Exposure: Patrick Lussier [web exclusive]

Filmmaker Patrick Lussier provides “deep background” on the making of My Bloody Valentine 3D

A preview conversation of his keynote address at the upcoming Digital Cinema Summit at NABShow, Las Vegas

ICG: Tell us about your decision to direct a 3D movie, and specifically, My Bloody Valentine 3D? The genre seems perfect for it, so is this something you’ve been thinking about for a long time? Patrick Lussier: I hadn’t been thinking about doing a 3D movie until this project came along, actually. Lionsgate was looking to do a 3D movie but they weren’t sure what the right film was. They had thought that I would be a great person to do it because I had an editorial and technical background as a director. As we started to develop the story, it became very clear that this was the perfect project for 3D because the location and setting would lend itself to using 3D for storytelling and not just as a gimmick.

What were some of your early concerns about working in 3D? Just being able to speak the language of 3D movies. We were going to be almost 95 percent location, shooting in real-world environments and, in particular, underground in a mine with the 3D cameras. Some of the 3D companies we talked to were very concerned and said, ‘Our cameras are very delicate and you can’t really be doing that.’ Then we found Paradise [Paradise FX Corp, Van Nuys, Calif.)] and they said, ‘We can do anything you want.’
Tell me about the cameras you chose and your experience using them. We used a set of dual RED cameras as our primary rig. We also used the 2K Silicon Imaging cameras for our Steadicam rig. About 60 to 70 percent was shot on the REDs and 30 to 40 percent was shot on the SIs.

How was the decision made to go with RED? I had barely even heard of them. Brian Pearson [the film’s cinematographer] knew a lot about them, but immediately went to school and learned a lot more. For example, Brian learned that they had a robust digital negative space for capture. We had looked at Sony’s cameras, as well as at what Pace was offering at the time, but the choice of RED had mainly to do with Paradise Effects. Max Penner, our stereographer from Paradise had existing RED-based rigs, as well as SI rigs. They would have changed and used anything we wanted, but once we saw what the [RED] cameras could do, we liked the look. We had one camera go down one day and had to swap it out of the rig, which is why we had extra REDs with us, but they were quite reliable with hardly any down time.

What was it about the look of the RED that you liked? It wasn’t exactly a film look but there’s something about the density of the colors and the richness of the image. That was important because we were shooting 3D underground. When you shoot 3D, you lose a lot of light, so you’ve got to blast a lot more in. Doing that on location proved challenging for our electrics crew, to say the least, because we needed big lights for shooting at 100 ASA or 125 ASA. Unlike a typical horror movie where you don’t want to light up a lot of the background, we needed to, so we could enhance the three-dimensional space around the characters to improve the audience’s 3D experience. We used the cameras more underground than people thought we would, especially for performance close-ups where they produced great results. The REDs weren’t quite as good for action sequences when we were in low-light situations and had to pull the shutter up. That happened once, and you do see some motion blur artifacts.

What made you choose the SIs? We had been promised that they would be modified so that they could pull focus; something that they couldn’t do before our movie. They also promised to make them more user friendly, which was important because we only shot four days on stage, and everything else was on location; we needed the latitude to have something that we could drag to the top of a hill that wasn’t a 106-pound RED stereo rig on a dolly, and that was lightweight enough that the Steadicam operator could use it to capture a dialog scene with three actors and still get the coverage that we needed.

We’re you able to do test exhibiting in 3D before production started? We did one 3D test in February [2008] where we could actually turn around and watch the 3D just to make sure that this was how we wanted to tell the story. We showed it to the studio, and instantly realized that this was the perfect project for 3D. However, we also realized that the existing 3D RED rig was not going to satisfy our very specific needs for shooting in a mine where the maximum height clearance was 6-foot 6-inches. The problem was that you’re shooting into a 50/50 mirrored beam splitter where one camera is shooting straight through it and the other is mounted at 90 degrees and shooting the reflection. That means you’re suddenly 3 feet off the ceiling. Given the physical limitations of the location, we needed them to make a rig that would very quickly turn upside down and get us right on the ceiling. Fortunately, they engineered and built it in seven weeks, and we got it the day before we started photography. But, that only gave us our B-camera to work with before that, so we didn’t do any other 3D test exhibiting until we did makeup and wardrobe tests, which was about five days before photography started.

