 3D image.

The final result is a fully rendered interlaced stereo pair.
During production, the Stereo D team met intermittently with Bekmambetov. "Timur wanted to touch base," says Clark, who notes that the Stereo D team also visited the New Orleans set once during production. "Timur was developing his own 3D language, so we had further discussion about camera angles. He wanted to do something that had never been done before."

Adamou notes that Stereo D also gets together early -- before a frame is shot -- with the movie's editorial team, headed by William Hoy, A.C.E. "With a 2D movie, typically, you shoot the movie, bring back the frames, have dailies sessions and then only really the conform the movie at the end of the project when you assemble the whole thing," he explains. "With a 3D movie, it's very different. We're converting as it's being cut. That poses a real challenge because of that constant changes."

Although it seems counter-intuitive, Stereo D begins converting even before everything is in the can. "They start cutting the movie on set, which migrates through the cutting room, which goes through many, many iterations," explains Adamou, who says Stereo D has pioneered this way of working. "We usually get the final cut a week before we have to deliver the last shot for this movie. So we can't wait until the picture is locked. We're converting the movie as it's being cut, and constantly dealing with those challenges. It's a very, very different way of working."

In fact, the Stereo D conversion pipeline is not dissimilar from a visual effects pipeline, in which individual shots in a sequence are progressively replaced, from concept art through wire-frame to completed effect. "We start by conforming individual scenes, which then turn into a reel and finally into the entire movie. It gradually goes from 2D reference to full blown 3D, one shot at a time," he says.

Even on the editorial side, Stereo D will get involved early on, working with production to establish how things like timecode and filenames travel through the process. "This level of planning is essential if we are to automate various aspects of conform later on," Adamou explains. That process continues with Stereo D's team receiving an EDL or Avid Bins from the cutting room, which they then "sanitize" to make sure the elements, whether VFX or live action, actually conform to the EDL. "Then we start linking the latest version of a converted shot to the EDL. And we do that twice a day. Typically we can conform a whole movie to the latest 3D version of the shots in 30 to 45 minutes."

This kind of piecemeal conversion sounds challenging but Stereo D has methods of working that streamline the process. "We meet with the directors to understand which parts of the movie they're attached to and won't change," says Clark. "Otherwise we'll be converting it over and over. We convert what we have most confidence in that won't change, but on some shows between 3 and 35 minutes of approved, converted material hasn't made it into the movie."

"As we conform that movie twice daily, we have a timeline in flux," adds Adamou. "Some material is offline in SD, some is HD, some is previs, some could be wireframes and other will be 3D. We'll also cut in the audio, whether it's a stereo mixdown or discrete 5.1 audio. Anything we can use at that phase, at every phase, we will use, as it may have an effect on the stereo decisions that we make. That's why it's important for us to run dailies twice a day for each movie we convert."

Adamou notes that, in the beginning stages, the Stereo D team makes sure the relationships between characters and internal volume is correct. "Then we'll keep refining the shot and make sure artifacts are cleaned up," he says. "So it goes from pre-vis if you like to final version, exactly like VFX. Each time the shot gets better on its journey to its final stage."

The pace of conversion picks up as the project nears conclusion. "In the beginning of the project, we may have only five new shots a day," says Adamou. "But towards the end, we may have 50, 60, 100 shots in dailies, distributed across the entire movie. That's twice a day! We're both improving the shot, which brings it closer to being internally approved, as well as responding to the directors' notes."

We also spend a lot of time generating a movie-specific post framing chart, which takes into account all the different resolutions the images are being acquired at, as well as the size of the projection aperture versus the clean aperture, which has a critical effect on the placement and final delivery of any floating windows we generate.

Clark notes the Stereo D is similar to a VFX house in another way. "We don't have as many shots with 120-plus layers, but since we're working so closely with the VFX houses, we often get all those layers," he says. "So it's equally intensive to composite it together, because it's stereo."

In the collaboration with VFX houses for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Stereo D did not have to convert a handful of sequences that Method Studios had already rendered in 3D. "Normally on a show, we'll convert all the live action and some of the CG material, but we also had some of the vendors render some of the VFX in stereo," says Clark. "Method Studios and [Visual Effects Supervisor] Randy Goux's team did a fantastic job on the stereo rendering on the top of the train sequence as well as providing Stereo D with stereo elements to help achieve an immersion into particulate embers and volumetric smoke. Beautiful work, and they technically overcame the issues inherent to stereo VFX retinal rivalry in volumetrics and maintenance of good internal volume versus the carded look of long lenses."

