How Dreamworks Animation is Innovating 3D

/Film was invited to the Dreamworks Animation campus to preview some footage from Monsters vs. Aliens, and take a tour of the company’s new 3D process (which is actually pretty incredible… more on that later). It all began when Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg saw a screening of Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express in IMAX 3D.

“I was so blown away by the presentation. I literally came scurrying back here and said, this is a game change,” Katzenberg told /Film and a small group of other online press. “The implications of this movie theater experience are something I have not seen or imagined in my 35 years of doing this and I think it is a huge opportunity and we need to get on it.”



Katzenberg explained that filmmaking has been through two great revolutions, the first being the transition from silent film to talkies, and the second being the transition from black and white to color. He insists that 3D is the next great revolution.

“The movie theater experience has not been innovated in any meaningful way in decades. Meanwhile, the home experience with the big flat screen tvs and surround sound, blu-ray and everything else has just become amazing. So one experience has stood still while the other has continued to rise up.”

Movie attendance continues to fall as the popularity of the home theater and on demand movie watching builds. This leads us to Katzenberg’s passionate plea to keep the movie theater experience alive.

“I love the movie theater experience. I think that it’s very special when a couple hundred people to share a experience. Everything is amplified – things are scarier. Things are funnier. Things are sadder. Everything in that shared experience is enhanced. And I would like that experience to stay around and to me this offers the first opportunity to innovate the theater experience in ways we can’t in our home for many years to come.”

He admits that 3D will eventually be possible in your home theater, but says its probably “10 years out”. And even then he likens it to “the difference between a live sport event and being in the arena and everything that it brings and how immersive it is vs. watching it on TV.”

“Samsung is making monitors right now that are 3D capable, so I don’t think that’s the challenge. It’s actually the viewing experience,” Katzenberg explaned. “There’s 2 things about 3D in order to really give the full Rolls Royce version of it. One is the size of the screen needs to hit your peripheral vision. If you think about it, if you have a 50” television set that means that you actually sit no further than 50” away from the TV. So that’s here. You don’t sit that close to your TV.” … “The second thing is that the more light, the more it diminishes the 3D experience and so I made a joke which is I walked around my house in terms of where I have a TV set and the only place I can go in my home in which I can have a 3D experience as good as what I can have in the movie theatre is in coat closet where I come into my….and I can’t fit a 50” TV in there, so it’s light actually kind of dissipates it a fair amount. You can do it in the home but it’s not going to be, again

So why now? What’s changed?

“These are polarized glasses as opposed to my father’s 3D: The blue and red anaglyph, which kind of disintegrated… forget the fact they were made of cardboard, beyond that they sort of disintegrate the color and the art of the film. They were really more for gimmick than a quality experience.”

Secondly the technology behind the projection of 3D films which allows for “absolute precision in doing the right eye left eye so that all of the imperfections and things that we all associate with the old 3D, in terms of what happens on the theater side, are corrected. And if you remember, with the old 3D, there were two projectors, and if you’re trying to line those things up, it is impossible to have precision in it. And those imperfections cause many of those things that people identify with motion blur, eye strain, nausea, those things.”

But the third thing Katzenberg touted was the new tools to create the technology. This is where Dreamworks Animation is taking 3D to the next level. Until now most 3D films have created in a post production process, something Katzenberg compares to the equivalent of a black and white movie being colorized.

“If you have seen a black and white movie that has been colorized, it is that big of a gap. Because a movie that was designed and shot in black and white, everything about it from the set dressing to the cinematography to directing the film, is very specifically designed to show shades of white to black and all of the colors and skews of gray in between it,” explained Katzenberg. “So literally a color would be picked for a piece of set dressing because it would translate to a color of gray. So to go in and literally colorize it, it doesn’t look right. That’s what happens when you post-produce a movie in 3D.”



“This is where one of the largest gaps has occurred in terms of the understanding of where we are tomorrow versus where we have been yesterday. Almost everything that you have seen are movies that were authored in 2D and post produced in 3D. I can’t emphasize enough the difference that happens,” said Katzenberg. “When you author in 3D, it’s a very different thing.”

