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Friday, July 25, 2014

Summer Stereographer Interview Series: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST's John Harper

John Harper on set of THE THREE MUSKETEERS - Photo credit: Rolf Konow, SMPSP
Welcome to MarketSaw's Summer Stereographer Interview Series! To launch the program this year I have a nice list of the world's best stereographers and our goal is to enlighten you about the modern stereographer, his/her role in major tentpole productions, new technology and expert advice for the up and coming new generation of 3D creators.

First on our schedule is John Harper, who was lead stereographer on X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. He was also the second unit stereographer on 47 RONIN. For anyone who has seen DAYS OF FUTURE PAST you'll know that the 3D was impeccable and a joy to experience. John has almost 20 years technical experience on feature films and he has risen rapidly in the modern stereoscopic 3D space.

I met John last year at Toronto's International Stereoscopic 3D Conference and was immediately taken with his professionalism, knowledge and passion for cinematography and of course 3D. And yeah, he's a nice guy too.

So I hope you enjoy this interview with John, get something from it and if you have any questions you can leave a comment or email me directly: jim (at) marketsaw (dot) com. John's a busy guy so I can't guarantee a response from him through me, but we do want to foster growth in the 3D community by sharing knowledge!

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions John. I really appreciate it! What is your favorite 3D movie and why?
John Harper: You're welcome Jim. Tough call. Many good choices out there, probably Avatar. It was a film that really showed the potential for 3D in modern cinema. Avatar reached a large audience who responded very positively. The success of the project paved the way for the advancements in 3D technology (capture and projection) we possess at present.

Explain your thoughts on the native 3D vs. 3D conversion debate as it stands with today's technology?
JH: Shooting native you are capturing the full depth of a scene by shooting with two cameras (left and right eye), similar to how we as human perceive depth. 3D post conversion is captured by a single camera. Through computer extrapolation and rendering, the conversion process generates the missing information of the second camera. The more time and money spent on a conversion shot, the closer that depth representation mimics that of a native shot.

In Native, 3D is composed and create live on set. With the help of 3D screens, the director and DP are put into direct involvement with the dimensional aspects of the scene. Creative and technical decision can be dealt with on set and later refined if needed in post. This to me is a key advantage in shooting native. The director is choreographing many different elements during a scene (action, lighting, 3D, camera movement, etc.) being able to see how all the elements interact within the scene has strong advantages. In Conversion, a larger portion of the 3D decisions can be left till post production. It gives the director a few less things to think about but in my experience often leads to the 3D considerations of the project being overlooked as the shoot progresses.

The effectiveness of using 3D in the story telling is that it needs to be kept in mind during the shooting process. Using the 3D as a tool to enhance immersion and composition through out the narrative. This being true for both native and post dimensionalized projects. Using it as an after thought (as we have seen from the response of audiences in the past) has drawn a lot of criticism and rightly so. Another point about the conversion process is that the edit and VFX must be locked earlier, to provide ample time for decent 3D conversion. This cuts down the amount of time the director has to refine the story line and VFX to tweak their work. Both technologies have their definite advantages and continue to improve. The competitive nature of native versus conversion breeds positive advancements in both technologies. The last show I participated on was a hybrid (80% native, 20% conversion). The Director Bryan Singer and DP Newton Thomas Sigel ASC used both technologies to their distinct advantages (eg. 3D rig could not fit into the cockpit of the aircraft), the shot was post dimensionalized. I see this as a highly effective way (creatively and economically) to facilitate 3D in production. To ignore either technology reduces the ability to use the right tool to get the shot the director envisions.