"We also do volumetrics and atmospherics in-house, which we use for what we call CG augmentation for stereo," he adds. "So, for example, if you have rain, snow, or an explosion with debris, we'll add more to create a more immersive experience in the foreground."

Compositing VFX in stereo, adds Adamou, was like "being in a candy store" for the Stereo D artists, all of who come from a photographic, cinematic and/or VFX background. "Our artist would render out 3D elements such as fire, embers, particles and we would literally composite those live in stereo together," says Adamou. "And we were wearing 3D glasses and looking at the results on a 22-foot screen in close to real time."


Milton Adamou
Milton Adamou at the Quantel Pablo


That 22-foot screen is another reason why so much comes together at Stereo D. "To be able to look at VFX on a 22 foot screen in almost real-time in stereo really closes the loop," says Clark. "A lot of time when you get VFX, the final notes take place outside of the screening room. Those final tweaks can now be done stereoscopically in near real-time in the theatre."

The example of working with Method Studios on the sequence of Abraham Lincoln and his assistant Will battling vampires on top of a moving boxcar illustrates just how collaborative the conversion process can be.

"We worked with Method very early about how their effects would integrate into the shot," says Adamou. "Supporting the stereo aspect, they delivered smoke rendered specifically for a plate. Then we could sit with Timur and add elements in on an as-needed basis. That got the shot where Timur wanted faster. Normally you have to send the notes back to the studio and wait a day but we were able to do most of the final adjustments in the room."

Method Studios also gave Stereo D an ember rig so that the company could generate the necessary foreground elements themselves. "Timur wanted to create an element bridge or stereo bridge, which is where an effect will play from one shot to the next," says Clark. "Embers fly into the air and linger in the next shot. It's a fairly cutty sequence and this element bridge created a nice visual flow."

Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, unleashes the full fury of his wrath against the undead. Photo Stephen Vaughan.
Benjamin Walker, as Abraham Lincoln, unleashes the full fury of his wrath against the undead. Photo Stephen Vaughan.
The pipeline that can handle not just a movie like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter but up to four other feature films at the same time has to be robust and flexible. Stereo D has built an artist-centric production pipeline as well as written its own custom software to manage that pipeline. The hardware is Windows/Linux machines with NVIDIA GPU cards and eight Quantel Pablo, The software, says Adamou, is a mix of in-house software, including a tailor-made database, and off-the-shelf products including Avid Media Composer, After Effects, Nuke and the Softimage plug-in Exocortex, for particles and smoke. A Quantel GenePool shared storage links all the editorial components together and allows Stereo D to feed multiple rooms with real-time stereo 2K.

With the Quantel Pablos, Stereo D has a full color and stereo compositing environment. "We can do what a Flame and color bay combined can do," says Clark. "Timur could experiment with what he would want to do later in the DI session. Some of the things we explored were post monocular depth cues. Timur would experiment with it first to see in the stereo would support it."

"It's been an honor to create and work with Timur and Fox," says Clark. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3D was much more experimental than other films we've worked on and very much in flux with ideas until the end. It was a very inspiring experience that Timur says is just the beginning in 3D."

Stereo D's work on this movie is clear evidence that creativity in 3D doesn't simply reside in the process of production but in the variety of ways that filmmakers interact with the creation of stereo imagery, be it natively acquired or, as so richly illustrated here, via conversion. Although currently the ways to convert films from 2D to 3D may be as numerous as the companies providing the service, some sort of standardization of tools and processes is bound to emerge. Until that time, keeping an eye on how the providers of conversion work hand-in-hand with filmmakers and VFX houses will shed more light on the opportunities and pitfalls. You'll read more about it in Creative COW.







SPRINGFIELD, IL - FEBRUARY 10: Producer Jim Lemley, Director Timur Bekmambetov, actor Benjamin Walker, and writer Seth Grahame-Smith on making a 3D movie at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum Film Maker Presentation.


Title art: Adam (Rufus Sewell), the chief of the vampires, prepares to unleash the full wrath of the undead against their deadliest foe, the 16th president of the United States. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
All images ™ and ©2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.



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