This unedited interview was recorded a couple of years ago at the Shanghai Grill in Beverly Hills.
LL: What gave you the idea of shooting a 3-D, I’ll call it a horror movie?
TJ: Let’s call it a thriller.
LL: It’s a thriller. Because “horror movie” is wrong. Today it means gore.
TJ: Yeah, this is much more… a psychological thriller. And the idea of exploring some psychological issues in the vein of film noir, where the heroes are typically conflicted psychologically and are working out some deep personal issues… For me, shooting the film stereoscopically was an allusion… The depth in the picture gave me a chance to explore depth in filmmaking. In other words, I felt like I could heighten the symbolism that’s inherent in the dreamlike narrative of film noir, with a heightened sense of depth and using the visuals in a way that would cast them in relief, bring some of the visuals to the foreground, and allow me to explore psychological issues in a visual way.
LL: So you knew 3-D was going to be an element in this story from the get-go?
TJ: Yes, I did.
LL: Just the way any director would know that color and sound were going to be part of the story, and almost take it for granted.
LL: But in this case I presume you had to be more self-conscious because it’s news, or it’s a novelty.
TJ: Yeah, it is novel. So there are less filmic references that I can draw upon in stereo, which allowed me to be freer in making my associations. Whereas in the 2-D world you know you’re going to be working with color, sound, and a composition that’s going to be in a 4×3 or a 16×9 frame – you know, you have your wide lenses, and your tight lenses, and you have your depth of field, and these are the tools with which we’ll tell a visual story. With 3-D we add the extra element of the z-axis to our toolbox to tell a visual story – to use visuals to tell a psychological, emotional narrative.
LL: So when you’re on the set shooting a shot, are you able to visualize what the 3-D effect is going to be like to the audience?
TJ: In creating the narrative, I try to incorporate aspects of stereoscopy in order to… In other words, I try to plan, using storyboards and the script, where the 3-D is going to have an impact on the narrative beforehand – before I get to the stage and the set. And for that reason I storyboarded the entire film – shot by shot, frame by frame – so I knew where each shot was going to land in the film, and where that shot was going to exist on the z-axis of the 3-D narrative. In other words, I created the narrative in a storyboard form, and I went back through that storyboard and decided where the subject in each frame was going to exist in the z-axis of the picture. Looking at the film scene by scene, act by act, I could then map out how I wanted the stereo to play in the film – in other words, how I wanted the audience to experience the 3-D narrative. For instance, I believe that if you’re watching a 3-D film and everything is put into stark 3-D relief, eventually your eyes will get used to the 3-D effect and you will lose the impact that you have. The first 30 seconds of a 3-D film are always the best, because your eye is visually stimulated in a new way that you’re not used to, even in real life; because stereoscopic film is still an illusion. It’s two flat images married together to create the illusion of depth. So when you’re watching it on a screen, although closer to real life it’s still an illusion.
LL: That’s a very important point, because people often say that the addition of the stereoscopic element to the cinema makes it more realistic. But you’re getting at something that I think is deeper. It’s not necessarily that it’s more realistic; it’s something else that you can use to involve the audience, and manipulate.
TJ: That’s correct. Like color, like stereo sound, it is a reflection of how we perceive reality in our day-to-day lives, but it is still a manufactured, man-made illusion. And you’ve experienced that. In no way do you feel like these images are real at any time. You’re still using depth, you’re still using depth of field, you’re still using focus to tell the story. I still can pull focus from subject to subject. I’m still confined by the frame in telling the story, and 3-D is just another tool to manipulate the image.
LL: In The Dark Country your main character is trapped, and I believe that he’s even more trapped in 3-D than he would be in a 2-D movie. It’s a paradox. It would seem that you’d have more space, and yet it’s as if the 3-D element in this film puts the guy, the poor bastard, in a cage that he can never get out of.
TJ: That’s correct. That’s absolutely correct. And that’s why I felt like stereo would be a perfect medium to explore the psychological issues that the film deals with, and those issues of being trapped. That’s why the setting is both containing and… You know, it’s contained inside of a car for a lot of the film, but it’s set in the desert, which is an extremely vast wide open space.
LL: Right. I knew you had something after I saw… I guess I saw an untimed rough cut. Movies go beyond intellect. For days I thought about… Not that I thought about it, but it kept coming back to me and bothered me. So your work haunted me. No matter what I thought about it intellectually, analyzed it or whatever, it was very disturbing and it stayed with me. And then I knew that it was real. That [?] this was a worthwhile film, and entertaining at the same time. Of course nobody wants to sit through anything if it isn’t fun to look at. But it’s actually very disturbing.