But most importantly, the new authoring process gives the filmmaker more creative options.

“The tools are great, but nobody shoots like Steven Spielberg. Everybody takes film and puts it through a camera, even when he works with different cinematographers there is something singular, signature and unique about it. That’s his art, and the same thing is true with 3D. 3D is going to be used in many different ways, and so again as much as I appreciated Journey to The Center of The Earth, that’s not how we imagine using 3D. Because I felt that the 3D in that is very self conscious.”

He says conscious but what he really means is gimmick. And Dreamworks Animation doesn’t want to create an amusement park ride, but instead a storytelling experience.

“This is an opportunity for us to actually immerse the audience into an experience rather than to break the proscenium to play with the audience. We will bring images in a way that will force the perspective of something in it, but never once does it actually reach out and hold images in a way in which that first thing you go ‘oh I’m watching 3D’. If you do that, in a way you break the storytelling. This is a storytelling tool.”

The New Technology

A computer animated film begins with storyboards, then progresses to animatics. This is where Dreamworks begins the 3D authoring process. We were taken to another room where the computer animation equivalent of a director of photography demonstrated new technology which allows them to shoot the 3D world in a more life-like manner. Until now, moving a camera i a computer animated production required setting a and b points in a computer. Basically, you’re seeing the virtual camera on a virtual track. The result is a very fluid shot, which is also incredibly unnatural.

In this room we got to see a set of virtual cameras which I was able to pick up and move around the room. In the LCD screen in front of me, I was moving around the virtual set created by the guys at Dreamworks. Basically, a camera man could now enter the virtual world and capture the action of the computer animated characters. And without extensive rendering time, they are able to sit back and watch the animatic sequence which was created on the fly, projected back on a screen in full 3D. This allows the filmmaker to frame a shot for the 3D experience, as opposed to tinkering with captured footage in post.

In another room a Stereoscopic supervisor showed us how they are able to adjust the convergence of any shot, adding more depth or creating a more intense 3D effect. We were able to watch them adjust the depth in real time on DLP television. The editors had to modify a regular Avid set-up so to accept both the right and left frames simultaneously. On the fly 3D playback allows them to minimize eye strain and all the other possible negative side effects.

And the end result is not only more expensive but also more resource intensive.

“Our movies cost about $150 million a piece to make and 3D is about $15 million more, so it’s about 10% more for us [to do 3D]. Less for live action movies, because a lot of us is the rendering. We actually have to make the movie 3 times. Once in 2D, once right eye and once left eye, so we actually have to render 3 versions of the movie. But from a time standpoint, once everybody is up to speed with the tools, it doesn’t seem to be taking a whole lot longer to do,” said Katzenberg. “It took five million hours of rendering time on Shrek. On Monsters vs. Aliens it will take 40 million hours to render. And a very large portion of that is 3D. The demands are much much much more complicated with the rendering issues we’re faced with.”

Monsters vs. Aliens will probably play on 2500 screens in 3D, which is only about a third of the company’s planned domestic release. But more theaters are converting to digital, and Katzenberg expects that by the time Shrek 4 hits theaters 15 months later, that two thirds or even three fourths of the release will be in digital 3D. And until they can release a film entirely in 3D, Dreamworks Animation plans to author their features in 3D and then adapt it to 2D, as opposed to the traditional method of adapting a 2D version to 3D. And as we spoke to Katzenberg in the digital theater on the Dreamworks Animation campus, he admitted that they are currently in production on four 3D animated features. He made a point of stressing the in production, snapping that they aren’t just “in development”. And those four films are Monsters vs. Aliens, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Goes 4th and Mastermind.

“We’re finishing “Madagascar” now…literally in the next 3 weeks, 4 weeks. And then everything after that is in 3D.”

And after Labor Day they have plans to announce their slate for 2011 and maybe even 2012. He also confirmed that they made a long term deal to release all of their films in IMAX until 2010. But I confirmed that there are still no plans to render the movie for the IMAX frame. For those who don’t know, the theatrical aspect ratio is projected in these IMAX screenings. But that could always change if more IMAX theaters open up.

