Why Pixar's Up could only have been a 3-D movie

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Josh Hollander, director of 3-D production for Disney/Pixar's Up, told SCI FI Wire that he worked closely with director Pete Docter to integrate the use of 3-D into the film to enhance the narrative rather than simply to provide a cheap thrill for the audience.

"We really want to protect the integrity of our movie-making process and integrate 3-D in a subtle and nuanced way—an intentional way, if you get my meaning," Hollander said in an exclusive telephone interview last week. "So Pete's very savvy, and I don't think we altered the mono production drastically to make things play better in 3-D, mostly because we don't want to make a movie to sell 3-D, we want to use 3-D to tell our story. He envisioned what he wanted the story to be, he envisioned what he wanted the look to be, and then he, working together with us, envisioned how to use 3-D in that process."

In the film, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) has spent years mourning his late wife, growing older, angrier and lonelier with each passing day he spends in the house in which they lived together. When he's threatened by developers, the 78-year-old former balloon salesman uses thousands of balloons to lift his house into the air ... and all the way to wilds of South America. Along for the ride—accidentally—is Russell (Jordan Nagai), an eager-beaver scout who's 70 years Carl's junior. And together they embark on the kind of adventure Carl and his wife long dreamed of experiencing.

Hollander and Up stereoscopic supervisor Bob Whitehill spoke exclusively to SCI FI Wire about the process of designing Up, in both two and three dimensions, as well as redesigning Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3-D for their theatrical re-release later this year. The following is an edited version of those interviews. Up opens May 29.

Talk about the differences in engineering a film in 3-D during production, such as you are with Up, as opposed to retrofitting 3-D on an existing work, like you're doing with Toy Story.

Hollander: Well, first of all, it's such a beautiful story, it's such a well-told story, it's such an emotional story, it's so visually engrossing that we really see 3-D—what we say, "just"—as just another tool in the toolbox for our filmmakers. We're able to envision early on how to use that tool to support the story we're telling.

On Toy Story, obviously, it was released 14 years ago, and obviously we didn't envision the use of 3-D in the telling of that story originally, so the challenge on the Toy Story project was just to go back through the movie, and Bob Whitehill sits with John Lasseter, and he talks through how to use 3-D to support that story. As a studio, we only use 3-D to support the emotional moments, to support the story, so we've gone back through the story to envision how to use it.

But on Up we can actually take a more proactive approach at that, so Bob sat with Pete Docter, the director, and the layout supervisor, who is kind of supervising the composition of the film in mono, to determine how to use 3-D in that way.

Bob, are there any specific examples of shots or sequences that you retooled to work better or more clearly for audiences seeing the films in 3-D?

Whitehill: Up unfolded so brilliantly for 3-D that we were very fortunate that there were really few instances of what I would call problems or discrepancies between the mono version and the 3-D version. For instance, they used a lens palette that had normal to wide lenses. Now, if you used long lenses, that collapses space and flattens out characters, and it can adversely affect the 3-D, but luckily they mostly avoided those. If you use lenses that are too wide, you're sort of using the lens to connote depth when you don't need to in 3-D, and it sort of exaggerates that feeling of depth. So a room will start to feel like a basketball gym.

Of course, on a 3-D film you want to have expanses—like big, open spaces, like on top of the tupuis [table-top mountains], for instance—to really feel that depth, and you can have the same stereo parameters at the distance of a waterfall on top of a tupui or a wall at the back of a room. The exact same parameters will feel very different because, naturally, visually, we're thinking that tupui waterfall is just that much further away from the wall of a room. That was another way that Up worked so well and sort of fell into 3-D very naturally and very gracefully, because of all of the amazing vistas. And the big battle at the end, the ground being so far away from the clouds. So we really were fortunate in many ways that the filming style of Up lent itself so well to 3-D that we had little or very few problems that you would want to change anything.

Would you say the challenges were the same on the Toy Story films?

Hollander: Yeah, I would. Although, again, it's a separate process from our filmmaking process. On Up, it was able to be integrated as part of the filmmaking process, and on Toy Story the films already exist and the story exists, the camera angles, so we're adding 3-D to an already established product, so it's not quite as organic as it is on an active production.

But with that said, we know these characters so well, we know these images so well, we can run the entire movie from memory, so it's more organic than we might think it would have been. We're not taking an old product and just "adding 3-D to it"; we're actually able to really figure out how to use 3-D, when to push it out, when to flatten it and how to support the emotional moments that we're all so familiar with and add a new dimension and make it worthwhile for people to come back to the theater to see it.