TJ: That’s the idea. And you’re right: The stereo can enhance the sense of confinement by further defining the borders.
LL: It’s very monochromatic, and very dark. And it’s honestly easier to see in stereo than it would be in 2-D.
TJ: Yes. Again, that’s the monochromatic choices that we made, you know. The film noir, chiaroscuro style was chosen to enhance the 3-D effect of the film. I think that, paradoxically, the less visual information that you can fill in a frame, the more what’s there will stand out in relief. If I can shoot a character in shadows against black, the more that character will stand out and what he’s doing will take on an inherent larger-than-life meaning than if I were to shoot the character in a much more realistic manner.
LL: In a sense movies have always been three-dimensional, because directors and cinematographers have always been attempting to direct the audience’s attention to a specific part of the frame through depth of field, or by adding smoke and fog and choice of focal lengths. So the stereoscopic element is another way to tell a story in depth. But it’s taken a long time for us to get here.
TJ: Yeah, all the tricks we use to create an image are mimicking binocular sight. So we’re trying to create depth in a 2-D image, a 2-D space, and we’ve become very good at it. And our visual depth cues are so inherent and instinctual that when we see a 2-D image that has foreground, midground and background, we automatically can extrapolate that into what that would feel like in real life – and thus we can have a visceral experience watching a 2-D image. Nothing changes with the stereo image. You are still confined by the same limitations, and you still have the same tools to bring about the same effect. In other words, if you want someone to focus on something in the foreground you’re still going to have to use, like you said, depth of field, focus, and composition to achieve that. But you’re adding the stereo binocular effect when you shoot with two cameras.
LL: But curiously, your tormented character who, in a 2-D movie, would be confined to the x and y plane, is now confined to the x, y, and z plane or space. He’s even more confined. It’s a paradox. What you did was very clever. And I think it’s very important that directors start thinking about the stereoscopic medium not as a gimmick, but as an intrinsic part of telling the story. The thing is, it isn’t that it’s any more realistic. It’s that it lets you tell the story better, if you use it right.
TJ: If you use it right, it’s another dimension – like having a sound come from the back of the theater and then roll forward to the front of the theater. It’s the same immersive technology that you can use… It’s another tool in your kit.
LL: What was it like to be on the set with this new gear, this new equipment? This is the first picture you directed, correct?
TJ: The first picture I directed. We used the Silicon Imaging cameras. No one had ever shot a feature with those cameras before. They’re very small. The digital live-action 3-D – if we weren’t the first, we were the second film to use this digital technology to shoot a live-action stereo film. The workflow was not established and kept changing on a daily basis as the technology evolved. The RED cameras hadn’t been used very much, and that technology was evolving as we shot the film. So there were a lot of technical glitches that we came across.
LL: You took a lot of risk for your first outing as a director. You’re either crazy, or you like to take risks.
TJ: I think what’s exciting for me about digital filmmaking in stereo is the newness of the technology. Because I was able to put it on a Steadicam rig and shoot live action, I was using the camera in ways that hadn’t been done in stereo before, in live action.
LL: So there were several different cameras that you used?
TJ: There were two. We used the Silicon Imaging camera, which is a very small camera, a 2k camera; and then we used the RED camera. Both were excellent, excellent cameras.
LL: And these were in rigs that were put together by Max Penner of Paradise FX.
TJ: Yeah. They basically hand-built these rigs to make them work to suit our purposes, cramming them into an AKV [should this be M-KV?] Steadicam rig, which is a special Steadicam rig that can swing from high to low all in one… It was something that hadn’t been done before. I’m not saying that they hadn’t shot stereo with a Steadicam before, but the flexibility and the mobility of the camera was something that we were breaking new ground on in the film. And just the digital workflow – working with stereo and making a stereo film from inception to completion was the exciting part about making the film. It was that I got to use the stereo to tell the story in a way that was intrinsic to the story that we were telling. In other words, it wasn’t a gimmick. In my film there are very few shots where we see objects coming off the screen and coming out at us. And when you do see it, it’s for reasons that are narrative. In other words, when that happens it forwards the narrative.
LL: Up until now you’ve been an actor in action pictures, mostly?
TJ: Action, drama… I’ve done dramas and action films and comedies. I’m a jack-of-all-trades in the acting world.
LL: So if you would use stereo in any particular genre, where do you think it would work the best? Because what I’m thinking now is that what we’re going to see in terms of live-action 3-D is going to be [?] movies that use a lot of CG backgrounds or characters. Your movie is different.
