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How to shoot wild elephants in 3d

02 June 2010

Wildlife filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone recently filmed a 3d pilot for a planned 3d theatrical feature film.

Shot for two weeks in Kenya, Distant Thunder follows a family of elephants as they struggle to survive when drought strikes their homeland.

Clearly, shooting in a fledgling format like 3d in the midst of the African bush is not a straightforward matter. Deeble & Stone worked with 3d production outfit Inition on the shoot and, in the q and a below, they describe how they captured fast-moving wildlife scenes in a notoriously slow medium like 3d.

The following q and a is an extended version of an interview running in the June issue of Televisual magazine.

Why is Distant Thunder being made in 3d rather than 2d?
Mark Deeble: We think 3d is the ideal medium for wildlife. 3d works well where it heightens an immersion in a subject in an almost visceral way - hence horror and porn. Wildlife and wild places appeal to an audience in a deep-rooted, almost genetically hard-wired way - wildlife subjects and wilderness locations make you want to be immersed in, and experience them . Wildlife in 3d is as close as you can get to the safari experience without buying an air-ticket. When that wilderness immersion and proximity to the animals is combined with good storytelling it is a compelling combination.

Who is funding it?
Vicky Stone: The film, a theatrical wildlife story, is being funded by a combination of presales by Hanway Films and equity.

How did Deeble & Stone and Inition come to work together on the project?
VS: We have been experimenting with 3d for a number of years. About eight years ago we had a meeting with James Cameron just as he was starting on Avatar. We bought in to his vision and could see that such a high profile release would drive the conversion of cinemas to digital 3d. That gave us the platform to launch a wildlife story in 3d.

We had done tests with various 3d specialists both in the US and Japan and had conversations with Inition early on. It seemed a good fit to combine with top 3d specialists as our story is so well suited for 3d digital cinema. Inition were developing their own solid state field recorder and that, combined with the SI-2Ks, mirror and side-by-side rigs that could be bought off the shelf, meant that all of a sudden, the right tools were available for a mobile and light-weight shoot in a remote location.

What kit did you use to film the production?
Andy Millns (Inition):
We had four Silicon Imaging SI-2K mini cameras which we used on a variety of rigs. The small size of the SI-2K mini and convenience of the single integrated 3d recorder body allowed us a great deal of flexibility to shoot in a variety of styles. This was essential as the job demanded us to shoot in numerous locations, sometime vehicle-mounted, sometimes hand-held, and from macro work to wide scenics.

The main rigs we used were the P+S Technik mirror rig, a StereoTec side-by-side rig and smaller custom rigs for hand-held with gyro stabilisation. The P+S Technik rig was used mainly with Canon 6.6 to 66mm with full 3 axis C-motion lens control and motorisation of interaxial and convergence.

For monitoring we used our own custom recorder running the SiliconDVR-3d software which allowed us to monitor in a variety of modes (anaglyph, over-layed, subtractive) whilst we pulled convergence and interaxial in response to Mark's framing. Mark had an electronic viewfinder with split-screen left/right monitoring to allow him to check focus over both eyes.

The SI-2K system is great for power consumption. We would get an hour on a single Anton Bauer Hytron 140 on the handheld rig and over three hours on their Cine VCLX battery. This was powering the cameras, all lens and rig control motors, stereographer and operator monitoring, and the recorder. We shot time-lapse on SI-2K on the StereoTec rig, which allows for interaxials up to 15 inches, and a stills rig which was used for interaxials of up to 30 metres for some shots.

Screening dailies was a very important part of the shoot as it allowed us all to learn and refine very quickly what worked best when shooting wildlife in 3d. We used a 2m screen and DepthQ projector with SpeedGrade. This allows us to view the native Raw uncompressed camera files very quickly and do 3d adjustments where necessary without any rendering.

How did the 3d production differ from a 2d production?
: Filming was different to a normal 2d wildlife feature where if you are filming from a vehicle (using it as a mobile hide) you can pare down to a crew of two. 3d meant a bigger crew (stereographer plus digital image technician), more kit, longer set-up times etc. But it was much more manageable than we anticipated and we were very pleased by what we were able to achieve in the two week shoot. More kit and people meant an extra vehicle so we were generally a crew of 5-6 in two landcruisers. What became particularly exciting for us was when 3d left the realm of the purely technical and we were able to use it as an extra storytelling device - in the same way that you might use colour or sound to enhance the narrative and emotional impact.

What were the particular challenges of filming a herd of wild elephants in 3d in the middle of Africa?
Many of the challenges came from having to react to events, rather than predict and control them as you might in drama. It is what we are used to in 2d, but it meant that convergence and interaxial had to be adjusted on the fly. It meant having to film in dust or being unable to clean a water drop off the mirror in the middle of an essential piece of action - it was crucial to capture the action as fast and and well as we could while it unfolded. In wildlife filmmaking this can mean rapidly repositioning the car to get another angle, while holding on to the rig and then rolling the moment the engine has stopped, while the stereographer either chases the interaxial and convergence or does a rough setting for the type of shot he imagines the DoP/ operator will go for next.

This style of shooting requires rapid communication and a director completely in sync with the operator and stereographer. Luckily Vicky and I, and assistant director Etienne Oliff, have worked together for 20 years and Andy and Campbell, from Inition, were both fast, and very professional. It made for a great team.

How does the editing differ in 3d from 2d?
We found that we had a slower cutting pace - averaging c. 6-7 seconds per shot. We didn't set out with this as an aim - it was what felt right in the final edit. I think there can be a delight in 'dwelling' longer in 3d, particularly in the wide shots, where there is the desire to look around more. We checked the shots in 3d in the field every evening, playing out from a P&S Technik 'Onebox' with embedded Speedgrade to a DepthQ projector, with a 2m screen with active shutter glasses, so we knew the material worked. We then edited in 2d back in the UK, then rough assembled in 3d and did a first pass correction for colour and stereo alignment in Speedgrade - all the while checking any corrections on a large screen at inition. We finished the film at Apuntolapospo in Barcelona.

What kind of advice would you give to a producer/director wanting to film in 3d?
Don't be frightened of it, it can be an extraordinarily exciting medium, but think whether your film will really benefit from 3d - not all subjects do. Your life will be a lot easier if you can work with a good stereographer / 3d supervisor and we would highly recommend Inition. Ensure that the team is united in the 3d 'feel' you are trying to achieve - you don't want a DoP and stereographer who are at odds. Think about what producing in 3d will add to your budget, the uplift might only be 15-20% for heavily scripted shoots, but it will be significantly more for unscripted 3d. 3d will only get easier - every month there are exciting new developments in hardware and software.

You’ve made the pilot – what happens next?
We start shooting the film knowing exactly which equipment and people we want to work with, how long it will take and all the other details which were impossible to know prior to doing a test shoot.

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