Peter Cowie Talks to Mark Lewis About 3D Documentaries

During the last 12 months, Australian Documentarist Mark Lewis has been fêted at festivals for his remarkable 3D film, Cane Toads: The Conquest. He is perhaps the world’s foremost specialist in films on animals, including chickens, dogs, cats, toads, and rats. The documentary is a kind of sequel to his breakthrough movie, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, made in 1988.  Now he chronicles the spread of Hawaiian sugar-cane toads throughout Australia, in a film that’s as dramatic in its visuals as it is in its approach to natural history on screen.

Cane Toads: The Conquest
Cane Toads: The Conquest

Cane Toads: The Conquest is the first Australian 3D digital film.

Correct. And it’s probably one of the first worldwide digital 3D nonfiction films.  We have got distribution through Australia and New Zealand, and the plans are for a May 2011 release. But 3D distribution is extraordinarily complicated in that a lot of the exhibitors think that once you’ve got a 3D film, then that’s all you’ve got. Certainly there are films that only exist in a 3D format, like U23D.  I think most filmmakers, be it the studios, or be it even the independents doing a 3D film, have to be cognizant of the fact that there’s only a small percentage of cinemas that are 3D-ready. 

In Australia, we are looking at 200 to 300 cinemas now that have transitioned to 3D. So we must be aware of the fact that the film has to play in 2D just as well. That certainly was an attitude taken by James Cameron with Avatar, and if you remember the original Avatar one-sheet, what was interesting about it was that it didn’t mention the word 3D. Cameron didn’t want someone in, say, a small midwestern town, and who only has access to a 2D cinema, to feel like their experience was being diluted by not seeing it in 3D.

What do you think that 3D brings to nature documentaries?

The more you think about 3D, the more you overanalyze it and worry too much about it. What was interesting for me were two aspects. Obviously the 3D was very important. I then had to work out, was my content or was my subject suitable for 3D? And I think that’s a question a lot of filmmakers have to ask themselves and answer before they proceed. Some films, be it a dramatic two-hander or what have you, are just not 3D-necessary. With Cane Toads: The Conquest, I wanted to tell the story, as I had with the first Cane Toads 25 years ago, very much from the cane toads’ point of view. So I felt that 3D would give us a greater involvement or a greater attachment to the toad itself.

And you always try to shoot from an animal or creature's eye-level, don't you?

Absolutely. I think that’s so important with animal films in particular. With the first Cane Toads film, we used what became the Jim Frasier Panavision lenses, which gave a very great depth of field. So we were innovative in that respect. And for the second film, I really thought 3D would suit the subject.

And how does that impact on natural history?

I think the greater question there is that, of all the content out there and all the subjects, I think some topics are wonderfully suitable for 3D, and some are not. We are finding that the concert films work particularly well, the dance films work particularly well, the science fiction, the horror works well, and I think to some degree natural history would work very well in 3D. 3D is no longer about things "comin’ at ya!" It’s about trying to place the audience and the cinemagoer within the picture.

The other thing about natural history films is that when you hear the animal, when you hear it in close-up, it allows you, the audience, to be more involved with the animal itself. Locations can be compromised with noises, people talking, and especially with animals—often you’ve got to use sound cues or something like that. Most of our films require absolute rebuilding of the soundtrack in post.

Among your crew is someone called a "stereographer."  What was his role?

It’s an extraordinarily important position. In the traditional analog film, that position was never there. The stereographer is the person who really looks after all of the stereo aspects of the film from a technical point of view. I was very lucky in that the person I worked with was a film school comrade of mine named Paul Nichola. He’s an absolute special effects, stereo, 3D buff, and he has been for 25 years, and I remember calling him and saying, "I really want you to do this film." And Paul said to me something like, "I’ve been waiting for a call like this for 30 years." 

