By Samuel Martin, Decode
The film is self-financed by Decode Productions. The project follows Sisco Gomez, renowned choreographer to Madonna, Kylie Minogue and others, and head judge of the BBC’s ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, as he embarks on a personal quest to find a group of special dancers. Developing a series of TV programmes about street dance, he needs the best dancers around to perform alongside him. It is a career-changing opportunity for all of them. The project has been shot in many iconic London and Blackpool locations.
The aim was to create a stylised documentary in 3D, shot as a feature film but with standard documentary rules. It was also the testing ground for new 3D mirror rigs, the D-Rex and the D-Raptor, from one of Decode’s sister companies, 3Dcode.
Although our original mindset and planning was in 2D, 3D demanded a very different approach to what we wanted to film, and how. The cameras were not traditional cameras to start with, but rigs that are very heavy and slow to operate. A lot of thought was given to moving around with such heavy setups. Something as simple as moving between different rooms, which is straightforward in 2D, in 3D becomes a logistical challenge. Crew size was also exponentially larger than on a 2D shoot, with new roles and responsibilities. This proved a challenge when trying to maintain a documentary mentality and filming style. We were dragging along a 30-person crew behind the artists, so going unnoticed was an ideal that was never realised. Special attention was given to preparing the artists for the setup and the large crew presence.
With so many locations and environments not particularly film-crew-friendly, we decided that most, if not all filming had to be done on mirror rigs, and depending on the location and subject, it would be a mixture of RED and Sony EX3 cameras. We chose RED cameras because of the resolution and aesthetic look, even though achieving tri-level sync can be fiddly and time-consuming – as we experienced on several occasions. Sony’s EX3 was a logical choice because of its size and the digital recording output. Sony’s cameras were a joy to work with as we didn’t have any synching issues, and they provided us with the flexibility that we needed in many restricted space locations.
The project was shot over a period of ten months working around artists’ availability. Filming was grouped on four three-week stints with two weeks of preproduction – essential because we had to plan very carefully how and where we would be shooting in terms of camera positions, depth, budget, crew, logistics, etc. Editing of this project went on at the same time as filming, so many of the decisions on what to shoot next, and how, were decided in the cutting room as the project developed. Consider that for most of the first six months we had two or three rigs on set to capture as much as possible, and you start to get an idea of the size and amount of data presented to the editor.
Two stereographers worked with us throughout. They were an intrinsic part of the project, and a constant source of knowledge. The crew changed in each of the different filming runs, although the heads of department, namely the producer, stereographer and cinematographer, stayed the same.
Choosing the different cameras and grip equipment for each day or week was a challenge. Many times when there was a change of cameras between Sony and RED, the crew had to rely on Decode’s rental house to provide all equipment required. With no time for pre-testing the equipment the day before filming, this sometimes led to tensions within the 3D crew. We had multi-camera setups with two or three rigs for the first six months. The stress was unsurprising when all cameras, lenses and accessories would change from one day to the next without the crew testing any of it.
That leap of faith was a little difficult to cope with, but fortunately we experienced no major issues Indeed in the final filming stints stress was minimised because testing procedures were in place and the stereographers knew that all new kit used and not tested by them had indeed gone through rigorous prior testing at Decode.
Experience from the project
Everything takes that much longer in 3D – change of lenses, differences in lens build, crew unfamiliar with 3D, moving around, data processing, etc. We realised that if we wanted coverage we could do only one setup a day, and if we wanted speed we would compromise on coverage and get two or maybe three setups a day. This has cost implications. We had to choose whether we would go quicker and get basic coverage, or allow for more coverage and creativity but run slower. Everything was planned and accounted for, but we found that you need to add an extra 30% more time over 2D to get things done. We learned to be cautious about how many setups we wanted to do. Whereas at the beginning of the project we would try to do two or three setups a day, towards the end we were doing one a day and maybe some pickups, provided it was near the main location.
Size is the major challenge. If you want high resolution you have to use heavy cameras. That means a heavy rig, and with all the wireless controls and other accessories, the rig would weigh around 48kg. That is not something you can move around and go unnoticed, especially as you have five or six people constantly around it. Keeping a documentary filming style proved to be very challenging, as allowances had to be made for shooting at specific times or out of business hours. It is technically challenging, with many synching and wireless devices in each of the rigs, but within a few days the professional crew became familiar with the 3D format and the differences this makes to their jobs.
3D is an incredible format to shoot. It is very engaging and immersive, not only for the viewer but even for the director and crew on set. It does require a lot of planning. The less improvisation on set the better results you will get, and the less you spend. It can be really slow if you have a complex scene or setup, so as director you have to arrive with everything planned – camera positions, camera angle, lens to use, camera motion, etc. Choose your lenses carefully, and if possible test in advance. Changing lenses can take time and simple things like this can be the difference between getting all the shots you want on the day, or not.
The issue recurring most often was the synching of the cameras. It is a tedious process as crew has to monitor it constantly. Certain cameras are more stable than others, and this can be a real problem if you work with cameras that are not good at keeping synch. It can slow the process or bring filming to a halt. I am certain that future cameras will be much more accurate due to the increase in demand of 3D.
The film is in its final stages and there are seven distribution companies interested. We have had an incredible journey that has allowed everyone in the crew, and myself, to learn about 3D and how to best work with the format. It does require a little adjusting, but once that is done and you think in 3D terms, the format is a pleasure to work with and the results are mind blowing.
Logistically, we have learned so much about how to shoot 3D in so many different locations, from confined spaces to live events, multi-camera set ups, etc. It has been a very rewarding project.
3Dcode D-Rex mirror rig.
3Dcode D-Raptor mirror rig.
P+S Technik Freestyle rig.
Sony EX3 cameras.
Zeiss UltraPrimes lenses.
Zeiss DigiPrime lenses.
Canon zoom lenses.
Preston wireless focus and 3D controls.
O’Connor grip equipment.
Chapman Leonard grip equipment.
Transvideo and JVC 3D monitoring.
ARRI HMI and tungsten lighting.
Director Samuel Martin is the founder of Decode, a London-based specialist in rental of high-end 3D, HD and 4K equipment for the film and television industry. Investing heavily in 3D over the last two years Decode has now developed its own brand of 3D rigs and 3D tools for theatrical and TV production, sold through its new sales company 3Dcode. An extensive range of equipment, maintained and tested to the highest standards, allows Decode to efficiently fulfil requests for most HD and 4K cameras and formats, HD and 35mm lenses, dollies and other accessories. It also offers 2D and 3D support to long-term productions and feature films requiring assistance and advice during pre-production and production.