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Doc Edge 2011: the flash stuff

This year’s Forum offered a number of sessions on practical aspects of documentary filmmaking, including 3D and SFX. Tony Forster and Angelique Kasmara went along to glean some tips and tricks.

Peter Fullerton from Panasonic delivered a fast-paced session on ways of achieving stereoscopic 3D (not the CGI approach) and the potential for its use.

Aware of 3D’s image – flashy, possibly gimmicky and expensive beyond the dreams let alone the budgets of most doco makers – Peter began by offering a rationale for considering its use in the documentary field.

It’s more naturalistic and immediate as it’s more akin to how we view the world and occupy physical space. The argument applies to making fiction films as well but, as documentary is supposed to be reality, or as close as one can get in bits and bytes, perhaps there is an argument for doing as much as can be done to maximise the viewer’s engagement in the world a doco inhabits. Sort of like Pandora.

There’s also, if you like, the negative reasons for considering 3D. Everybody else is, and your product will compete with their offerings. It’s lifespan might be shortened if it isn’t in 3D, or it might be converted to 3D at a later date.

It’s certainly difficult to ignore the impact of 3D in the world market. NZ box office data collection doesn’t differentiate the take from 3D and 2D screenings, but tickets to 3D screenings cost more. Anecdotally, it seems 3D screenings are delivering a disproportionately higher return compared with their 2D counterparts, despite playing on a much smaller number of screens.

That, of course, is theatrical. The bulk of documentary product is destined for and more likely to be seen on TV, which is lagging behind cinema in audience acceptance, not least because of the large upfront cost the consumer has to bear to get a 3D TV. One reason discouraging take-up is the dearth of 3D product presently available for TV.

Broadcasters internationally are crying out for 3D content as they attempt to build a sufficiently large store to feed the beast that a 3D channel will become. In that sense, it might be a commercial decision to make a 3D documentary.

However, as with all things new, issues remain to be addressed.

Filming in 3D (as opposed to posting 3D, as Alice in Wonderland did) requires two cameras – the left and right eye – and there are two methods of rigging. The first is a 2 camera rig, with two cameras mounted side by side. This method is good for getting wide shots but not close ups, with point of convergence as the primary problem. If the image is aligned perfectly when both lenses are in focus, then the outcome is excellent.

The second method is using a mirror rig (or beam splitter rig), with one camera facing forward, the other camera facing up. A mirror directs the image to the camera. Side-by-side and beam splitter both require a technician to ensure the lenses remain perfectly aligned.

A third option for filming 3D is to use an HD twin lens 3D camera, which is virtually point and shoot. Twin lens aren’t generally the first choice for feature length films, but for smaller documentary budgets HD twin lens are by far the cheapest option.

The twin lens aren’t great for close-ups. Also, at about 200m the lens loses its 3D (although happily that pretty much matches the human eye’s capacity for distinguishing 3D).

One major drawback is that the image quality won’t pass broadcast standards. Broadcasters such as Discovery, who have a new 3D channel, will accept films shot this way, but they’ve had to lower their standards to do so. As time goes by and technology improves, the broadcast standard might be raised again. Programming shot in this way might not have a long shelf-life.

By whatever approach 3D is created for TV, it is now happening and there is a demand for it. NHNZ is making 30 hours of 3D for Discovery Channel. In the US, Comcast and ESPN have a 3D channel. YouTube now has a dedicated 3D channel. And for the home office, there are now options for using 3D technology on computers, tablets and phones.

3D is also being used on different platforms. The Mt Cook Museum set up a 3D cinema where you can view a 3D film of the mountain. NZ police recently launched a bicycle safety campaign – to give viewers the sensation of what it’s like to be in a crash without your helmet.

Just as with fictional subject matter, some documentaries lend themselves more naturally to 3D. It presents an opportunity, and therefore should at least be considered.

From 3D, discussion moved to another subject more common in the realm of higher budget features, special effects. Afterglow’s Craig Parkes took up the baton, focusing his presentation on cost-effective options.

Some of the suggestions Craig made were common sense ones, though no less valuable for being repeated). Don’t just look for the cheapest fx shop on the block but rather discuss your wish-list with post houses before shooting commences.

Visiting a post house after shooting with a wish list will most likely involve massive amounts of time and effort; practical conversation beforehand can make the shoot easier and the post job infinitely simpler. Simple is good, and cheaper.

Of course you can attempt DIY special effects. Computing power has increased to the point where previously expensive facility level turnkey products for VFX and finishing (Smoke, Resolve etc) are becoming available for desktop computers.

Software prices are dropping and, as a rule of thumb, computer capacity doubles and the time to process a task halves every 18 months. Soon they’ll be capable of finishing a job before you’ve started it!

Desktop solutions such as After Effects are becoming more powerful. Better codecs combined with digital capture equates to better VFX. Many more cameras have access to HD-SDI ports, and there are many third party devices that allow cost effective digital capture onto less compressed codecs. This allows better green/blue screen work to be recorded in the field and in studios.

Footage shot on DV is generally fine for standard images – but is not good for SFX work. Fortunately most new cameras have HD-SDI ports that enable cameras to output the captured image to an external storage place that vastly reduces the impact of compression issues that compromise the ability for FX people to achieve the best result.
Spend lots of cash on hiring a green screen studio and then record on DV will leave you facing big problems and costs when keying.

3D animation has its own specific issues, which Craig touched on briefly. As a process, it’s very change resistant, like baking a cake. It’s difficult to do much beyond making superficial changes at each step without having to start again from scratch. Previews and step by step approvals may be necessary for cost effectiveness. Last minute changes are very difficult, which means expensive.

On the other hand, 2.5D compositing more easily allows changes throughout. So the best way to work is to combine the two technologies, and there are a number of compositing tools and tricks that can work.

Craig also touched on time remapping super slo-mo on a budget. Newer cameras such as the Canon SLR can shoot at 50 frames per second or more – allowing perfect slo-mo at 50% playback speed. They can also shoot with very fast shutter speeds. This allows plug-ins (Twixtor was cited) to be much more effective at faking slow-mo.

In closing, Craig addressed education. Learning about specialist, niche subject matters is much easier now in the internet age. In the field of visual effects, countless online tutorial videos are available. He recommended people learn to shoot VFX shots as per this method because “it will make my life easier.”

The downside to all this easily available information and array of cheap or sometimes free tools, is that people think they can do it themselves. But, as with most things, amateur work still often looks like amateur work.

For those interested in gaining a better understanding of the options out there, or willing to risk falling into the ‘amateur’ category by having a go themselves, Craig is happy to share his list of online resources by email.

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