So a stereographer is someone who looks after all of the technical aspects of the 3D, including the camera systems and the way it’s recorded, the way it’s shot on the day, with respect to what we call "the 3D focus," with the convergence, with the interaxial elements. So he plays a role very closely in conjunction with the cinematographer. It is not a role that a cinematographer can do, because you want him to be worried about all of the traditional cinematography such as color, lighting, composition, etc. The stereographer must make sure that the stereo focus for each individual shot is in the right place, and that the cameras are set up, and that the left eye’s looking good, the right eye’s looking good—in other words, that everything is all nice and precise and engineered.

The stereographer discusses the shots and goes over the storyboard with the director, and all the way through to the grading and the postproduction phase.  What’s very essential with these films, just as much as timing or grading is essential, is the stereographer’s making sure that we do a final pass in the lab to ensure that every shot, and the shots on either side of every shot, work in conjunction in a stereo sense.

What’s been the impact of digital cinema on your approach to making movies?

Everyone is very, very much aware of the transition to digital for a whole lot of reasons. It’s making everything a lot easier for the filmmaker, and it’s making the craft and the resources much more accessible. For example, now an entire two-hour film will fit onto a tiny hard drive. So there are so many extraordinary good things about digital, in terms of the distribution, and in terms of the delivery. The biggest handicap for digital has just been the technical issue—what it looks like compared to the analog media, being film. Digital also empowers the independent moviemaker to do a lot more with Final Cut Pro or with Avid.

Mark Lewis
  Mark Lewis

Should there be a different sound mix for the 3D version of a movie?

No one had done a 3D sound mix in Australia. I was lucky in that I worked with Soundfirm, Andrew Plane, and some very wonderful sound editors and sound designers. Not only is there a whole aesthetic of film sound that one has to take into account, but there’s an aesthetic of what I’d call "3D film sound." 

What really immerses you in a 3D film is not so much the 3D, as the ability of the soundtrack to bring the audience into the action—a soundscape. So the soundscape in conjunction with 3D is very important in terms of that cliché that everyone uses about "immersion." Traditionally you send your score out to the surrounds. So in a 2D film you are surrounded by this wonderful music. 

And I found that in a 3D film, sending too much music to the surrounds actually served to take you out of the film a little bit—so I kept most of my music down the front on Cane Toads: The Conquest.  If anything, I tried to bring the natural ambience into the surround.

Does a 3D movie require a different approach to storyboarding, editing, or other aspects of the production and postproduction processes?

Absolutely. On every single one of those elements, be it preproduction, obviously production and the camera systems, what have you, postproduction of course, and especially the soundtrack. Not everybody has the luxury of doing a 3D mix for the 3D version, and then a 2D mix for the 2D version. We had to compromise because we could only afford to do one sound mix for everything. But certainly in an ideal world, a 3D sound mix is absolutely essential, as compared to a 2D sound mix.

Do you in fact write a sound storyboard before you commence shooting?

I don’t think there are that many "sound-aware" directors any more, or there are very few of them. Certainly the ones who have a great respect for and pay a lot of attention to sound stand out—be it David Lean or the Coen brothers. When I left film school, I was a production sound mixer. I’ve always loved sound, and that goes back to my affection for Jacques Tati’s films. 

Tati was the consummate sound craftsman. Being such a fan of his films, and of the way Tati uses observational comedy, you have to admire the way he uses sound. So I’m absolutely obsessive about sound, and especially with respect to my documentaries, because you can’t use dialogue to give character to an animal. So what really counts is the ability to give an animal personality through Foley and sound effects, and of course, the sounds that they make.

How did the team from Dolby support you, and how did that relationship go during the making of the film and of course the postproduction process on Cane Toads?