TJ: That’s right. The movies you’re going to see, of course, are going to be the horror films where you have knives and axes being thrown out at the audience, and it’s going to be used in much the same way that House of Wax used 3-D in the beginning – which is for the novelty, and to explore the cheap-thrills aspect of 3-D. If 3-D’s going to evolve and become the tool that it is, and if we’re going to use it as the tool that it is, then we need to find ways to evolve stereoscopic filmmaking and incorporate it into the narrative of a film. I think the best use of 3-D is going to be in the drama, in the sheer sort of physical, visual, filmmaking largesse – the John Ford, the 70mm, Stanley Kubrick 2001… And it needs to be used with restraint, and it needs to be used in ways that make the experience of the film deeper. In other words, it’s not just for saying, “Wow! Pretty pictures!” It’s for deepening the psychological experience of the film that you take home with you. Apocalypse Now is a film that stays with people because of the psychological experience that they take away from the film. It makes them think, it keeps them up at night, it asks serious questions about the nature of existence and humanity and why we do the things we do to each other. And we can use stereo to enhance that experience. We can use stereo to further drive home the ideas that we wish to communicate through film.
LL: Your vision is an avant-garde vision, because I think it’s safe to say that the great majority of studio people, and the producers, don’t see it that way. They don’t understand that movies have always been three-dimensional and that this is an evolution. They would use it as a gimmick. I think we will have arrived at a really good place for the stereoscopic medium when the kinds of dramas that you’re talking about are shot stereoscopically. But for some reason I think we’re going to have to endure a period of gimmicks. Paradoxically, and oddly, the cartoon cinema – the CG animation cinema – doesn’t do it. They’re very well modulated. The stereo supervisors at DreamWorks, and at Imageworks, and at Disney – and at Blue Sky, I’m familiar with their work… It’s not gimmicky. It’s very well controlled.
TJ: The animation guys, and the guys who are doing animation like Pixar, I think are the most technologically and dramatically evolved filmmakers of our generation, and of any other generation to come before us. They’re making – and I think this will be proved out – they’re making the best films ever made.
LL: And they get no respect. The Academy absolutely doesn’t respect…
TJ: But they will. And part of the reason why is because they have to – proof-of-concept, you know – they have to previz their film every frame, frame by frame. So their narrative is constantly revised so that the visual experience and the narrative become seamless. They are one. The music in these films is the best music out there. It’s brilliant. The music to Toy Story is absolutely fucking brilliant.
LL: I’ve actually been listening to it on XM radio. They have a channel devoted to cinema music, so my kids and I, when we drive around we listen to a lot of the stuff.
TJ: But you’ll see it. So when they use stereo, they’re using it as a narrative function.…
TJ: I was thinking about the animated movies. I think that because the narrative is so important in an animated film, they just inherently understand that 3-D is used to enhance the narrative. And one of the things I think is important to understand about 3-D is that when you create a 3-D film, it’s not just a one-size-fits-all stereoscopic effect that you put on the film. You can vary the intensity of the 3-D effect. In other words, you can make it stronger or more subtle, and you can go right down to flat 2-D in a 3-D film for sequences. I think that’s important, because I believe that the eye gets used to the 3-D effect, and halfway through Hondo with John Wayne I stopped seeing the stereo. I take it for granted, which is a good thing because I’m no longer consciously aware that I’m watching a 3-D film.
LL: It’s the same thing for color, or sound.
TJ: Exactly. Eventually you become desensitized to it slightly. So I think that one of the things we can do is to vary the intensity of the 3-D. In other words, if I have a sequence coming up where I really want to use the stereo to enhance the experience of the film, then before that sequence I might back off on the stereo effect, make it much more subtle, so that I lull you into a sense of… You feel like you’ve become completely unaware of the 3-D. And then turn up the volume on the 3-D when I want you to see it, and it becomes more impactful. The 3-D will suddenly come roaring out at you at the screen for that sequence. Then I can back off on it again. Just like building tension and release in a film, I can also build tension and release using stereo.
LL: One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately has been how to control that in post.
TJ: Right. You have a certain amount of control over it, but you want to kind of think about this stuff while you’re previzing your film.
LL: That’s the thing: The animation people have total control over it in post. They can control the strength of the effect of an individual shot and see how it plays with adjacent shots, or they can control the strength of a sequence to make a point in their depth script. Actually, what you were describing to me earlier is the “depth script” concept that is used in making animated movies. In CG animation they make a chart that looks like a musical chart, and they chart the strength of the sequences.
