Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fall Stereographer Interview Series: GRAVITY's Chris Parks

Our Fall Stereographer Series this year continues from our Summer edition and has a great list of the world's best stereographers and technicians. 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. Be sure to check out all our interviews right here.

Next on tap for our series is stereographer and stereo supervisor Chris Parks (EDGE OF TOMORROW, JUPITER ASCENDING, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END) who of course absolutely nailed the stereo in Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY and helped push the movie over the top for audiences around the world. I'm very excited to have the chance to learn something from him! GRAVITY is one of my favorite 3D movies of all time.

I know you're extremely busy Chris - thanks for taking time to be with me today. Let's get right into it - What is your favorite 3D movie and why?
Chris Parks: Anytime Jim, thanks for the opportunity. There are elements of several 3D films that I like although I don’t think any of them get it all right. Avatar was amazing for its time and has to take a lot of credit for getting 3D to where it is now. Pina shows how 3D can be used to really add value to a film. T.S.Spivet was very bold with its 3D and should be applauded for that. I am too close to Gravity to be objective but it did show how a film can be shot and edited in a way that enables the viewer to perceive the 3D fully and so allows the 3D to affect the audience in the way that was intended

Explain your thoughts on the native 3D vs. 3D conversion debate as it stands with today's technology?
CP: They are both very useful tools that together allow you to achieve creatively what is impossible with just one or the other. Native 3D will give you the best results, but only if you shoot the film in a way that is designed to achieve what you want to in 3D as well as 2D. If, as a director, you just want to shoot your film as you would if it was just going to be in 2D, then most of the time you would achieve a better end result by converting some or all of it. If you have a lot of VFX, then the results from converting those fully CG shots can be as good as rendering them in stereo.

The other thing that conversion allows you to do, is to distort space. When I am doing a conversion project, I am not trying to recreate what the scene would look like if it had been shot with a native rig. I am trying to create a native aesthetic but I am changing the spacial relationships, the volumes of characters and objects to give a better result than if they had been shot natively. A hybrid solution where the decision to go native or conversion on each shot or sequence is made from a creative standpoint rather than for logistical reasons would allow the stereographer to craft the most rewarding experience for the audience.

What do you make of the negative comments that Seamus McGarvey has made regarding 3D? 
CP: A lot of what Seamus says I can relate to, or I think are absolutely right. When he talks about not wanting the reality of 3D and liking the flatness of 2D I really understand that. Cinematographers and directors aren’t creating flat films when they work in 2D. They are creating films with depth and using all the 2D depth cues at their disposal to give their films depth. Then someone like me comes along and adds in this depth and it is messing with what they are doing anyway, just in a different way. 2D film is an amazing art and is limitless in its ways of expression and I love it for that. Where I differ with Seamus though is that I believe that 3D does have a value in film making, and not just as a gimmick. I do think it is possible to use 3D to help tell stories and as part of the art, rather than just as a layer on top of what would otherwise be a perfectly good 2D film. I think we are only just starting to find ways to use it properly and even in Gravity where I think we pushed that side of it further than has been done before, I think we were only just touching the tip of the iceberg.

Seamus also talks about 3D rigs being too slow and breaking the flow of film making. He mentions 45 minute lens changes and endless alignment problems. All of that can be addressed with good crews and the right equipment. If we have the necessary prep prior to the first day of principal, then my crew can change lenses in 3 minutes and I expect to be able to use 95% of shots without any alignment in post. Nobody would last a day if they were taking 45 minutes to change a lens. There was a time when that was the norm, and I know there are still some rigs where that is the case, but it is not workable on a feature set. Without a doubt though, 3D rigs are bigger than 2D rigs of equivalent quality and steadicam operating becomes a game of survival rather than the art that it is in 2D. I have worked with Peter Robertson a couple of times and however much we try to strip things back, it is impossible for him to do in 3D what he can in 2D.

A lot though depends on the project that you are working on. I think Anna Karenina would have been stunning in 3D and the medium could have been used to support the story, the cinematography and the design. Joe Wright has a way of shooting that allows the 3D to be used in very creative ways. I personally think that it could be used more effectively in a film like Anna Karenina than in a film such as Avengers – but then I love what 3D can add to intimacy and those human moments.

What brought you to 3D in the first place? (chance, study, interest, etc)
CP: I got interested in 3D as a kid when my dad was filming for Life on Earth. He had a binocular (stereo) microscope, and the subjects that I had seen before down ordinary microscopes and which looked confusing and drab in 2D, suddenly looked incredible in 3D. Their design, transparency and subtle details all became visible. Later, I studied design at The Royal College of Art in London and my main research area was into 3D. Off the back of that I was involved in publishing a series of 3D books for which I designed the book itself and did the majority of the photography. That lead to being involved in IMAX 3D and special venue films for 15 years before the current resurgence of 3D allowed me to explore what was possible in narrative film making.

