Peter Cowie Talks to Wim Wenders About Pina and 3D

Wim Wenders figured prominently in the dramatic revival of German cinema during the early 1970s. His masterpiece, Paris, Texas (1984), won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and two years earlier, he took the top award at Venice, the Golden Lion, for The State of Things.

His documentary, The Buena Vista Social Club (1999), has become a benchmark for music documentaries, while his ode to Berlin, Wings of Desire (1987), not only brought him numerous prizes but was remade by Hollywood as City of Angels, with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. Since 1996, Wenders has been a charismatic president of the European Film Academy.

In February 2011, his stunning tribute to the art of German choreographer Pina Bausch, Pina, premiered in Dolby® 3D at the Berlin International Film Festival.  It is being praised as arguably the most artistic and intelligent use of 3D to date.


Pina is your first film made in 3D.  What was it about this project that attracted you to 3D, and what role did 3D play?

The movie could only be made because of the arrival of 3D. It offered us the right language for the format. For 20 years, I was reluctant to approach a film about the art of Pina Bausch. I felt I didn’t have the tools to bring her dance theater to the screen, at least not appropriately. And then 3D opened a huge door: an access to space, to the very kingdom of dancers. It seemed as if dancing and 3D had an affinity for each other and that each could bring out the best in the other. And my high hopes were not deceived.

It says something about the integrity of 3D digital cinema that it is now being recognized and respected as a legitimate element of the language of film. Do you agree with this point?

I wish I could endorse that wholeheartedly, as I am myself fully convinced of 3D’s potential. I hesitate for one reason only: the medium is largely in the hands of the big studios so far, and they do not use it as a legitimate element of the film language. They still use it mainly (sometimes exclusively) as an attraction. And that does harm to the new language. It can accomplish so much more! All blockbuster films exaggerate space and give you an experience that is not physiologically correct, or [is] at least stressful. The integrity of 3D, at this moment, is questioned by lots of moviegoers, and rightfully so.

How do you see 3D affecting people in the movies, at home, and in their lives?

I have had few experiences with 3D setups in homes. As for the movies, especially the kids want 3D. If you want to see a movie with children or even adolescents, the first question is: Is that film in 3D? And when you go with older people, they rather tend to say, “I hope it’s not 3D.” For Pina, we are seeing audiences with a huge proportion of people for whom that is their first 3D experience. They felt that, until our film, there were no movies out that could have attracted them.

What were your experiences of screening Pina in Dolby 3D during the Berlin Film Festival’s first-ever 3D day?

Fabulous. I was a little scared that the festival had to bring in the equipment for just one day, in which they showed their three 3D movies. But Dolby did a marvelous job.

How did the Dolby screening engineers assist you in that screening?

They set it up perfectly. We had asked for a security system, as we were scared that there would be no backup. The team brought in two Barco DP 2K beamers. As they were there, we used them both, alternating left and right in sync mode. We had the best possible image, bright and sharp. A dream come true.

What have been the main challenges that 3D brings—concerning preproduction, production, postproduction, distribution, and exhibition?

For us, as we were about to make a dance film, fast movement was the great challenge. Movement needed to look elegant and smooth, and our first tests gave us everything but that. Actually, it was a disaster. My assistant making a huge arm movement in front of the camera looked like a four-armed Indian goddess—stroboscope galore! We had a real problem on our hands.

Pina Bausch’s dancers were often moving fast and furiously, sometimes even dressed in white, or with naked upper bodies, against a black background, and that high contract was poison for our 3D cameras, and movement was even trickier. Any lateral movement was quickly producing a stroboscopic effect. We learned to avoid lateral moves, and only did them if people were leading the camera to do so. Forward movements were fine and seemed ideal for the 3D experience. We learned that in order to achieve better rendition of fast movement, the two cameras needed to be more than in sync, they needed to sync up to the pixel. At the time, the only cameras that could handle that with their software were the Sony 1500s.  For further improvement of movement, we played with shutter speeds and ended up doing the whole film at 1/50.

But our main discovery was that one lens produced (in our eyes) the best rendition of space and seemed to represent our human vision the best, and that was a Zeiss Digiprime 10 mm. We ended up shooting almost everything with it, except for a few close-ups for which we used a slightly bigger focal length, a Digiprime 14 mm. We shipped all other lenses back. I felt that the film was going to cut much better if the spatial architecture of each shot was not adding disorientation from one cut to another. That’s why we shot 90 percent of the film on just one set of lenses. Plus, it avoided changing lenses often, and that always costs much more time than in a normal shoot, as you have to let the stereographer calibrate the whole rig again.

Does a 3D movie require a different approach to sound, storyboarding, editing, or other aspects of the production and postproduction processes? For example, should there be a different sound mix for the 3D version of a movie?

Let’s start with the sound mix. For Pina, we had quite an elaborate mix prepared, in a regular 2D studio, with a flat screen. We had worked weeks and weeks on it, and it sounded great. But from the beginning, I had asked production to let me see the final mix on a stage, where I could actually see it in 3D and make final adjustments. Such a place was not easily found, but we did find it, at Post Republic in Berlin. We had set aside two days for that, just for little adjustments. And then I heard my (fine) mix for the first time while seeing the film in 3D. And it was quite obvious from the start that the eyes were guided differently in the spatial experience, and our ears wanted to “follow our eyes” more than our mix was suggesting.