TJ: I’ve done the same thing with my film. Ray Zone and I created what we call a depth chart. It’s a color-coded chart – I’ll include a copy of it in your book – that delineates the z-axis in the space. So you show the screen, you show the audience, and you show the z-space. You show the depth behind the screen and the depth in front of the screen, color coded: Yellow is neutral. That’s stuff you want to appear at the surface of the screen. As you go farther back the colors change according to the rainbow. I think orange is a little bit of depth, red is a lot of depth, and then forward you get…
LL: What is this? This is actually the storyboard that’s colored in that way?
TJ: Exactly. It’s a depth chart. Once I have that color code I know that things that are blue are coming out of the screen. They exist in the audience space – sort of in a, maybe a midpoint. Things that are purple might exist deep into the audience space – something you’d use very rarely, I think. Then I can go look at my storyboards, and with colored markers I can color different pieces, portions, of the frame according to where I want those things in the frame to appear in the depth space of the film. And then I can show that color-coded storyboard to my cinematographer and my stereographer, and they’ll know exactly where I want elements to appear in the frame, and they can make the adjustments.
LL: So you think 3-D movies require a stereographer and a cinematographer?
TJ: Right now they do. I think that stereography is something that is fairly complex. I think it’s fairly easy to understand, but it has certain complexities, certain guidelines that your average cinematographer – although he can educate himself – he won’t have as much experience as a stereographer.
LL: So the question is, is the stereographer a real creative force on the set, or is he more like a focus puller?
TJ: Well, you know, I think that a focus puller can be a creative force on the set. But the job of the stereographer is a technical job. His job is to achieve… first of all, to keep it all comfortable so we’re not diverging and making your eyes hurt, and second of all to achieve the effect that you wish to achieve shot by shot.
LL: So those are the two elements: You really want the image to be comfortable, and you want the image to be appropriate – and look the way it should to tell the story.
TJ: Yeah. I think comfort is your guideline, your number one rule that you only want to break when it’s intentional. And I think you can intentionally create shots that are uncomfortable. What’s the word for opposing ocular… ?
LL: Accommodation and convergence?
TJ: Yeah, but what’s the word for… ?
TJ: Yeah, but the discrepancy between eye-to-eye, you know?
LL: You’re talking about either retinal or binocular disparity.
TJ: Retinal rivalry. Exactly. I think that retinal rivalry, when both eyes are seeing two different things, can be a tool. It’s a rule that a stereographer won’t break: There is no retinal rivalry. You can’t have it. It’s taboo. I think it’s a fantastic tool. It’s very disorienting.
LL: It was used in Robot Monster. I wrote a blog article about it. Retinal rivalry was used in Robot Monster purposely: one image in one eye, and the other in the other. And I used that years ago in work I did when I was making super-8 movies in 3-D. I put two different reels of film on the projector. It can be an effective technique – and very disturbing.
TJ: I used it in my film, towards the end. The character becomes very disoriented, and I use retinal rivalry to give us a sense of the distortion that he’s perceiving.
LL: You are very thoughtful, and way out there. This is going in extremely strange directions. I never thought, because I don’t know you very well… but I’m very impressed.
TJ: What’s great is, it’s a whole brand new toolbox that people haven’t seen or used a lot. I mean, there are tools I was hoping to do on this film that I haven’t been able to do. One of them is that, we create the stereo window. We determine that the stereo window is going to be in a 4×3 format, a 16×9 format, a 1.33 format, and then we stick to that window. If we have an object that goes out of frame, then the stereo window is broken. One of the tools we use, and one of the things we can create, is something that… You can create a stereo window.
LL: I saw that in your film.
TJ: But I don’t think Sony’s going to let me do it, which is really unfortunate.
LL: You projected in Scope in 2.4:1 and the movie was shot in 1.85 – then you can have material enter the frame. And with digital projection, you can do it.
TJ: Digital projection affords… For the first time, I can create a window. In other words, I can shoot a 1.85 image, and then I can letterbox it. And I’ve done this in the cut: I create a letterbox on the top and bottom of the frame. If you do it subtly enough, you can weave in a fake stereo window with a letterbox that I can then have an object break the frame. What is that called? Breaking the frame.
LL: I literally had a filmmaker call me up this morning asking me how to do it. And I told him that you’d done it, because I saw it in one of your shots. You may be the first person to do it – I don’t know.
TJ: I am the first person to do it. And it pisses me off that right now I’m having trouble with Sony in allowing me to break the stereo window, because there are certain guidelines that you have to conform to when you deliver a film, and they’re giving me a crap about, if I create a stereo window then I’m going to be in breach of some kind of bullshit… It’s all bullshit. What it means is that people are scared, and they don’t want to break the ground.
LL: I saw The Dark Knight in IMAX. Some of that movie is in about 1.4:1, and some of it is about 2:1 – and you never notice the difference.