What do you make of the negative comments that Seamus McGarvey has made regarding 3D? 
JH: As the cinematographer of Godzilla, he should be entitled to his opinions and preferences about the film he is helping to create. Granted, not all productions should be produced in 3D and it’s not for all audiences. Conversely, Godzilla’s 3D revenue was 51% of it’s total box office. That’s a pretty decent ratio of movie goers interested in seeing the 3D version of that film. I’d say there is a good portion of the audience that believes differently to some of arguments he presents pertaining to 3D. Strong opinions exist within the film industry, at opposite ends of the ongoing 3D argument. Both bring up some interesting views. At some point our opinions have to be equated with those of the audiences. In the end, the movie goers are the ones we are trying to effect on an entertaining and engaging level. Giving the audience the option of both formats (2D or 3D) should be seen as beneficial to the overall movie going experience.

In regards to the 45 minutes lens lineups, sounds like some technical issues that should have been resolved during prep. To be fair, you cannot fault the DP here for being frustrated on this particular point. The Rig manufacturers at present have really created some very efficient systems. Shooting native, it’s our job as 3D techs on the set floor to show the full potential of these rigs. Otherwise we are doing a great disservice to native 3d as a whole. Prep time should be focus on making the 3D system and crew as efficient and mobile as possible.A loss in the industry’s confidence in the native 3D process is going to be very hard to retrieve.

How to you position China now on the world cinema stage now that they have ~20,000 3D screens in place and growing?
JH: China is quickly becoming a big box office consideration in many ways. In respect to it’s growing appetite for 3D, hopefully this will inspire all of us in the film industry to work even harder to produce 3D productions worth experiencing. We have already seen a back lash last year (in 3D revenue and attendance) from productions throwing a 3D label on a projects for the sake of ticket prices. I believe this caused productions to start to take stock of the situation. Also, let’s not forget about the great stereo work on Gravity here. This year (contrary to the 2014 predictions) we are seeing more people in 3D theaters domestically and abroad. As long as productions continue to consider 3D as a legitimate part of the story telling fabric, I believe that it will be beneficial to the film industry and audiences a like.

What brought you to 3D in the first place? (chance, study, interest, etc)
JH: My initiation to 3D was in the late nineties I got the chance to work (2nd AC) on a IMAX 3D shoot with the Solido. After the first day of dailies, I was blown away. Unfortunately, in the 90’s there very few 3D productions going on. Cut to 2009, I was asked to work as a convergence puller on a feature film. The DP (Glen MacPherson ASC) felt that a 1st AC’s skill set, could be translated to interaxial and conversion pulling. Glen continued his support by taking me on to his next 3D project in Germany. My initial responsibilities were technical support of the 3D system and advise the local camera crew who (at that time) had little exposure to native 3D technology. The project consisted of 4 rigs shooting in some very challenging locations. I enjoyed the experience immensely and decided to pursue more projects shooting 3D.

What is your preferred set up on set? (camera, rig, lens, etc)
JH: Cameras and lens are the part of cinematographers the tool set. It is part of the job description to try to facilitate what the DP prefers and work that into the 3D system. Of course there will be some limitations to what is feasible. Consultation as the stereographer then comes into play, pointing out any impact or disadvantages with the desired gear in regards to 3D.

Personally, my preferences for 3D:
(It should be understood that this is based on gear that I have utilized in the past and found amicable. Other manufacturers exist and with emerging technologies there are always options to explore.)

Camera:
Arri Alex M beautiful images and compact.
Red Epic good resolution , high speed capture, on board recording and light weight
Phantom: ultra high speed capture

Lens:
Primes: Optical quality, light weight and compact. efficient stereo lineups
Leica: Summilux-C good optical quality , match really well as stereo pairs.
Zeiss: Master primes great optical quality, nice depth and roundness
Zeiss: Ultra primes good optical quality , lightweight and compact.

3D Rigs:
3ality TS35: Remote stereo lineups, rigid rig construction. thick mirror with minimal flex. Preston compatibility, utilize different cameras (Arri, Red,Sony etc.) steadicam, handheld

CPG Smart rig: Remote stereo lineups, rigid rig construction. Preston compatibility, utilize different cameras (Arri, Red,Sony etc.). Acquisition of gear from a single rental source, steadicam, handheld, underwater and phantom camera rigs.