So we started to go with that flow and adjust our mix to the 3D experience, trying to give the sound a different kind of “depth,” even if that category doesn’t really exist sound-wise. Our sound became on one hand more “transparent” and on the other became always more vivid where the eyes were led to look. It was good to do that, and definitely improved the soundscape, but in the end we needed much more time and could really complete only one reel per day. So my suggestion for any 3D mix would be to plan in enough time in front of a 3D screen at the end, and treat all other work beforehand as pre-mixes.

As for the first part of your question: yes, absolutely. A 3D movie needs to be conceived, written, storyboarded, shot, and edited very specifically. It is an entirely different language and should be taken seriously for what it can do. The “attraction” side of 3D is often overdone and overestimated, I feel, and its actual capacities very rarely used to enhance our sense of place and space and to perceive the presence of people and their aura more strongly.

Do you write a sound storyboard before beginning to shoot?

I do not. But I have my music in mind. For Pina, I did need a storyboard, especially for the camera setups when we were recording a live performance. I needed to know by heart each of the four pieces by Pina Bausch that we were covering in their entirety, so I could always be in the ideal position to seize the architecture of the play and represent the choreography at the best possible angle. And when our crane moved onto the stage, I needed to know in my mind exactly when to withdraw it in time, so no dancer would be bothered by it or would even run into the obstacle of our big 3D camera rig. So I had a huge model of the stage and conceived each shot and each movement with a protractor to measure exactly what my camera angle would perceive.

Dolby A-type, then Dolby SR, and now Dolby Digital have allowed greater dynamic range on the soundtrack.  Are movies too loud today?

I do find most action pictures too loud. Especially those “whooshes”—they seem to be taking over the world. Well, in real life, there are no whooshes, but in the movies we take it for granted that almost any movement produces those. They remind me of kids playing with their action figures, using whooshing sounds to make their play more emphatic.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sound-canceling devices are getting more popular. You almost can’t buy a headphone anymore that doesn’t offer that feature. Too often, we are bombarded with sound. We forget the beautiful and soothing “sound of silence.” I’m grateful, in any movie, also in action and blockbuster movies, if every now and then they offer a quiet moment. I hate those movies that are just relentlessly loud.

Regarding 5.1-channel sound, what advice would you give on the use of surround channels?

They’re important, but I’m bothered if they attract too much attention to themselves. I find them most important for a full musical experience.

Has anything changed in your approach to sound in moviemaking in the past few years, with digital sound now the norm and discrete channels?

You need to work even more precisely than before and make sure that even the tiniest sound bit doesn’t stray into the wrong path.

Is sound 50 percent of the experience, or more, or less?

It’s sort of funny how sound was so much ahead, for decades, and how the image strangely lagged behind. Sound had the spatial impact that the picture was missing. I remember my first movies in the early 1970s, when we would be editing for three or four months, then work on the sound for a few days, and then mix in mono a reel a day, and the film was finished.

With stereo, the work on sound became much more complex, and in the end, took just as much time as picture-editing. It’s only with 3D, I feel, that the digital picture has caught up and can live up to the impact of its “soundscape.”

What has been the impact of digital cinema on your approach to making movies? How do you think that shooting in digital, or distributing your film in digital to theatres, has affected the art of moviemaking?

I have been interested in digital technology from the beginning. Already in 1990, when nobody was yet using digital tools, we were working in the only HD digital editing suite in the world, at NHK in Tokyo, with Sony’s help, to develop our dream sequences digitally. That was fun because it was the first time these prototype machines found an application. Whatever we did to our images, there were always engineers sitting behind us, writing it all down. But it was worth it. The look of these dream images was new and unique.

Ten years later, Buena Vista Social Club was perhaps the first all-digitally shot documentary that found a big distribution worldwide. That film could not have been done any other way.

And digital technology rescued the documentary from the sleep it was in and put it on a whole new platform. So, altogether, you have to look at technology as an extension of your tools, and every now and then, they offer you new options for storytelling and for approaching the filmmaking process differently, which is what excites me most. Discovering that the language of cinema is a work in progress, and that the books are not closed yet!

Dolby’s consultants are increasingly being employed at special screenings such as premieres and at key film festivals, such as the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, to ensure both picture and sound are set up correctly. However, how do you feel about the way your movie looks and sounds in a cinema in general compared to in postproduction?

It’s still a daily reality for a filmmaker that whatever venue you go to, you will see differences and be subject to surprises. You can have a test screening at a cineplex, and the image is too dark and never really in focus (and the projectionist tells you he cannot interfere and can’t even refocus), and then you are frustrated and deeply worried. And you ask to see the film at the screen next door, and all of a sudden the same DCP [digital cinema package] is brilliant, doesn’t have that tint anymore, and your focus is totally fine.

I have toured extensively with Pina, and it is not very often that you find the standard up to its best, like we had it at the Berlin Festival.

What are the remaining weak points in the cinema-going experience that need improvement (picture and sound or other, innovation, standards, and so on)?

One day, when we can shoot 3D (in fact, we can do so already) and project it (we can’t do that yet) at a higher frame rate of 48 or 50 frames per second, that will represent a major improvement.