Tell us about some of the production challenges you and Brian Pearson encountered? We had to rely on single shots to do more in terms of coverage. Because it took longer to light, we had to be very judicious in our coverage because we couldn’t afford the time to over-cover scenes. It also took more time to make sure the framing was right, so we could be sure that we were getting the most of the three-dimensionality. We also pushed things more than is typical for 3D. For example, we have an entire sequence that takes place in a cage, and we used a cage motif throughout the film, so there’s constantly something in-between the three-dimensional space that you’re looking through, which gives it a three-dimensional depth that is very concrete, and became a real metaphor for one of the character’s entrapment that happens in the story. I don’t know if we would have done that at all had it not been for the three-dimensionality of the 3D as a story-telling tool.

Is that something that you figured out along the way, or was it more intuitive? Once we shot a test and began working the story, we looked for places to exploit the 3D within the script. The obvious choices are those things that come out from the screen and hit you in the face. However, there were other things that presented themselves in a less obvious way around the three-dimensional story-telling. For example, the feeling of being trapped behind something, the depth of the enclosure, the feeling of claustrophobia from being encased on all sides, those are all things that we explored as we got into the principal photography and began to realize how the 3D could enhance the psychological experience of both the character and the audience throughout the film.

Were there any particularly frustrating technical challenges? Both the RED and SI cameras were very effective for us but, ultimately, they were a real challenge because we could never get a color grade for dailies, so a lot of the time we were shooting blind hoping that we were creating the right look and feel because we couldn’t see it. Brian [Pearson] and I would walk into the dailies just shaking our heads not knowing what it was we had because using this technology, they couldn’t color time the dailies fast enough or in a way to give us the confidence that the color time they were showing us was even accurate. Hopefully the dailies process can be improved so you can go forward every day with the confidence of knowing what you have in the can.

Was there anything about capture that you believe would have worked better on film than with digital? There were some fireball elements at the end that we shot on both a converted film rig and on digital, and actually went with film at the end, but only so we could get more detail in the fire. If we had used a lot more fire, we probably would have been more hesitant to rely as much on the digital technology because digital has a tendency to peak with fire. But overall, the digital gave us so much latitude that I’m not regretful in any way.

What was it like working with a stereographer? We were so lucky to have Max [Penner] who was great at explaining what he was doing and what he needed to do. The big thing was for him to see the rehearsal of the shots, especially any shots that moved, to see how the stereography needed to be adjusted to get the shot. Just like a focus puller needs to figure out where his focus marks are, the stereographer needs to figure out where his stereo marks are. In the beginning, it was a constant challenge to remember that everything had to be set for stereo, and it’s not as obvious as setting focus where you can tell that the thing that’s supposed to be in focus either is or isn’t. For stereo, it’s deciding the point you want, and the part of the frame you want, to be out as well as how far out you want it to be. For example, is it in the audience, is it behind the audience, how deep does it go? So, it’s much more subjective and has a much more artistic role than focus. Max has been involved in 3D for years and years, and has such a deep understanding of how stereo works and how it is best presented to an audience in terms of not becoming painful or a downright mistake. For example, making sure the intraoculars are done right or how to avoid miniaturization.

How does a stereographer impact the roles of, and relationships between, the director and the DP? It’s only an advantage. Brian and I worked together before, and our relationship was almost exactly the same during this movie. The stereographer is much more like the focus puller, but as it relates to the subtlety or ‘in-your-faceness’ of the 3D. I would frequently ride with the stereographer watching a shot to see where the 3D was going, and what things are being brought more or less into 3D. For example, if you have more light, you have more 3D, and Brian and I would discuss when we wanted to see more or less 3D. There would be that kind of creative debate between us as it related to the 3D. Max would throw out suggestions about how to enhance the 3D moments, and also offer suggestions about framing. For example, he’d let us know if someone or something that was too much on the edge of the frame so that during exhibition, one eye would see it and the other eye wouldn’t. Max and I would also have discussions about what’s going to proceed or follow a shot where I want to pull something way out into the audience, because those things can impact how far out you can ultimately pull, or whether you’ll have to immediately go into a dissolve.

