To infinity and beyond

Bob Whitehill is known as “The 3D Guy” at Pixar Animation Studios and considering that a CGI movie is ­relatively easy to convert into 3D, you’d think that he just sits around as every new animated feature is re-rendered into 3D while he waits.

While it’s true that there is some waiting time involved as the renderfarm at Pixar renders a second movie with the character and background elements slightly shifted to make a stereoscopic movie, Whitehill’s job involves a lot more work than one would think.

He admits that while a 3D animated film is relatively easier to turn into 3D than say, movies shot on film in 2D like the original Star Wars trilogy, it’s still a painstaking process that takes patience and time.

Whitehill’s work on Toy Story 3 for example took a year and required working with the various animators and the director to make 3D as much a part of the creative process as the editing and music.

During the process of turning a movie into 3D, Whitehill and his relatively small team of less than 10 people actually have to view every scene in the final shot and then decide just how much depth to apply in every scene to create the appropriate dramatic or emotional impact.

Each element in the film is discussed with the director and animators, and once Whitehill has a good idea of the intent of each scene he decides how the 3D effect is to be applied.

For example, in Pixar’s Up, there was a recurring theme of squares and circles, with squares being the dominant shape in that lead ­character’s world — signifying the very closed-in and restrictive world that he lives in.

In those scenes, especially in his house, the 3D effect is meant to enhance the claustrophobic, prison-like atmosphere of his world, with the 3D being more subtle and giving the viewer the impression of ­looking into a box.

Once his house takes flight in the pivotal scene, however, the predominance of the circle theme to denote freedom and non-conformity allowed Whitehill to apply a deeper, more dramatic 3D effect to suit how the character’s world has expanded and broken out of the box.

Similarly, in all three 3D versions of Toy Story, the illusion of depth that 3D brings is used to enhance the emotional state of the ­characters.

It was decided pretty early on that whenever any of the characters were close and friendly, the 3D effect would be more subtle and less “deep.”

Conversely, when Woody is ­separated or alienated from his friends in the movie, the 3D effect would get deeper to enhance the emotional or physical distance beween the characters.

According to Whitehill, unlike earlier films where the stereoscopic effect (as he likes to call it) used to be more “in your face,” recent films, such as James Cameron’s Avatar, have shied away from that effect in favour of a more natural and subtle approach, with the 3D effects ­serving to the enhance the ­experience while remaining comfortable for the viewer.

This means that the offset between the image for the left eye and the right eye is much less and the effect is more like looking through a window, rather than having objects fly around, right in front of the viewer’s face.

Here’s an example. A climactic sequence in Toy Story 3 has Buzz run towards the screen. Whitehill decided that the scene would be more dramatic if Buzz started his run from just behind the screen and then ends up outside of the screen a little bit.

The problem was that one of the foreground objects was a garbage bag and if Buzz ended up that far forward after his run, the bag would consequently have to be way further forward to fit in the scene.

So the decision was made to dial back Buzz’s final position so that his run from background to foreground would be less pronounced, for the viewers’ comfort.

While Whitehill tends to follow the decisions of the animator and directors, he occasionally does have some control over a scene — a kite-flying scene in particular was made slightly longer because it looked good in 3D.

So does Whitehill think there’s a future for 3D in movie theatres or is it just a passing fad like it was in the 1950s?

“I think 3D is here to stay. Unlike in the 50s there’s enough of a market today. It probably won’t be in every film but sales have ensured that there will most likely be a 3D version of a film showing alongside the 2D version,” he said. — TAN KIT HOONG

Related Stories: Breathing life into toys is hard work

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