Cinesail 3D Atom Rig: Light weight and compact , rigid rig construction,acquisition from a single rental source, steadicam, handheld, budget conscious, transforms to side by side rig using same components, built to ship and shoot quickly with little prep time.

Stereotec rig: Have not used but by the great things I have heard needs to be mentioned.

This list consist of the broad strokes regarding advantages of each system. Looking at shooting style, terrain, budget, VFX considerations etc. becomes a key factor in choosing what is best for the production. A good example of this is shooting in a remote location under hostile weather conditions, such as the arctic. Motors will sometimes freeze, having a rig with manual adjustment has it’s advantages in this scenario. A rule of thumb for myself is building a 3D system and work flow that is efficient but not overly complicated.

Preferences of gear aside, you must also rely on the talents and experience of the camera and 3D team. The efficiency of the equipment is reliant on whose hands it is placed in. Building a talented team can be said to win half of the battle. The X men DOFP Camera and 3D team where a fine example of effective on set 3D execution. A real pleasure to work with.

Are there any new stereoscopic technologies coming out in the field that has your interest?
JH: The IMAX 3D digital camera, has my vote. Hopefully more cinematographers utilize this system in the future. 3D aerial drones. I believe will simplify getting some epic air to ground shots.

When working with optics do you find there is disparity between how long it takes to make a 2D lens change verses a modern 3D set up?
JH: Since I started in 3D, this has been one of the main criticism against shooting native stereo capture and a big concern of mine. The advancements in rig, camera and lens technology combined with veteran stereo crews have reduced this change over time considerably. You’re averaging around the 3 minute mark these days. By the time the Director, Actors, DP’s lighting, Hair/Make up, Stunts etc. have all made their adjustments, they are not waiting on the 3D rigs.

If you have worked with 3D conversions as a stereographer adviser on set, how are the general interactions with the cinematographer and director as opposed to a native 3D production?
JH: A little more difficult. Without the ability to show the director a 3D image on set you loose the strengths of the visual support of the image. When the director has a question pertaining to 3D, it is often easier to use a visual reference to show different 3D opportunities. The director has the ability to make a decision based on a visual presentation rather than oral interpretation. In this instance a picture is truly worth a thousand words.

What would be your favorite shot for 3D and why?
JH: Atmospheric environments are always one of my favorites (rain, snow, underwater, explosive debris etc.). You're really showing off the expansive depth of the space with great dramatic effect. This combined with a larger depth of field and slow motion can be very visually rewarding. Sparingly used throughout the film seems to create better impact. Also 3D medium close up using a wider lens, personally seems give a character a more engaging presence than you can achieve in 2D with the typical longer lens look. The roundness of the characters face plays on a very subtle level but
subconsciously effective.

Obviously 3D has matured since the late 2000's both in technology and expertise. What credentials / experience would you mention that helps separate you from the field and brings you to the top of the industry?
JH: There are a lot of great stereographers in the industry and I have been very lucky to participate on the projects offered to me. Interaction with cinematographers, other stereographers, VFX supervisors and 3D rig manufacturers has help me progress both technically and creatively. Experience, is another key factor in ones development. Each project brings new challenges and with that better solutions. On a personal level I think coming from a camera department background gave me a solid base in which to draw from and accomplish the job.

What education would you recommend to up and coming stereographers / cinematographers in today's world?
JH: Addressing the up and coming my advice would be, read, converse, experiment and make some mistakes (just not too many of them). I’ve gained an equal amount of valuable experience from negative and positive results while searching for solutions. Technically, know your tools at hand (camera, lens, 3D rigs, etc.). It’s important to know where the gear might hang you up during production and have a solution. The belief that digital equipment is bulletproof can be dangerous. Especially, working at “the bleeding edge of technology”. We often find ourselves working with prototypes because of the desire for the newest, most advanced systems. Preparation and testing during pre-production becomes very important.

