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INTERVIEW: Peter Van Hooke pushes the frontiers of 3D filmmaking

A career started as a session drummer who worked with the British band Mike and the Mechanics, Van Morrison, Ezio, Lloyd Webber, Mark Isham, Dr John, Scott Walker and others, PETER VAN HOOKE established his own music label MMC, later sold to EMI, before moving into filmmaking and music TV production. He created and co-produced the celebrated television series Live from Abbey Road, aired on the UK’s Channel 4 and in over 100 countries between 2006 and 2008. He tells JEAN-LUC RENAUD why he gets a kick out of challenging preconceived ideas about 3D filmmaking.

As you move into 3D production you wanted to challenge some preconceived ideas about what you could or could not do with 3D compared to 2D. What aspects did you find problematic, if any?

When we shot our first 3D production, it became obvious to me that I had to understand the inner workings. At the time I was associated with a company that offered a complicated 3D solution – side-by-side rigs, convergences, and big setup time. It involved stereographers, other experts, a huge production team, and a lot of time. I immediately understood that, to make 3D a success, my programmes had to be done cost-effectively.

So, I had to find a different solution because I make my money from the back end of the programme. Panasonic has managed to find a solution that ‘un-blackboxes’ 3D, so to speak. It involves a different set of rules. 3D becomes much more immersive, you can actually be there, in it.

For example, I wanted to zoom in, but up to now, we were told you couldn’t zoom with 3D. You need special lenses. The Japanese manufacturer came along with a bespoke camera that had all the toolkits. All of a suddenly, you no longer needed a focus puller, a convergence puller and a stereographer. I could now do all this in one box.

I could use existing lights, thus opening up the field to documentary making, which is to be done fast. Supposedly, you could not do that in 3D. It takes too long to set up. Panasonic has now a range of equipment including a 3D camcorder, which actually allows you to do close-up shots, another thing we were told you could not do in 3D.

Actually, a lot of production companies like the fact that 3D is complicated because they are not involved in the back end of the product. In other words, if it costs a million pounds, they are very happy because they are taking their 15%!

I am primarily interested in selling programmes, so I have to find a cost-effective solution to deliver them. I challenged all these production assumptions because I am interested in the end content. I have become a 3D convert as I suddenly realise that’s not a gimmick from the 1950s. It’s actually the way you see the world.

Given the creative opportunity 3D opens up, can we say that 2D is now closing doors?

2D is always trying to play with the depth of field to give the illusion of depth. 2D people love that. With 3D, you can now place people inside the room and let the viewer decide what they want to focus on. That’s a different vocabulary. It’s incredibly exciting and filmmakers want to do it. I have followed this entire process all the way through, to post-production, originating it, going to California to see how they put it onto Blu-ray disc. I now ask myself how can I do each of these steps quickly, efficiently, cost-effectively, and be creative.

Creativity is about getting the content. That means quick setup time, moving quickly, not being bogged down by technology. At the moment, the ‘old’ 3D people with their side-by-side rigs/mirror rigs are holding on to it, making it very technical. But, as a programme maker, you don’t want that, you want to move quickly and grab the content.

Are there still barriers on the technical and creative sides that need to be overcome as you come to grip with how viewers handle 3D perception? Are there 3D shots that will not work?

Sure, there are very extreme close shots. Your mind has to adjust to the image. In 2D production, the depth of field is shortened, shallowed. With 3D you can open it up again. And you can choose the spot where you want to focus. For me, that’s the exciting part. Sometime in ‘live’ 3D shoots, people do ‘live’ convergence pulling, by pulling lenses and moving the camera. The parallax becomes an issue.

The human eye is the restriction in terms of viewing angle. We cannot see 3D effectively beyond 200 meters. In our own view it flattens out. 3D is very effective within a close frame of reference. It’s giving people the choice of where they want to look. I think it’s exciting for new filmmakers.

As someone who is involved in music programming, I can now produce great 3D visuals combined with great 5.1 sound. 3D immerses people into the musical experience. Suddenly, you have the best concert seat in town.

By the end of next year, I will have five music TV series going as well as a natural history programme. Normally it could take up to two years to produce, but you know what? We are going to do it so quickly people won’t understand how we did it so efficiently and cost-effectively.

The reason why 3D is going to work for broadcasters is that transmission costs are not much more than with 2D, it’s just a side-by-side picture. They don’t need to invest huge amounts; TV sets are doing the work. It’s all about getting great content into the living room. 3D movies are very expensive because of the way they are done; TV producers have to come in to 3D and understand the new mechanics to deliver cost-effective programming and really understand the process from origination to post-production.

There is a fear in some quarters that 3D will be done on the cheap with 2D-to-3D conversion kits, thus degrading the 3D quality. Could it sabotage the growth of 3D?

There is no rule. A 2D close-up could turn into a good 3D rendition because it’s very flat anyway. 2D-to-3D convergence en masse will not cut it, I think. Many people are scared with the perceived complexity of 3D, but do not want to be left behind, so they will use conversion. But the smart people like the Camerons, will boldly jump into 3D with both feet. A lot of people are talking about it, but I have actually done it. I have done a lot of filming and post-production, all the way through to the disc, so I understand how to ‘un-blackbox’ the process. It’s simpler than people think. But it can also be made to look incredibly complex.

Some say 3D is best suited for particular genres. Is it true? Or will the question look foolish when, in five years time, everything will be in 3D?

I think so. I have seen various types of 3D production and I was initially sceptical about a blanket use of 3D. I have experienced the transition from black & white to colour, mono to stereo, 4x3 to 16x9. 3D is without contest the logical next step. We hear that the reasons not to embrace 3D are that it’s too expensive and technically difficult. However, my whole approach has been: “I am excited by it!” Making music programmes and a nature documentary, I have got to shoot quickly and be able to post-produce it cost-effectively and give viewers an amazing experience.

Would 3D production training courses be useful?

People have got to understand that most film and TV productions are made in stages: The director has a grand vision. He turns to his DOP [Director of Photography] to materialise this vision. The DOP turns to the equipment hire company who tells him how he ought to do it. The equipment hire suggests going all the way to 4K. But how do we edit it? Soon you end up with a $25-million bill.

That’s a no-go area. For me, that’s very simple. Understand the entire process all the way through, get as much content as you can, in the timeframe you can afford, as technically right as you can. Understand how you are going to post-produce it creatively and cost-effectively.

What improvement would you like to see in 3D equipment to make the creative process even easier?

Possibly the one area is the very close-up, but we are now challenging that. At the moment, the only way to achieve it is with very small lenses, or putting a mirror rig fitted with 2x2D cameras. Throw it away! Let manufacturers come up with bespoke ‘native’ 3D equipment. Then, I will have just one button to press and all the lenses will be matched perfectly! In this respect, Panasonic are to be applauded for giving us the tools in a very cost-effective package that work!

Also, the 3D industry should not go crazy with huge 4K technology because you cannot manage the post-production without time and money. Get the codecs to work even better, make them more manageable. If you want to make money at the back end, make this whole process more manageable. It does not need to cost a fortune.

What are you currently working on?

I am working closely with Panasonic on HD-Music.TV, a 3D production consisting of five music programmes, 12 shows ‘live’ on air with the biggest acts in the world, in a joint venture with Universal. It will have a high production value for the performances, but it will be shot very intimately with a few surprises.

Another show is the Dragon Keeper, someone who breeds dragons in the Canary Islands and travels the worlds. All in 3D.

Story filed 16.11.10

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