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As a leading digital video assist specialist, Jeb Johenning helps bring 3D to life in films like Angels & Demons, Thor and The Amazing Spider-Man. Here, he explains how technology is making the third dimension far more accessible.
Before founding Ocean Video 15 years ago, Jeb Johenning spent 25 successful years in the waterbed industry. A chance meeting with a sound mixer, who told him about video assist technology being used with tape recorders, saw the industrial designer seize the opportunity to move from tape to digital. From that point on, Johenning dedicated his career to building the digital video assist technology for Hollywood, and Ocean Video’s systems have been used on movies from The Matrix Reloaded to Angels & Demons.
During this time, Johenning has become one of a very few video assist specialists in the world capable of providing a mobile 3D environment. His company provides filmmakers with a dedicated 3D HD video assist card, enabling them to record and play back video footage within seconds of each other, then edit or re-shoot accordingly. Currently facilitating the 3D shoot on Marc Webber’s The Amazing Spider-Man, Johenning was happy to give us a window into the ever-changing 3D production environment.
When you’re making a film in 3D, what technology comes into play?
The process, whether it’s on Spider-Man or Pirates of the Caribbean [On Stranger Tides], which we finished late last year, is somewhat the same, even though the equipment that we filmed with on both films is different. Pirates of the Caribbean was shot with a 3D camera supplied by Panavision. They were Red One cameras, using 3D support rigs made by Pace, the same company that supplied the rigs for Avatar. On The Amazing Spider-Man the rigs are supplied by 3ality and the cameras are on loan from Red. I believe they’re using those on Peter Jackson’s Hobbit, and [Ridley Scott’s] upcoming Aliens [prequel, which has since morphed into an original sci-fi movie entitled Prometheus].
I’m not a cinematographer or a stereographer, but the reasons that the cameras are so complicated is that you’re trying to photograph a stereographic image with depth, and to achieve that depth you need to place the cameras to capture the image approximately the same distance apart as the left and right of the human eyes. That requirement of having the cameras physically apart by only say three or four inches is physically impossible. Manufacturers have tried some very unique and unusual methods, and in almost all cases they incorporate some kind of mirror that allows one camera to be pointed directly at the subject and the second camera to be pointed through some sort of beam-splitting mirror. This allows the camera to be in a physically different space from the first camera, but optically achieves the effect of being in the same viewing plane as the first camera.
So how does video assist facilitate the process?
It [gives a] director the ability to watch something that’s been recorded in fairly fast playback, so within a few seconds of cutting the shot you’ll be able to watch the performance back. It used to be done on video tape but now it’s almost [always] done on some sort of digital recording device that makes it fairly seamless. The creative people tend to analyse what they did [and] what they want to change.
In the case of 3D, instead of playing this back on a regular television or video monitor, the shots are played back on various kinds of 3D monitoring devices, some of which are industrial versions of large-screen televisions that you might have in your own home. You put on your glasses and you are able to enjoy exactly what it looks like.
Some directors will look at only a small percentage of the 3D aspect and focus more on the 2D aspect. On the other hand, the cinematographers and the stereographers will look at almost 100 per cent of the 3D effect, because there’s an extra level of complexity when it comes to multiple-unit photography. Everything has to look and feel the same; you can’t have two conflicting styles of shooting.
What kind of hardware is used on video assist?
The video assist card is based on a digital recording device. It’s a Macintosh professional tower type of computer with multiple digital-capture cards. It has a very fast storage device, which is a multiple pack of discs. In our case it’s six to eight terabytes of storage. It’s very fast and we are able to store basic contents of an entire movie on one computer system. It’s like the world’s best filing system!
We take the feed from the left-eye and right-eye camera and we put it into the computer. We’re then able to synthetically allow the stereographer to simulate the parallax difference between the left-eye and the right-eye perspective, while being able to adjust it. It’s only a temporary adjustment, but it allows a tremendously creative part of the process on filmmaking to be flexible.
Does changing technology present a challenge?
In the area of digital production, which is still evolving, you have to serve many different departments. The camera is sending us a signal and from my video station we have to provide the director with a picture of what the camera is saying when we’re filming, but the director may want to be looking at something that was filmed five minutes or five hours ago. The stereographer may want to see the opposite, the live picture, to do his own adjustments [and] the digital image technician might want to look at the picture in a different way so he can make sure the exposure values are within the specifications that he set for the film.
[Black Magic Design’s] Video Hub gives you a tremendous amount of flexibility to be able to switch things around. The cost of the device is a fraction of what anything else on the market is going for. It’s small in size and it’s completely software controlled. We control it from within our QTAKE editing system.
How do young directors, such as The Amazing Spider-Man’s Marc Webb, adapt to this technology?
The DoPs on Spider-Man, John Schwartzman and Peter Collister on Second Unit, are both very into the digital filmmaking style. John just did The Green Hornet, an all digital film as well. Generally the younger filmmakers don’t have any old habits to break or unlearn. They embrace these new tools so much better.