Can you give us an example? There’s a sequence early in the movie where there’s a hand attached to a body and it’s hanging over a counter and there’s blood running down it, and Tom Atkins’ character walks away in the background. The hand is pulled way out into the audience, and when we’re shooting it Max [Penner] said, ‘This is out so far that you’ve got to be very careful what you go to next.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it because it’s all going to dissolve into what comes next and it all has this dreamy, nightmarish-like quality.’ I knew that shot was going to dissolve when we were shooting it because that was going to allow us to pull it out even further and be more extreme with it. Having an editorial background was also very useful for me in working with Max, because it helped me have an understanding of the impact of the stereography in both the dailies and the finished product.

You’re an editor as well as a director; how does 3D alter that process? As an editor, you cut with the right eye only, so you’re not seeing it in 3D while you’re cutting. So, I just cut it like I cut any movie. But then you view it in 3D for the first time, and there’s probably a half-dozen things or more where you realize, ‘Ooooh, that’s too tight, or it’s cut too quickly,’ because with 3D, there’s so much more information that your brain has to process.

You know I’m about to ask you for an example again, right? [Laughs.] Sure. We had this great helicopter shot at the end of the opening sequence where the helicopter comes in on a police car coming across a bridge and the camera swings around following the car. Well, we cut that with the right eye only, and what we saw in 3D for the first time was that at the end of the shot your brain snaps because the left eye is picking up a huge close-up of the skid of the helicopter and the right eye is only seeing the car. But of course, when we operated the shot, we were only operating with the right eye as well, so we had no idea what the left eye was seeing, so at that moment that we saw it; suddenly it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ We had to adjust the cut to compensate for the right eye-left eye discrepancy. Fortunately, Paradise Effects built the simplest rig in the world for us to watch 3D live on set while we were shooting – two HD monitors in a plywood box and a half-coated mirror in-between them. If the camera rig goes upside down, then the monitor rig goes upside down.

Would there be a benefit to being able to edit in 3D? I think there would be, but at the same time there’s a certain amount of eyestrain that you’d get with wearing 3D glasses for 12 hours a day, so I don’t think you’d really want to. In the best scenario, I think you would always cut 2D just because of the ‘brain ease’ factor, then have some type of instant, auto assembly in the edit room and immediately turn around and watch that edit in 3D, as opposed to taking a week to conform it and then going to post.

Did the workflow limit you or your cinematographer in any ways? The workflow was a bit of a challenge. One of the things we discovered as we were using the SIs and the REDs is that the tape houses we used didn’t really speak the language of the RED, and they weren’t really interested in figuring it out. So, everything ultimately had to be converted to HD. That part was frustrating because we knew we had shot in a much more robust negative space than we were actually allowed to present. That being said, the final presentation still looks beautiful and TDI [Technicolor Digital Intermediates] did an excellent job in exceeding our expectations. To be completely fair, it’s important to point out that no one really speaks the RED language on a widespread basis because it’s a hard language to translate. Also, the REDs and the SIs don’t even speak the same language, so we were using a lot of technologies that were never meant to go together.

Have you had a chance to view the film using different 3D display technologies, and if so, was your experience noticeably different? I’ve seen it in both RealD and Dolby 3D Digital. When I saw it with RealD, a couple of the sequences still had some ghosting, something the Dolby doesn’t have. The RealD seems like it can produce a slightly more extreme effect than the Dolby, which, depending on the experience you want, could be more favorable. It could have just been where I was sitting, but it felt to me that the RealD had more dynamics to the depth, so things that were out were further out, and things that were back were further back; there was a wider depth scale with how the 3D visually hit my eyes. The Dolby felt like it had a little narrower band, but it was still absolutely gorgeous. I will say that the colors feel more lush with the Dolby, especially the darks.

Is this just one more market trend in 3D’s history, or is the format finally here to stay? I think 3D is remarkably seductive and a very intoxicating storytelling tool. I think it has all the potential to continually capture audiences and envelope them into the cinematic experience. … For example, there was a moment when we shot in the grocery store and you could see all the details of everything, and the shot in 2D seemed rather ordinary, but in 3D, it had a life unlike anything else. It was literally like we were eavesdropping. Having said that, I think the tell will be if enough venues convert to 3D so that you can have two or three 3D movies in release at the same time. Ultimately, it’s up to the exhibitors to drive this. If we hit that point, then yes, 3D has the potential to not just take off but take over. It could hold the same potential as when we went from black-and-white to color.

By John Rootenberg