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Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling

COW Library : Stereoscopic 3D : David Roth Weiss : Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
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CreativeCOW presents Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling -- Stereoscopic 3D Review
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Monsters Boardroom Scene
The War Room from Monsters vs. Aliens 3D

Speaking to members of the press at a recent preview of Monsters vs. Aliens at DreamWorks Animation Studios, chief executive, Jeffery Katzenberg; chief technology officer, Ed Leonard; and members of the creative and technical team behind the film, discussed the new technology of stereoscopic 3D filmmaking, the challenges involved in making 3D stereoscopic films, and the innovative storytelling techniques created by DreamWorks specifically for the new film.

The making of Monsters vs. Aliens was no small task. It was created by a virtual army of hundreds of DreamWorks artists and technicians who worked for nearly two years to create the film's 3D stereoscopic imagery using a combination of proprietary software and a variety of "off the shelf," applications.


If you think you're spending way too much time rendering, just wait until you hear some of these mind-blowing statistics from the wizards of technology who created Monsters vs. Aliens 3D. For starters, just imagine, the film's complex 3D stereoscopic animation required more than forty-five million hours of computer time to render. That's some very serious processing going on there. And just imagine, because it's stereoscopic, every scene had to be rendered twice, once for the left eye, and once for the right eye.

Monsters Scene
Every shot in Monsters vs. Aliens 3D was created in stereoscopic 3D. The effect is added onto other films at the very end.
The numbers get crunched in a massive render farm in the 35,000 square foot data center at DreamWorks Animation Studios in Los Angeles, which uses more than 9000 processor cores in hundreds of HP blade computers running under a Unix-based operating system. DreamWorks in-house technology wranglers have calculated that, if rendered on just one computer, Monsters vs. Aliens would have taken approximately 4,071 years to render. In other words, if the render had begun when the Bronze Age began in Europe, we'd have to wait another sixty-two years to see the film.

According to the film's masterminds, Monsters vs. Aliens is the very first animated film created in stereoscopic 3D from the start, rather than adding the 3D stereoscopic effects at the very end of post-production as it's done on most films. DreamWorks refers to this as "authoring in 3D." In the following exclusive COW interview, we go behind the scenes with DreamWorks 3D supervisor, Phil "Captain 3D" McNally, who explains how that impacted every facet of the project.

Phil "Captain 3D" McNally - 3D Supervisor, Monsters vs. Aliens 3D
(click picture above to play)


DreamWorks releases only two new films a year, but with each new film their goal is to push the limits of the available technology. With Monsters vs. Aliens they have done just that. It has raised the bar, and the new processes they've created are going to change the way future stereoscopic 3D films will be made.

After seeing the film myself, I must say, I'm convinced that "the new 3D" represents a revolution in filmmaking, and I'm ravenous to experience more. I think you will be too.

If you haven't seen a 3D stereoscopic movie lately, go to the best theater in town with 3D projection capability and watch Monsters vs. Aliens. The first thing you'll notice; the cardboard glasses are history. The new glasses use state-of-the-art polarized lenses and you'll quickly forget youÂ’re even wearing them. And, the projection, which once required two projectors that were notoriously difficult to synchronize, is now just a single flickerless digital projector, delivering perfectly crisp, bright images with superb stereoscopic depth and dimension.


The technology of modern 3D has truly come a long, long way since the 1950's. The masterminds behind Monsters vs. Aliens are taking full advantage, and they take ample opportunity to point out their mastery of the medium by poking fun at the 3D films that came before.

So, right off the bat, Monsters vs. Aliens opens on a character paddling a bright red rubber ball right out into the audience. It's a gimmick right out of House of Wax; one of the best-known 3D films ever, and certainly one of the cheesiest of the 50's era 3D films. The difference between the two is, the makers of Monsters vs. Aliens know it's a gimmick. Furthermore, they do the 3D thing a whole lot better than their predecessors, and they know it. Their primary purpose is to make us giggle. We know right away they know exactly what they're doing, and from that point on, it's clear that you're in very good hands.

To really appreciate the new 3D, let's briefly travel back in time to see the old 3D. Here's the original paddleball scene from House of Wax; if you have a pair of the old lenticular 3D glasses you may want to put 'em on.


The current wave of stereoscopic 3D films is by no means the first, historically speaking. 3D fads have come and gone several times since the stereoscopic era of motion pictures began in the late 1890s, when the first 3-D process for movies was patented. Today however, most of us are only aware of those films from the so-called "golden era" of 3-D, from 1952 to 1955.