Do you have a post-production software preference for working with the stereo images to do any fine tuning you need to do?
JH: Most of my work occurs on set. We employ a stereo image processor usually different depending on the 3D rig chosen. This speeds up rig alignment during lens changes and helps identify any optical disparities between the two cameras. A Qtake is responsible for providing 3D/2D playback and disbursing an image to different locations around the set. When required to shoot in parallel the Qtake will generate a H.I.T value which is passed onto the Dailies trailer. This allows the DaVinci Resolve operator to properly input the desired convergence into the image. This is later refined at the end of day with the director, cinematographer and myself present.

How important is resolution? Would more pixels be more important for stereo 3D? Higher dynamic range? HFR?
JH: All of the above components serve to better the expression of depth in 3D. The more information captured without causing unwanted optical disparities creates a better sense of dimension. HFR, to me personally works better in action sequences than in dramatic sequences. The only argument I would have against these advancements is taken to a hyper level, does the image become unreal to the viewer and destructive to the suspension of disbelief.

Are there any specialty filters that you find enhance the stereo images? How about specialty filters that you have found should never be used?
JH: The least amount of glass you put between the subject and the camera chip the better. Filters in native photography must have a uniform effect across the field of view in both cameras so no optical disparities occur. Basically, if the filter effect is greater in one eye you’re going to cause discomfort to the viewer. Neutral density filters, front mounted quarter wave attenuators and optical flats (during explosions) are generally what we stick with. Diffusion filter by diminishing sharpness also diminishes depth. Many of the filter effects such as contrast and color can be effectively dealt with in post.

Split focus diopters are a popular tool in 2D. Do you think a director looking for an effect like that can get that in stereo 3D?
JH: Diopters have been successfully used in native 3D photography, but do take a longer to align. With the use of a wide angle lens, camera proximity and a large depth of field we have achieved a similar effect. Enlarged props and set pieces have also been successful. A VFX option with green screen can also be an alternative. Shooting two 3D passes and then combining them.

Open mic: What is the biggest industry challenge that you'd like to openly discuss about today's 3D?
JH: From some members of the audience and film industry’s perspective, 3D is seen only as a gimmick to charge higher ticket prices. The visual effect of 3D is subjective and therefore open to debate. Not all projects (do to there subject matter) will be bettered by dimension. This can be illustrated by the differences in 3D revenues percentages of individual projects. To enhance the experience of those who prefer the 3D format we have to make a commitment. If 3D is to continue, then our attitude should be to employ it purposefully on a immersive, entertaining level. I am not saying that 3D should be the main focus of a project. Clearly direction, acting, cinematography, script, production design etc. are the mainstays of creative story telling. The history of film is defined by them. Hopefully, like the introduction of sound and color into movies, 3D’s contribution to the film experience will mature and find it’s place. If this is achieved the audience may feel more justified in paying for the extra premium. The consumer and manufacturer both benefiting. Theaters also must keep up their end of the deal with proper quality projection. Anything strived for 2D or 3D during production can be diminished by unsuitable projection. The exposure and color the DP has worked hard at accomplishing should be translated faithfully to the movie goer.

Open Mic: What are you happiest about in the 3D field?
JH: Seeing advancements in image capture technology that will benefit 3D, better lens, cameras and recording systems. Seeing directors actively supporting 3D and employing it creatively. We are seeing better quality in 3D and this in part is because of their efforts.

If there was one thing you could change about the industry what would it be?
JH: When talking with productions considering 3D, certain ideas persist about native 3D technology that I consider outdated. Technical information based on 3 or 4 years ago. The technology and crews have advanced considerably since then. Perceptions should not be locked in the past. Reassessment by production is needed to judge what has been achieved. This will be important for the continuation of native 3D in the future. A process with great potential and if disappears will be detrimental to the industry and audience.

Thank you so much for your help with this John! I'm really looking forward to your next set of 3D projects. And again, congratulations on X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST - it was amazing.

Stay tuned for our next interview in the Summer Stereographer Series coming soon!

Contact Me

Jim Dorey
Editor-in-Chief
jim (at) marketsaw (dot) com

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