Native 3D: The Future of Spatial Movie Production

What do the 3D epics Guardians of the Galaxy, Godzilla, and Gravity have in common save for being huge hits and starting with the letter 'G'? None of them were shot in 3D.

If you’re going to make a 3D movie, you can either shoot it that way, sometimes referred to as native 3D and the preferred method for filmmakers like James Cameron, or, you can convert your film into 3D during post-production like the above films did. While Cameron is fine with conversions of older films into 3D retroactively (which he did for his own Titanic), he is a big believer in the notion that the only way to make a new film 3D is to shoot it that way. To wit, the BBC quoted him talking about post-production 3D conversion:

My personal philosophy is that post conversion should be used for one thing and one thing only – which is to take library titles that are favorites that are proven, and convert them into 3D – whether it’s Jaws or ET or Indiana Jones, Close Encounters… or Titanic. Unless you have a time machine to go back and shoot it in 3D, you have no other choice. The best alternative is if you want to release a movie in 3D – make it in 3D.

To Not Be 3D

Filmmakers who choose to convert their films into 3D in post-production have a host of good reasons for doing so, many of them financial and some purely technical. Cinemablend, which has a 'To 3D or not to 3D' series, looked at this summer's Guardians of the Galaxy's 3D conversion and viewed it favorably. What Cinemablend points out is that just because a film isn't shot in native 3D doesn't mean it wasn't planned all along to be a 3D film. In fact, director James Gunn oversaw the conversion of every shot during post-proudction to make sure it added something more than the dollars of the cost of your ticket.

Christopher Nolan, one of the most ambitious directors out there, shot sections of his Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and his upcoming Interstellar with IMAX cameras. For Interstellar, Nolan went to great expense to use IMAX cameras, to shoot practical sets and real environments instead of relying on too much CGI, and maximize the new technological advancements available for sound mixing, but what he hasn't sprung for on any of his films is native 3D. When Nolan appeared at this year's CinemaCon, he told the audience that the reason he didn't shoot Interstellar in native 3D is because he doesn't believe it creates the "shared experience" he is going for.

Yet there have been a slew of films shot in native 3D that have created breathtaking experiences for the audience. People still typically cite Avatar as the pinnacle of native 3D filmmaking, five years after it premiered, but there have been more recent native 3D films that have flourished, including this past summer's Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThere is a reason that more films aren't shot in native 3D—it's expensive and time consuming. Even for the film that broke new ground on what can be done on screen, Alfonso Cuaron told Collider last year that he didn't shoot Gravity in native 3D due to weight of 3D cameras and the robotics they were using to film some of the scenes—it would have been impossible for the crew to shot the film in native 3D.

What it Means to Shoot Native 3D

When you see a film that was shot in 3D, you're seeing the work of talented camera operators using two cameras to mimic the way your eyes naturally see. To shoot native 3D means the cameraman must operate and focus two cameras. Filmmakers do this because your right and left eyes have a slightly different angle of vision. But the requirements for native 3D filming don’t end there—the angle of inclination and the distance between the cameras must be adjusted constantly or the effect won't work. Despite Cameron’s distaste for post-production 3D conversion, the 3D conversion technology has improved right along with all the other advancements in filmmaking in the past decade plus, from Dolby Atmos sound to the quality of images digital cameras can capture, yet native 3D filmmaking has remained cumbersome, but that might be changing.

New Spatial Movie Production

The researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute believe that the future of native 3D filmmaking is close at hand, where camera operators will only have to focus one camera, and everything else will follow automatically.  "The second camera adopts the focus setting of the first one, and appropriate algorithms ensure that the cameras adjust to one another in an optimum manner," said Dr. Siegfried Foessel, head of department for Imaging Systems at the Fraunhofer IIS in a recent press release. Their software prototype allows cameras to capture 25 frames per second and recalibrate themselves automatically once per second. They will be presenting some of their work at the IBC trade fair this Friday in Amsterdam.

Beyond the Two Camera Approach

These researchers, however, aren’t of the mind that two cameras are the appropriate way to capture 3D going forward. Nope, they’re thinking filmmakers of the future will use more like 16. For more complex special effects, the kinds you know the Camerons and Nolans of the world would want, filmmakers will be able to utilize a system the researchers have set up comprising 16 cameras with software that will generate depth maps that use gray tones to calculate how far the object in this pixel is from the viewer. "We can use this depth map to generate any number of views from the 16 camera views – meaning that we have created a virtual camera, similar to movies that are entirely computer-generated,” Foessel said. “That gives us a great deal of freedom; we can produce moving shots without having to move the real cameras at all, for example.”

This sounds like something James Cameron will approve of, and even Christopher Nolan could get behind.

Featured image: A scene from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which was shot in native 3D. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures. 


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.

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