As an attempt by the ailing movie studios to lure TV viewers back to their theaters, a slew of 3-D films was released and heavily hyped during the 50's. The 3-D hey day began with the 1952 release of Bwana Devil, the first color stereoscopic feature film. Not long after, came House of Wax, the first horror film in 3D, which was also the first of the 3-D feature films with stereophonic sound. Its success ignited a major blitz of cheesy 3-D horror movies.

Before completely canning 3-D production just a few years later, due primarily to the success of less costly movies filmed in new widescreen formats, such as "WarnerScope," Warner Bros. attempted to milk the 3-D cash cow for all it was worth. As you'll see in this trailer for House of Wax, when it came to selling 3-D to the audience, Warner P.R. didn't leave many descriptive words on the cutting room floor.


Until you see Monsters vs. Aliens 3D and the other new 3D films that are out there for yourself, there's no way you can imagine just how wonderfully compelling the new state of the art has become. 3D is no longer the cheesy gimmick that we've come to expect. But the real story isn't so much about the new technology, it's how that technology is being put to use by some of the very best storytellers in the business.

3D stereoscopic storytelling is finally coming of age, and instead of being exploited for its gimmickry, it's changing the language of film and being used to tell stories that could never be told before using traditional techniques. In the proper hands it can reveal nuances and relationships between characters and objects and the audience like nothing else can.

It's clear to say that no one, not even the filmmakers on the cutting edge, can predict what the future of 3D stereoscopic holds in store for us. But, that's the beauty of it all, and it's why stereoscopic 3D films like Monsters vs. Aliens are drawing huge audiences of all ages.


To really get the complete "immersive" experience, you'll need to head to your local theater to see the movie in its full 3D stereoscopic glory. However, to get some idea of the complexities involved in the creation of Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as the humor, just take a look at the trailer below.


Monsters vs. Aliens isn't perfect, but it's wonderfully funny and a terrific parody of earlier 3D horror from the golden age. And, DreamWorks mastery of the technology is just downright stunning. So, Monsters vs. Aliens gets an easy 5-Cow rating.


Be sure to check out the Creative COW podcast interview with David discussing Stereoscopic 3D, Dreamworks and Monsters vs Aliens.

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Well, I have no respect for Steven
by David Roth Weiss
Just kidding Steven!!!

You caught me. I made a boo boo. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Frankly, I'm very late to the 3D game. I was never a big fan of 3-D from the golden era, and I wasn't rushing out to see any of the current crop of 3D movies. But, I'm a big fan now, and I'm clearly not the only one.

The glasses are better today, and certainly infinitely more comfortable, but you're right, the single-projector projection system, is clearly (no pun intended) the most important factor that makes today's 3D stereoscopic experience far more appealing than it was in the past.

However, consider that richly layered 3D compositing techniques and 3D animation also give the filmmakers control over far more elements within a scene than was ever possible in earlier live-action movies. I think that alone really does qualify today's 3D as something radically different from "your grandparent's 3D." I'm not so sure about live-action 3D, but I think animated 3D stereoscopic filmmaking is in a whole new league from what came before.

Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
by Steven Bradford
Arrgh, didn't see your most recent comments, Tim and Ron, when I added my post script!

What does it say that out of all the new developments, I'm most intrigued by your mention of Ray Zone's anaglyph oil paintings! Love to see those.

I only just discovered the new 3D forum. Great addition. I've been kind of under the gun with my teaching duties, but It's starting to lessen a little so I will put it at the top of my web rotation!
Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
by Steven Bradford
PS-- I wanted to stress that my initial post wasn't meant to be negative about David's good article as a whole. This new 3D boom has far greater legs because not only is the 3D in the films since Polar Express to Monsters vs Aliens so good but also because this time the distributors are not cheaping out at all on the exhibition. It's really sad that the economic meltdown has put a roadblock up to theater upgrades, and these well crafted films aren't able to get enough 3D screens when released. Also, I didn't realize my signature doesn't come through on article comments the way it does on forum posts, so my background here isn't obvious. I've been working as a 3D video shooter with Stereomedia since 1990. I've shot KISS and Cirque du Soleil, Space Shuttle and Nuerosurgeries, among many other subjects, in 3D. ( ). Yet with just under 20 years experience, I still consider myself a newbie to this field compared to others. I'm glad that people are realizing that it can be done well. And here's a better picture of the SD 3D zoom camera I was mentioning:
Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
by Tim Wilson
That stereoscopic issue Ron refers to will contain an interview with Ray Zone, who literally wrote the book on the history of stereoscopic cinema.

One thing he notes is that more people are watching anaglyphic 3D than ever before. There are a couple of anaglphic channels on YouTube, and a TON of corporate sites using it. Most indie 3D uses it because it's cheap to project...and as Ray also points out, 3D production is one area where the studios are far, far behind what he calls the "3DIY" movement.