“It depends on how their footprint expands over time in it, but when you look at “Panda” in IMAX it’s a beautiful experience and it did not….I didn’t feel like because it was built for a 35mm experience maybe it’s because we did it in wide-screen, when it translated it didn’t get in your face in that way that some movies do in it. So it kind of worked pretty good, so I thought it was a quality experience.”

But is 3D a fad? Katzenberg uses a historical antidote as a defense.

“If you could roll the clock back here and we were in movie theaters, you know, 85-90 years ago and they were silent films and then they became talkies, there was tremendous debate if you go back and I’ve actually done a fair amount of research and reading about it, and both transitions—the last 2 revolutions that I spoke of were highly debated, both in the business model and by the creative community. Lot of people talked about color just being a gimmick, a fad and it would come and go and 5-7 years later no movies were made in black & white. My instinct says to me this is how we see. You are watching right now, we are looking and working…our eyes are in 3D. It’s how we take in emotions. All of these things are about emotion. You know, the device of telling the narrative of a storytelling and a filmmaker uses his tools are sight and sound. We have 5 senses. The ones that they use to make you feel something, which is what they’re doing, to raise your spirits up or down or make you jump in the seat or give you anxiety. The things that affect you emotionally are sight and sound. Think about how sound has completely revolutionized, not for you in your lifetime but in mine, I’ve now gone from vinyl to an 8-track to a CD to digital delivery. And today we actually can capture, store and replay sound with near perfect fidelity for our ears. It’s that beautiful. So pick any music, whatever your tastes are in this, you take those buds and put that sound in your ear and it literally raises your spirits up. You can feel how exciting it is to listen to sound with beautiful fidelity in it and emotionally it makes us…well same thing with sight. So why would I go back….what you watch and hear is deceiving the mind. It’s a trick. You think you’re watching something that has dimension to it. It’s not. It’s a flat image in it but it’s tricking your mind, so if you could have that dimensionality to it, it makes what you’re doing more powerful. So for a storyteller, I don’t know how you go backwards.”

And then we get a little bit more of the hairbrained Katzenberg, one that honestly believes a film like The Departed could be better in 3D:

“I don’t know whether it takes 2 years, 4 years, 6 years, 8 years to actually roll into it, but I think it’s in that time frame or less that “The Queen” is in 3D. It’s better.”

But he admits that retro-fitting 2D films for the third dimension might not be a good idea.

“The technology of retro-fitting a black & white movie to color has not gotten to a place where I would feel comfortable doing that and representing that as a quality experience. The tools are still being created and perfected for 2D translation to 3D and it’s too early to say it. Up until now I have not been that excited about the quality of it. But the guys across the street are doing it on Toy Story 1 and 2 which are crown jewels and they’re quality guys. And I know they’ve been working hard on these so that’s where they put a lot of focus on it so, you know, I suspect they’ve made some progress there that will actually allow us to put a quality….George Lucas is looking to take the whole “Star Wars” 6 episodes and to repurpose them into 3D. He’s very excited about it. He’s got the technical resources and he’s not going to put product out that’s anything other than I think first rate.”

Will all films be in 3D like Katzenberg imagines? I’m not 100% sold. But his reasoning does have weight. I think there are a couple obstacles, the first being the input device ie 3D glasses. Companies are already hard at work, trying to develop a glassless 3D experience, but who knows when that innovation will occur. And who knows if movie theaters will be willing to invest in even more new technology. The other problem is the extra cost and equipment that is required. I don’t imagine a lower budget independent production setting aside money to calibrate convergence. But then again, auto convergence could be developed in camera, or at least made more easily controllable on set, so that the director of photography would have yet another responsibility on set. And I really believe that if 3D were to become huge, more big IMAX-sized screens would need to be built. The 3D experience on such a large format screen is unbeatable. This of course goes back to what Katzenberg said about peripheral vision. The less you see around the screen, the more of a 3D experience you can have.

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