TJ: Exactly. In the first cut of my film, I vary the stereo window. When we’re dealing with tight shots that are confining and inside the car, I switch to a 2.33 frame. I have a very long, narrow frame inside the car. And then when I crash outside to a big wide shot of the desert, I can go 1.85. Nobody notices.
LL: We’re actually talking about two things. One is breaking the window by having material outside of the edges of the frame or the surround, and the other is something that Eisenstein called the “dynamic square.” Eisenstein wrote an essay called “The Dynamic Square” in which he said, “Why not change the aspect ratio or the shape of the shot as you need it to tell the story?”
TJ: Yes. So my goal was to create a dynamic frame where I could move the window around, and then break that frame – letting you know that this box we’ve created is not real. It can be broken. It also enhances the hell out of a 3-D effect. Because when you reach out into the audience, or when you have something break the audience space, if you move and hit the edge of the frame – top or bottom, left or right – the effect is broken, because you can’t escape the box. But if you create the box, then you can break the frame. You can literally reach out and break the frame. It’s a great effect.
LL: Another effect that people have done is to adapt something that was done in the ‘50s – the floating or virtual window. Have you seen that effect? It was done in Beowulf, it was done in Meet the Robinsons, in which the screen surround, or the window, actually moves out into the audience and you can control what is contained within it. It increases your depth range. It’s another effect you can use. It’s very effective. And it’s not noticed by the audience.
TJ: Right. I saw it in Meet the Robinsons. Very cool. So, you know, these are new tools. These are fantastic tools. You can use them subtly, and people don’t notice – they just feel it.
LL: The digital cinema turns out to be a wonderful opportunity.
TJ: These are the advantages of the digital cinema. It’s fantastic.
LL: It’s the opportunity for stereo, because without it, either with capture or content creation we wouldn’t have it. In projection we wouldn’t have it.
TJ: In film, if you were projecting in 4×3 you’d have to get that little window and put it in front of your projector, and that was it. That would give you your solid lines.
LL: For a technical reason, in projection you don’t need masking on the screen for digital projection, because you have a hard edge. So digital projection screens can be larger than the projected frame, and you still get a very hard edge, if that’s what you want. But you have to mask or crop movie projection in order to get a hard edge.
TJ: So for the first time we’re able to use Eisenstein’s dynamic frame.
LL: This is pretty far out. You don’t want to be too far out, because they’ll kill you.
TJ: That’s right. You want to use these tools, and not get caught.
LL: I was thinking of the business people.
TJ: Believe me, I tried. What’s funny is, when I screened my rough cut of the film I used the dynamic frame, and no one noticed. That’s when I knew it was effective. No one noticed. I had to point it out to them, and then they told me I couldn’t do it.
LL: The movie business is a tension between artists and business people. If the artists weren’t allowed to be as free as they were, people wouldn’t come to the movies because they’d be so dull. So subject matter and techniques are always on the edge, but the business people try to pull it in. It’s interesting. It’s a very interesting business. I’d been selling 3-D systems to engineers. I was a filmmaker, and then I got interested in 3-D and I started making 3-D systems that were sold mostly to engineers and scientists and people like that. Now for the past four years I’ve been back in the movie business – which is much more fun. This is a great business.
TJ: Yeah. There’s a always a tension that exists between the technical side, the business side, and the artistic side. And I think that tension is what allows us to create such great [?]
LL: I must tell you, your thinking is very advanced. This is not necessarily the kind of thing that would advance a career. Even if you were a very well established director, you would have trouble promoting these ideas and getting approval from a studio because they are… Someday I think they’ll be taken for granted.
TJ: Absolutely. This stuff will someday be taken for granted. And probably in the very near future. There’s no reason why we couldn’t do it now, other than ignorance. And just the status quo, you know? This will change.
LL: Tom, this has really been fun. This has been a great conversation. I don’t want to put you down, but I didn’t know you had it in you. It’s really interesting. You’re very thoughtful.
TJ: Thanks. This film has been, in many ways, a proof-of-concept.
LL: I hope it gets released. It’s a good film. Because it moves the universe of 3-D in the direction of drama and away from cartoons and exploitation.
TJ: That’s the proof-of-concept that I started out with.
LL: I am surprised. Some of this is not going to make its way into this, but Max is kind of the underdog of the three companies that make camera systems. His work is superb. Max is very, very good, and I think underrated. We have a very interesting problem.
TJ: Max thinks outside the box.
LL: Max is a wonderful man.
TJ: A wonderful guy. He’s incredibly bright, and he thinks outside the box. He’s an innovator.