On many different levels. Most major film centers or cities have what they call the "Dolby rep." Up to about a year or two years ago, the Dolby rep was someone who was essentially there to look after all the different aspects of the Dolby sound mix with respect to Dolby® sound. The Dolby rep I worked with here in Australia, Bruce Emery, was someone I’d been to film school with. Bruce has been a buddy of mine for 20 to 25 years, so not only was he the Dolby rep, but he also represented the mixing lab we went and mixed in. Certainly as we entered into sound post, we spent a lot of time talking with Bruce about different Dolby and different stereo aspects, not only sound but also with the 3D. We had a very good collaboration between Dolby and the sound designers and the sound technicians and the sound editors.

The second part of our collaboration was that I was extraordinarily fortunate in having the film selected for the Premiere section at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010. Dolby is a major supporter of that festival, and so very, very early in the process, through the festival people, we got in touch with Dolby. The name of the gentleman was Russell Allen, sort of the exhibition boffin for Dolby Production Services in the United States … And they use another wonderful sort of boffin guy/technician called Chapin Cutler [from Boston Light & Sound]. These are cinema exhibition specialists. Because at that stage last year (and it still may be the case), Park City wasn’t equipped to screen 3D. So Dolby, in conjunction with Barco and Sundance, basically retrofitted the Eccles Theater in Park City. They came in with their crews and they air-freighted in two Barco cinema projectors, while Russell came in with all these little gadgets, his calibrating instruments, and what have you. And they set up the whole theatre for Dolby 3D.

Watching that process, and watching the care and the expertise that they gave to the cinema, really impressed me. The relationship was probably born out of the fact that Dolby was a sponsor of the festival, but I really respected the way they approached it, just like the same way they keep all of the Dolby cinemas so beautifully equipped and so beautifully technically adjusted, so that every single speaker system or what have you is all nicely calibrated. They paid the same sort of attention to the visual 3D aspects. There is no doubt in my mind, now a year later, having seen my film in so many one-off situations, be it in Zürich or Amsterdam or Munich or London or Sundance or wherever, and in three or four different 3D formats, I am firmly of the opinion that Dolby 3D is a superior stereoscopic format.

Do you think that 3D is secured for the future as a serious artistic and economic element of cinema?

I think it will be the domain of the big studio films, the big tent-pole films without a doubt. 3D will not make a film good—3D will make a good film a much better experience. So you have to have a good film to start with, and we’ve seen some bad films come along and get rubbished and not do well in 3D. I think the cinema experience, especially with a big screen like the one in the IMAX cinemas, is delightful, and I think for certain types of big studio films it absolutely works. But of course now we’ve got 3D broadcast stations, you’ve got Sky 3D over there (in the U.K.), you’ve got Virgin, you’ve got a European 3D channel, and a lot of the television broadcasters are talking about 3D.

I think there will be a rise in alternative content 3D films. In other words, for example a simultaneous live screening in around twenty countries of a ballet or a concert, and that’s happening more and more. Soon enough, you’ll be sitting front row, watching a 3D version; you’ll go to your local 3D cinema, and it will be a one-off event.

What are the remaining weak points in the moviegoing experience that need improvement, picture and sound, innovation standards, anything else?

3D Digital Cinema is certainly a wonderful format, but it is unfortunately compromised by the fact that it is being projected on a screen that’s been designed for a 2D audience and a 2D experience. So I think that in the future we are going to have a curved screen, and a different seating arrangement. With that in mind, one of the reasons why I do like Dolby is the off-axis experience, and what I mean by that is when you sit to the side of the cinema in a RealD theatre or in other formats, the 3D isn’t as good. Dolby has managed to make the off-axis superior to the off-axis in other formats.

The Dolby format is good, and I think the next step will be designing cinema theatres—the seating and the screen—so as to absolutely immerse the audience.

Have you heard of Dolby Surround 7.1, which uses four discrete sound channels?

I’ve heard of it, but unfortunately I haven’t had the fun of playing with it yet. I think it’s extremely important, and I think they’re on the right track. I believe that good immersive sound needs to support good immersive stereo filmmaking. The fact that Dolby has brought out an 8-channel sound is certainly the right way to go.