Even better than the real thing?

25 Feb 2008

With the release of U2’s new 3D movie, Hollywood studios are showing greater interest in 3D than at any time since the Fifties.

Cinemagoers know the scene all too well – settled into a comfy seat with popcorn in hand to watch a movie when some people stand up in front and obscure the view. Except they’re not in the audience at all – they’re on the screen.

That goes some way to describing the sensation of watching U2 3D, the first full-length live action movie to be filmed entirely in 3D.

It’s an immersive experience. During Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bono waves his arm in the air and seems to reach for the back of the cinema as he does so.

Dry ice from the smoke machines appears to billow out from the stage onto the seats in front of the viewer; the headstock of Adam Clayton’s bass guitar seemingly passes by your ear.

It’s not so much like being at a concert as being part of the band.

The effect is possible thanks to some breakthroughs in 3D, a technology that has existed since moving pictures began in the late 19th century.

Until now, looking at 3D images filmed with analogue cameras caused eye strain after a while. There were also technical problems centred on getting images in the correct proportion.

The latest digital technology clears those hurdles, according to Sandy Climan, executive producer of U2 3D. “Digital manipulation of the images allows for a more comfortable, immersive space for storytelling that has never existed before,” he says.

Climan is also CEO of 3ality Digital, the Hollywood production and post-production house responsible for developing the new process for shooting in 3D.

This being U2, there are no half measures. As 3D producer Steve Schklair notes, the production used “just about every digital camera and recorder in the world” – 18 Sony F950 CineAlta digital cameras and SR recording decks.

Each 3D rig contains two cameras, connected by software developed by 3ality Digital. The units have in-camera motion control and real-time image processing.

“Our software makes it extremely comfortable for filmmakers and the effect is enhanced later in the post-production process,” Climan explains.

Stereoscopic cameras produce the 3D effect by recording images at slightly different angles, mimicking the manner in which the human eye processes information.

Moviegoers will be given special glasses to see in 3D, as the picture would otherwise appear blurred.

The band did two full, filmed rehearsals to work through any technical issues.
The crew shot more than 100 hours of concert footage from the South American leg of U2’s Vertigo tour to create the final 85-minute movie.

Filming was broken up strategically so that the shows in Sao Paulo, Brazil provided the mid-distance shots, for example.

A single overhead camera was placed above drummer Larry Mullen and captured any nearby action during the concert in Santiago, Chile.

Rather than interrupt live concerts, U2 performed two shortened gigs without any audiences in order to get the additional close-ups the filmmakers needed to complete the movie.

Audio is broadcast in Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound and all the tracks were captured by 60 microphones located around the concert venues. It’s all live, Climan attests: “There’s no overdubbing or re-recording in the film.”

The 3D effect is ever-present throughout but directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington don’t overuse its value. “The decision was made not to use 3D to wow the audience but to involve them emotionally – not just to create ‘wow’ moments that you get in theme parks,” Climan says.

As for the future, 3ality is already working on commercialising the technology to make it available on TVs and DVDs.

According to Climan, sports events are well suited to the technology – 3ality actually tested prototypes of its technology at the Superbowl before working with U2.

“Live 3D broadcast of sports is the killer application, we believe, whether that’s soccer or the Superbowl,” he says.

Newer and better breakthroughs are constantly being sought and the latest research could overcome one of 3D’s biggest drawbacks: needing special glasses to view the image.

Scientists at the University of Arizona have developed a rewritable display that allows one 3D image to be replaced with another, using a principle similar to the holographic stamp on a credit card.

The researchers now want to see if they can reduce the time to rewrite the image to less than a second, as well as expanding the workable screen size.

In the meantime, U2 3D goes on general release on 22 February, glasses and all.

Hollywood studios are showing greater interest in 3D than at any time since the Fifties. “We have some of the greatest filmmakers in the world walking through our doors,” says Climan.

In the absence of box office revenues, Hollywood’s yardstick for success, it is too soon to draw many conclusions.

But as a stand-alone enterprise, U2 3D marks a significant step forward in the technology stakes – and it probably doesn’t hurt to have the world’s biggest band as a box office draw.

By Gordon Smith