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It Came from the Third Dimension

Apr 9, 2009 12:00 PM, By Michael Goldman

DreamWorks rethinks 3D production with Monsters vs. Aliens.


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DreamWorks Animation took advantage of stereoscopic 3D to emphasize the difference in scale between characters such as Ginormica, who is 49ft., 11in. tall in the movie, and others, such as The Missing Link. Monsters vs. Aliens is the first major studio CG picture to be authored natively in stereoscopic 3D.

Monsters vs. Aliens is not history's first feature-length digitally animated movie authored stereoscopically for cinematic exhibition. That distinction goes to 2008's Fly Me to the Moon, which was produced by nWave Pictures and then exhibited in the IMAX (70mm film) format. Monsters vs. Aliens is, however, the first major studio CG picture made this way. More importantly, it's the first made this way as part of a permanent stereoscopic initiative. It's also the first authored natively in 3D and exhibited in the RealD 3D format in digital cinemas. (It will also be seen in selected IMAX theaters.) It was then converted to 2D for exhibition in nondigital cinemas. Such projects have traditionally been created using 2D processes and then converted to 3D, but DreamWorks opted for the opposite with Monsters vs. Aliens, and it will continue that approach going forward.

As a result, the creation of Monsters vs. Aliens from previz through final rendering as a stereoscopic project, along with the corresponding movement of the DreamWorks pipeline into the 3D forest, can be viewed as a significant industry development. It has the potential to be as influential from a technical point of view—in terms of bringing stereoscopic production into the mainstream—as the 2007 U2 3D concert film was and as Cameron's Avatar project is expected to be when it finally debuts.

Stereo research

Phil McNally, the studio and movie's stereoscopic supervisor, points out that DreamWorks was well-suited to the effort because Katzenberg had been pushing for the studio to experiment with 3D for years.

"DreamWorks has been doing 3D tests on almost every animated film it has made, waiting for the time when it made practical sense," McNally says. "The IMAX film Cyberworld [2000] has the bar scene from Antz rendered in stereo; the Shrek 4D ride at Universal Studios is stereo; and we did various tests on Shrek 3, Flushed Away, and others. So none of this happened overnight. In my opinion, we have always had the desire and good ideas about how to do it, but until the arrival of digital cinema and the implementation of the RealD [system] in theaters, it was never totally viable. Now it is."

McNally has extensive experience on the front lines of stereoscopic animated feature work, having worked at Disney when that studio was converting Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas into some of the industry's first stereoscopic presentations of CG animated films. This time around, however, he says lens choices, composition, and editing style during production were all informed from the get-go by the stereoscopic format's parameters rather than by a traditional presentation of a flat, 2D world.

"Cutting speed, lens choices, action beats—we are dialing all these things in for 3D each time," he says. "Each review with directors—it's all in 3D from the beginning, so we are literally making it by seeing what we will get in the end as we go along. When [Katzenberg] announced we would be doing it in stereo, the shockwave went rocketing out across all departments. Fortunately, we had done those tests in the past, and so it wasn't as though people didn't understand stereo. But, still, this was the first time a studio had committed to this for every show. So a big part of my job at the start was working with the studio to figure out what tools to put into place so that editorial could see their work in 3D, do reviews in the dailies room in 3D, see inside Maya in 3D, and so on. The main thing, at first, was getting the dailies room set up so that we could represent the stereo view you see in public. Right now, we have three rooms [on DreamWorks' Glendale campus] that are fully up to the [DCI digital cinema specification]—with full DCI-compliant projectors for the RealD system in two of them, and one for the Dolby [3D] system—and we are now looking at putting in a fourth, as well."

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