What is your preferred set up on set? (camera, rig, lens, etc)
CP: It depends on the nature of the shoot. My favoured setup for large feature film shoots would be a 3ality TS-5 rig. Red Epics and Arri Alexas are both good cameras for 3D and then whatever lens is dictated by the cinematographer and the look that the director wants for the film. I love the look of anamorphics but they aren’t feasible for native stereo work. Well matched Cookes probably hit the sweet spot for me in terms of a look that is attractive but precise enough to match between the eyes in stereo. Matched Angenieux zooms are great for speed if the shoot lends itself to that way of shooting. For other uses the P&S Freestyle rig is wonderful for its simplicity and I still have a lot of affection for the Hines Rigs – a wonder to behold with two 15/70 IMAX cameras on board!

Are there any new stereoscopic technologies coming out in the field that has your interest?
CP: Good Autostereo TV’s will rejuvenate 3D TV and create a market for film makers to push 3D forwards. So far I haven’t seen any that are good enough though and we risk alienating audiences by releasing TV’s which give a poor 3D experience.

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?
CP: If you are comparing primes, then yes. A 3D lens change will take approximately 3 minutes on average with a good rig setup and experienced crew. With a bit of thinking ahead though the time taken for lens changes can nearly always be lost in the time taken for lighting changes or camera moves. If you are happy to shoot with zooms however, there is no difference.

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?
CP: The big difference is that on set you are talking in very abstract terms when working in 2D. There is no way to show how doing something will affect the 3D. You can suggest that changing the camera position, or lens or lighting etc will give better 3D – but better for whom? Maybe what I as stereographer think will be better actually takes it further away from what the director wants, but with no way to view it the discussion becomes much less precise. I try to counter that with conversations and screenings prior to shooting – looking at a selection of 3D material and gauging what the director lights. From that I can get a feel for what would work to support the film that they are doing. I will then suggest an approach for the 3D and we will refine it as much or as little as they want to. From that point, if we are on set, I can say relate comments to what we have discussed and what I know they want - ‘If you want the feel that we talked about then you need to stay wider’ for example. They can then decide whether in this case they do want that feel, or whether going tighter actually gives them what they are looking for.

What would be your favorite shot for 3D and why?
CP: High speed always works – it gives the audience time to explore the subject.

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?
CP: I think that it is really important that anyone working on a production is working to help tell the story, rather than working to a preconceived agenda. It is easy as a stereographer to go into a project with an idea of what will make for good 3D but it is really important to remember that films are collaborative efforts and it doesn’t matter whether a certain decision will help the 3D, if it hinders the telling of the story then it is not good. There are 100 things a day that have to make you change what you were planning, but the important thing is to be flexible and come up with a different (and ideally better) way to achieve good 3D. I think that having respect for all the other disciplines on a production is a very good starting point!

What education would you recommend to up and coming stereographers / cinematographers in today's world?
CP: Stereographers need to have an understanding of how a camera department works. Start out as a runner or trainee. Get experience as a camera assistant. Understand the language of film. Understand the 2D grammar and language of film. Once you have that, you can then use that to strengthen what you do in 3D

Do you have a post-production software preference for working with the stereo images to do any fine tuning you need to do?
CP: They are all just tools. Having a good operator is the most important thing. I have worked via T-vips (a remote teleconferencing system that allows me to be in a cinema in the UK while the operator is in the US and we are both seeing the same things on our screens) with an operator who I have never met. I only know him as Chris. We have done depth grading sessions that have worked seamlessly despite us being 3000 miles apart. It doesn’t matter what software he is on (it happens to be base light), the important thing is the result. Having said that, if I was operating then I would choose the Mistika as I know it can do everything that I need of it.

How important is resolution? Would more pixels be more important for stereo 3D? Higher dynamic range? HFR?
CP: More resolution is good for bigger screens, and particularly IMAX where 2K and even 4K images don’t compare to the resolution we get from 15/70 prints. 3D anyway gives a greater perceived resolution which helps. Higher dynamic range is great for 3D – being able to see further into the shadows or highlights in 3D helps stop them flattening out. Anywhere in the image that we can hold details, however subtle, is valuable. HFR – I think the jury is still out. It definitely helps with the strobing which kills the image in 3D films. It can make action sequences much more watchable. However, having drama sequences looking like TV isn’t going to win it any friends. Maybe the answer is to have a variable framerate that can jump between 24 and 48 as James Cameron is rumoured to be doing on the next Avatar. Maybe it is more about how it is used or lit? Maybe we just need to learn how to use it better!

Thanks so much for your time on this Chris! I appreciate it tremendously.

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

Contact Me

Jim Dorey
jim (at) marketsaw (dot) com

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