Masterclass: James Cameron And Jon Landau Teach Bleeding Cool The Dos And Donts Of 3D Conversion

Last week, I got to speak with Jon Landau and James Cameron about the new 3D version of Titanic, Avatar’s sequels and spin-offs and the whys and wherefores of 3D filmmaking.

Lots of that will come later, but let’s begin with some talk about the 2D to 3D conversion of Titanic, what the film gains and what, if anything, it loses in this new version.

Jon Landau: You can say to a movie studio “Let me pay the bill” at dinner and they’ll say “No” because that’s what they do. Studios are in the business of saying no. They were sceptical about this conversion.

It cost $18 million dollars plus the cost to open and market the movie because in my mind, it’s not a re-release, it’s a new release. When people go back to see this in the theatres, it’s going to be a new experience for them.

But we did our due diligence. We took one minute of film from 5 different scenes in the movie and had 15 different companies convert it, and we stood back and watched all the versions. We found a company, Stereo D that we found we could work with, and we could improve what they were doing so that the end result would be something acceptable to us and creatively we’d feel comfortable. If we can say “Jim Cameron is proud of this” then we’re happy.

James Cameron: Stereo D had their in house artists and then their supervisors, and then there was my team who would receive the shots as works in progress and they would kick them back and turn them around five or six times before they ever came to me and I’d say what’s not working, and where we needed more or less depth or volume.

Shots were converted all out of order, then we’d view complete scenes, then compete reels. Sometimes it would bump a little bit as we went along so we’d adjust.

I found that in wide angle shots it was easier for them to do the conversion because there’s always continuous perspective for them to work with. Longer lens shots where it’s separate planes and you don’t see the connections between the objects were very hard for them to do, very hard to judge.

I’d have four hour sessions working on this maybe twice a week for a year. It was pretty mind numbing. I didn’t enjoy the process, I just enjoyed the end result.

Jon Landau: We spent sixty weeks on this. We spent more time doing the conversion than we did shooting the movie. Not a lot of people can say that. What not a lot of people understand about the conversion is that it’s a creative process. It’s a creative process that uses technology, sure, but that’s what moviemaking is. Jim looked at every shot, every frame of film, and determined the 3D space that he wanted in them.

James Cameron: If I had made Titanic in 3D to begin with, my choices may well have been slightly different but that alternate universe doesn’t exist for us to know that.

For the most part when I was shooting in 3D, either on the documentary films or on Avatar, I didn’t really change my style very much. I still composed more or less the same way. It turns out, in a sense, I was trying to do 3D the whole time, even in 2D. I’d put in foreground objects, framing objects, drawing the eye, and then there would be depth planes beyond. The way you light, the way you compose for 3D, I found that I was trying to do that already.

Jon Landau: There was no temptation to crop or resize any of the shots. We decided that we’d live with them and rather than second guess ourselves, we decided to make the shots work. We have shots in Avatar too, over the shoulder the shots where people are half in the frame, half out of the frame. We just do them with a reduced inter-ocular. There are tools that we can use to make these shots work.

People say “You can’t have anything break the edge of the frame” but that’s malarkey. What you have to do is not have the audience want to look over there. You have to make the action compelling enough. It’s like depth of field. You don’t want people to look where the focus is soft – they’d know they are watching the movie. You have them look where there’s light, where there’s movement. And these same techniques apply in 3D.

James Cameron: You have to be judicious. There is a shot where Leonardo is leaning over and he hands Kate a noteto meet him later. Right in the foreground there’s an out of focus lamp. If I was doing that shot in 3D, I’d have moved that lamp. When we did the 3D conversion at first, it became a shot about a lamp. You weren’t even looking at him because there was this lamp right in your face. And this is where the filmmaker has to step in and say “This isn’t a shot about a lamp” and collapse the stereo space. That shot’s now barely in 3D.

You make that same decision sometimes when you shoot a film natively in 3D, to have barely any depth. It’s like scoring a film. Are you going to have music in every scene? Or sometimes, are you going to let the scene breathe and just hear the crickets, so to speak? It’s a creative choice. Stereo should be brought in on a shot by shot and scene by scene basis, the same way you use colour or music or anything else.

Jon Landau: Everything is a give and a take. Some shots might work quite the same as when they were in 2D, but other shots work better because they’re in 3D.

There is nothing you can do in conversion that you can’t do in native 3D because you can always take a single shot in a native movie and convert it if you find a reason to do that. If you want a movie in colour you wouldn’t shoot it in black and white and convert it to colour. The tools to shoot in 3D just didn’t exist for Titanic.

James Cameron: If you like 3D this can easily be the definitive version but choose for yourself. I think the 3D version can be the definitive version. Let’s fast forward to fifty years from now when all movies are in 3D. Which version of Titanic are they more likely to watch?

Titanic 3D is a testament to the possibilities of 3D conversion. Where there’s a bump in the road, it’s because Cameron has decided to preserve the film rather than rework the old 2D shot compositions, alter the edit, recolour or fiddle with the focus. What you most definitely don’t need to worry about is the “cardboarding” effect that has plagued previous 2D-to-3D translations.

Incidentally, Mrs. Connelly had never seen Titanic until the world premiere of this 3D version. She’d resisted it for about fifteen years? Her verdict? Well, I don’t want to put specific words into her mouth, but she certainly liked it.

More from Cameron later in the week.

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