Anaglyph is also the only way that 3D is being delivered on DVD. While there are changes afoot, it will be awhile before those achieve critical mass.

In the meantime, some truly advanced anaglypic design is underway, using new combinations of filters that let in more light and provide more accurate colors. The cutting edge is being defined by John Lowry's Treoscope process, used for the biggies so far (Journey, Bloody Valentine, Hannah) and those to come -- I've heard that Coraline will be using John's process.

One other widespread application for anaglyph 3D is print. Ray has been working in 3D comic books since the 50s, including a series of 3D Superman comics for DC.

It's going to be a very cool issue that will include several stories on home delivery. At this point they're specifically platform agnostic, able to handle any viewing formats. Let me know if you'd like to chat about it, tim at creative cow dot net.

Also worth noting that the people currently delivering active shutter glasses to the home are the gamers, with NVIDIA leading the way.....

Learning from each other is fun. :-) Looking forward to more, Steven....

Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
by Ron Lindeboom
Please do not feel as if we are picking on you, Steven, or that you need to sell yourself. Both Tim and I know full well who you are and we both have a TON of respect for you.

Like you, we are huge fans of what is happening and we are working hard to learn as much as we can about it all.

But everytime that I find out one area, it leads to another area where it just opens up a ton more questions. :o)

Thanks for helping fill in some of the ideas and the techniques and processes.

It's great to have you swinging by the COW, Steven.
Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
by Ron Lindeboom
Thanks for your feedback, Steven, as you know, I have had a LOT of respect for you and your work over the years. I learned more about bluescreen from you than anyone else I ever met.

One of the funny things that we are learning -- and I am SURE that you are well farther along in the learning curve than I am -- is that even with a single title created with one type of stereoscopic 3D, depending on the theater, situation, etc., it can be screened using one of multiple different types of projection.

I can see why there is so much confusion in this arena.

I am NOT trying to say anything more than, like many, my questions outweigh my answers. That is why Tim Wilson is hard at work on the 3D Stereoscopic issue of the Creative COW Magazine, looking at the various issues from many different angles. I look forward to the issue.

As you say, there is still a lot of work to be done in this arena and when we were at Dreamworks Animation to get a pre-screening of Monsters vs Aliens, much of what we saw was clearly "over the top" technique. As this market gets more and more refined and dialed-in, it will get to where the experience is invisible (you know what I mean) to the viewer. It won't be so heavy-handed.

Before the movie was shown, Jeffrey Katzenberg came out and introduced the team and the concepts and what Dreamworks is up to. It was very interesting as they took the audience through many of the issues and how the technology works. They took the images and split them and moved them around visually until they almost made the audience throw-up. (It reminded me of seeing some of the early 3D movies when I was a kid.)

As you know, Steven, we've always wanted to have you as a part of the COW Team and if you would like to join our team in the new Stereoscopic 3D forum, we'd be honored to have you there. (We have a couple of guys from Stereoscope that will be joining the team shortly.)

Thanks for your feedback, Steven. It's a fast moving market and as I said, we are just sorting through all the good and bad stuff and we are not to be without our own missteps along the way. Thanks for helping to keep us honest.

The best always,

Ron Lindeboom
Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
by Steven Bradford

Well it looks like I erred in my phrasing. I didn't mean to say that anaglyph wasn't used back then. Anaglyph was certainly used, primarily for black and white productions such as "It Came From Outer Space". That was in fact the first 3D film I saw as a child, and yep it was also with the anaglyph glasses. However, the state of the art of 3D back then wasn't anaglyph, it was polarized presentation. And that is how color movies such as House of Wax and the other big studio productions were projected. This is fantastically well documented, on the web, in books, and contemporaneous publicity materials, there is no need to rely on memory or the statements by current producers trying to separate themselves from Past 3d eras.
That doesn't mean there weren't anaglyph releases of these films, there were eventually, this was the low budget way to distribute a film, its single projector, cheaper, less troublesome, less expensive glasses. Also inferior.

I'm just tired of the "This isn't your grandparents 3D" line being thrown about, at least with regard to anaglyph 3D. We've had polarized projection since the 1939 world's fair. Since then It's been the favored way for most first release films, whether at world's fairs, or theme parks, Imax, and major studio films. From House of Wax to The Stewardesses, to Captain Eo, to Comin' at Ya, to Monsters vs. Aliens.

What's changed ISN'T the glasses. What's changed is that almost all the problems of alignment and registration in the theater have been eliminated through the use of a single bright digital projector. Maintaining consistently good display standards was always the problem with theatrical 3D presentation. It was ameliorated somewhat with the introduction of single strip projector lenses, but still suffered problems.

