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DreamWorks' Phil "Captain 3D" McNally on Megamind, James Cameron, the Third Dimension Fad

Ever leave a 3-D flick feeling like you missed something? Phil "Captain 3D" McNally (yes, that's his legal middle name) wants to save the day. As DreamWorks Animation's stereoscopic supervisor, McNally is obsessed with perfecting that third dimension. Call him the real super hero of the $150 million animation Megamind, which hits theaters Friday.

McNally has been working in 3-D for years, and has helmed blockbuster's such as Shrek Forever After and How To Train Your Dragon. We spoke with McNally recently about Megamind, the "ASS" button, and whether 3-D is a fad.

Fast Company: What does a stereoscopic supervisor do?

McNally: For us to create 3-D, it’s representing two cameras that are effectively shooting our movie. My job is to supervise the stereo settings. In other words, the settings of the cameras that make up the left and right eye — so when you go to the movie theater, you’re seeing really two separate versions of the movie, from the left and the right perspective. The settings that we control are simple on the surface. The wider you separate the cameras, the more 3-D roundness or volume or depth you create in the shot. The second component is where you can control whether the shot is close to the audience or dropped back behind the screen.

So you're doing double the amount of work now?

Well, we’re fairly spoiled in computer animation world. We don’t have to literally double the weight of the camera rig as you would in live-action. Our world is very controlled, and our actors are very well behaved once they’ve been animated.

How do you decide when a film is 3-D enough?

We’re in a slightly unnatural situation because a lot of attention is being put on 3-D as a technique. It’s unusual that you’d want to go and watch a movie for, and actually be aware of, the technique. It’s similar to special effects. You’re expecting to be entertained by the visual effects in Transformers, as almost an independent part of the story.

For me personally, I think 3-D is a very natural way to see. We all see in 3-D everyday. Movie making in 3-D is the normal way to see a movie. The 2-D version is missing a dimension. So, it’s not that 3-D is the extra one.

Many act like James Cameron invented 3-D—

Not unless he was born in the 1830s!

—but you've been working in the field for decades. What are common mistakes over the years that you've learned to avoid?

We make mistakes all day long, of course. One of the jokes is that we spend most of our time looking at bad 3-D. Because if it's good, you go, okay, approved, and then you go to the next one. And if there's a problem with it, you sit there looking at it, trying to work out the problem.

One of the most obvious problems is giving a movie too much 3-D. What looks good on a small screen, by the time you project it on a 40, or 50, or even 90 foot IMAX screen, suddenly the magnification of the 3-D puts it over the edge for what your eyes can comfortably look at. We have to be very careful about that.

Another thing which has been key to making stereo experience smooth for the viewer is the adjustment of depth at the point of an editorial cut. So as you're moving from one shot to the other—you're looking at the close-up of a character who is reacting to our Metro Man super hero flying toward us through the city, and then it cuts back to the close-up again. What you're doing is jumping from something that is close in 3-D to something that is far away in 3-D.

We developed techniques, which we saw first on U2's 3-D concert, where they were blending across the depths—it wasn't a sudden jump from close to far. We incorporated that into our pipeline here at DreamWorks.

What other innovations have you developed at DreamWorks?

Going back to Monsters vs. Aliens, the way the stereo was set was very much based on my experiences looking at it in the theater, and taking sort of painting-by-number notes: make this 10 more, make that 10 less. And the artist would slowly would get used to what those numbers meant.

I did analysis on about 1000 shots of that movie to work out a common setting for common shots. Through both Shrek Forever After and How To Train Your Drag, I started to work out a calculation, which would apply for a normal looking shot. By the time we got to Megamind, we actually have the Auto-Happy Ratio button, or more rudely, as we call it internally, the Auto-Set Stereo (ASS) button. Real juvenile insight, right?

Will a stereoscopic supervisor become as well known a position as director or producer or screenwriter?

I think so. I mean, maybe the general public isn’t so familiar with the term cinematographer. I know anyone with a remote interest in movies would know. Long-term, I think ideally, the stereographer bit, should be absorbed into the cinematography bit. Somehow, we need to combine those two skills, so the 2-D techniques that don't fit particularly well with interesting stereoscopic film making go away. We're talking many years before that happens. Having a stereographer though, it’s something that will become pretty common.

There's a little joke at the moment that suddenly everyone has become a stereographer. As people are looking for work and the number projects go up, suddenly people who have had very little experience with 3-D are now saying they're stereographers. Years ago, nobody associated with stereographers, but now that 3-D is so predominant, suddenly everyone claims to be one.

Is 3-D a fad?

I’ve thought about this a lot in a serious way. The evidence suggests that it comes and goes. You could argue now that people have gotten over the initial excitement, and there's a certain amount of backlash.

Here’s bottom line: 3-D isn’t going away until we stop seeing with two eyes. Whether it’s successful now or later, 3-D will be part of visual entertainment. It’s not whether 3-D is a fad; it’s whether the technology is good enough to deliver what’s obviously the way we see the world

Do we ultimately want glasses-free, holographic, Star Trek holgram-type experiences? Well probably, but that just confirms that in the future it's likely going to be in an even more immersive environment.

So, is it a fad? Yes. Is it going to stay forever? Yes!


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