A Visit to an Old Friend

CoralineOne day early in February I headed to Laika Studios outside of Portland, Oregon. “Laika” means “friend” in Russian, and it is the former Will Vinton studio–a claymation house that had a good reputation for producing short animated films.

Many years ago I wrote to Will Vinton, describing to him how he could produce stereoscopic movies from stop-motion, by using a single camera and translating it through a few millimeters to take a second shot. At that time I was involved in what were the beginnings of StereoGraphics Corporation, and it wasn’t clear what the focus or the applications of our technology would be. I never got an answer from Mr. Vinton to my overly-complete and passionate plea for him to produce stereoscopic films that would, in all probability, have no means of distribution.

At Laika I was visiting Henry Selick, who had directed a film for StereoGraphics something like 20 years ago. It was a video of Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane singing a ballad. Henry used an early camera and video system that I had helped design. We shot a test for View-Master under the supervision of Gary Evans, who was the brilliant Creative Vice President of that company. Henry went on to direct the features Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.

Henry is probably the world’s preeminent director of stop-motion animated films, and it was many months ago that Henry and I had spoken about the possibilities of shooting his latest production for Laika, called Coraline, in 3-D. Henry and his DP, Pete Kozachik, are now deep into pre-production and have invested heavily in making Coraline the first feature-length stop-motion animated 3-D film in the history of the cinema.

When visiting the model shop and the sets, I was immediately drawn into this miniature world of exquisite color and detail. When I stood in front of the sets, a couple of which had been completed at the time of my visit, I realized that the texture, the detail, and the palpability of the sets were barely hinted at in planar. I had arrived some three weeks before production was to have started and many months of testing had taken place, and some of that effort has gone into mastering stereoscopic technology.

Puppet animation is a natural for stereoscopic photography. The puppets are intrinsically three-dimensional. It’s possible to control the puppet space to maximize the stereoscopic effect by, for example, adjusting the distance between the puppets and their background. In addition, taking the stereo pairs can use the well-developed technology of motion control cameras. The pictures typically have an interaxial spacing, or the distance between the lenses, from a fraction of a millimeter to something like 15 millimeters. When I first spoke to Henry and Pete many months before, I told them that as a rule of thumb the starting point for determining the interaxial spacing was to observe the interpupillary spacing of the puppets, and use that as a starting point. And indeed, that advice–which I’d dreamt up never having shot stop-motion puppet animation–proved to be a good starting point. In point of fact, what I heard was that Henry and Pete had learned that it was necessary to reduce the interaxial separation to less than the puppets’ interpupillary, because the puppets have relatively large heads compared to their bodies.

In Henry’s world exquisite attention is given to details on a truly minute scale. I was struck by the charm and the beauty of the puppets and their backgrounds. I was also fascinated watching all the people engaged in producing this universe–a frame at a time. The people working on the production were having a good time, but the stress of such a production and the requirement to finish on time is something that may not necessarily lead to joy and abandonment on the part of the supervisory personnel. When it’s up and running, by the end of February or early March of 2007, there will be 30 miniature sound stages running at once, and the hope is that something like two or three minutes of finished footage can be produced in a week from all 30 stages combined.

As some of you know, The Nightmare Before Christmas was released something like 14 years ago, and became what some people call a cult classic–that is to say, a cult if you can consider millions of families with little kids. The film was re-released last Halloween as a stereoscopic movie having been stereoized by a team that Disney subcontracted to ILM. The actual artists who took apart each shot and put them together were in Hong Kong, and they created a second perspective from the first by cutting and pasting and filling in the missing material–an utter tour de force. And the result is quite good. But I think it’s preferable if you’re beginning a production to, as Henry is, shoot in stereo rather than to re-purpose the footage.

The tests I saw in the Laika theater were variations in interaxial separation in combination with focal length. Generally, I think what is going to work for Laika (and all stereo cinematography in general) are wide angle lenses to produce the strongest stereo effect. The cameras that Laika is using are based on a Kodak CMOS imagers that are about the size of a 35mm still frame, or what people in the film business would call a VistaVision frame. All of the pixels in the entire frame are not being used, so that there is an opportunity for horizontal shifting of the left and right frames with respect to each other to set the zero parallax point–or that which will appear in the plane of the screen. The photography is done with the lens axes parallel, the camera moving through a small spacing for the second perspective view. Parallel lens axes is the preferred way, if you can do it. It avoids keystoning, and keystoning in stereoscopic photography will lead to vertical parallax, especially in the corners of the frame. Keystoning, by producing vertical parallax in the corners, requires the audience’s eyes to fuse in the vertical direction, something which is to be discouraged because it can be uncomfortable. Even though it happens to some extent in the visual field, there is in no depth content from this vertical parallax in a stereoscopic film.

Henry’s crew, with their digital technology, has a tremendous advantage over those who in the past have had to work with film. Film takes a day or so to get dailies back to see what you’ve done. At Laika the images can be viewed on a flat panel computer screen immediately. When I was visiting the only way that Henry and his crew had to see the images in stereo was to project on a 30-foot screen using a REAL D projection setup. They have a Barco projector with a Z-Screen, and also they’ve got our noise reduction box, which reduces crosstalk to zilch. By projecting on a 30-foot screen, they’re able to have a good idea of how the image is going to look in most cinemas.

My experience with stereoscopic movies is that the image will “scale,” so that images that are shot for this 30-foot screen are going to look okay on other screens. 30 feet is probably small to average for the theatrical cinema these days.

Based on the tests I saw, some of which looked superb, I’m predicting that Coraline is going to be a beautiful stereoscopic film. Of course the tests I saw went to certain extremes of interaxial separation and choices of focal lengths. Only in this way can the crew figure out what works. My guess is that they’re going to be able to nicely predict what the shots are going to look like.

I hope what we are witnessing is the introduction of the stereoscopic cinema on an ongoing basis. I hope this is the beginning of a continuity of learning in which film people have an opportunity to work on stereoscopic films and apply what they have learned film after film. People are experimenting now, and it’s my expectation that technical and aesthetic advances will be rapid. There are a large number of stereoscopic productions in the works right now, and I look forward to the next few years of seeing them projected in REAL D cinemas; and I especially look forward to Coraline.

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