But the absolutely locked down no jitter, no weave, consistent and easy to operate digital projectors have revolutionized 3D presentation. Whether they use polarization, the new improved anaglyph like techniques from Dolby and Color Code, or even the LCD Shutter technique. Having each eye projected in perfect sync with no misalignment makes a big difference in delivering an enjoyable, strain reduced experience. (There are still people who report problems with viewing even the projected 3D though. So more work to be done.)

The other BIG improvement is the enormous amount of control animators have over the 3D viewing space, and the way they can tweak it to improve the experience. Live action 3D is now getting a similar treatment in digital post, so that the effects can still be visual stunning without actually stunning the viewer into eyestrain.

There's still a lot to be done though. We have very little choice in camera systems for HD live action that are anywhere close to being productive and quick to use in the field. Most of them are essentially optical lab benches being carted about. It's sad that no one has followed up in HiDef with Ikegami's pioneering work with their standard def 3D zoom lens equipped ENG shoulder camera. You could actually shoot run and gun news with that camera, and I did often shoot that way with it, many many times. You can see a shot of me on the shuttle launch tower with it on my persona home page at

The other major lack we have is a simple easy to use viewer for HD in the home. Something that can play back on a blu ray player for example. We've got some of the components, but not all of them in a consumer ready experience. It's not a major technological hurdle or expensive, just that no company has introduced it yet. There are 3d ready monitors yes, but the connection between the monitor and the player is missing.
In response to Steven Bradford
by Ron Lindeboom
Hello Steven,

Yes, David did a slip of the tongue when he said lenticular instead of anaglyph.


During a dinner that I had with Ed Leonard, the Chief Technology Officer at Dreamworks Animation, we talked about anaglyph movies and early attempts at 3D that used the red and blue glasses back then. They refer to them as anaglyph, not polarized. We have also been in regular contact with Bernie Laramie -- the noted television producer and arguably the man who is the single most driving force behind the new wave of 3D -- and SpectSoft (who is manufacturing realtime stereoscopic editing systems for the big film houses and who is working on the Blue Sky Ice Age 3D), and they refer to the 50s and 60s movies with the red and blue glasses as anaglyph. Not polarized.

I am pushing sixty now and I used to go to the theaters and see those early 3D movies and I was always handed a set of red and blue anaglyph glasses, I do not ever remember it being anything else.

It was only in the 90s that I remember seeing my first polarized 3D feature. It was a tour of Hawaii by air filmed by John Dobovan, as I recall.

There is a LOT of confusion out there regarding 3D and that is why we have started digging into it so much lately. The new issue of the Creative COW Magazine will be ALL about stereoscopic 3D. Sorting through all of the misconceptions and myths is almost as time-consuming as learning about the processes and that is why we have gotten some of the biggest names in the field to help our members get a head-start in all of it.

We have met a lot of people in this who are making bold pronouncements and statements that are absolutely false and who have page after page of web and other information to back them up. That too, has been quite disconcerting sorting through to try to make sense of it all.

That is why we have gathered together people from the teams at Dreamworks, Blue Sky, the maker of Coraline, the president of IMAX, the makers of Spectsoft 3D Live, Bernie Laramie and many others to take our members inside the real inner workings of today's stereoscopic 3D production. It's been a LOT of work.

Like eating a cherry pie that someone missed a pit or two, we have had to spit out a seed or two along the way, but we aren't about to stop eating as we love cherry pie. We have had people tell us things like there have only been three 3D productions ever made and none of the ones that people have seen are any of the three -- and oddly, of course, their graduate production just happens to be one of those 3. Imagine that!#@!?

There are mountains of misinformation in the market right now. There are also arguments between the players as to what is or isn't happening and what is what. Tim Wilson and I have said it reminds us of when nonlinear came along and everyone had a differing vision and technology and all of them clamored for attention and bought booth space at NAB to tell us why their version was so much better.

Our real statement on all of this is going to be found in the magazine and its Body of Evidence.

No single article done by anyone could cover this subject and David did a good and fun article showing some of what's happening today. If there was a pit in there, spit it out. But don't miss the rest of what is there.

Thanks for your feedback, Steve.

I hope all is well.

Ron Lindeboom
Under the Hood & Behind the Scenes: Masters of Stereoscopic 3D Storytelling
by Steven Bradford
"if you have a pair of the old lenticular 3D glasses"

I believe you meant anaglyph 3d glasses. Lenticular is a completely different technology.

Anaglyph isn't the process that was used back then anyways. It was polarized glasses then too. House of Wax, almost all of them. Some of the Black and white features were released in anaglyph. But the big budget color films were all presented using polarized projection systems, with polarized glasses fro the audience, as is most common today.

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