Disney’s The Lion King will release into theaters this year in a new 3D format for the very first time on September 16th. The film was a childhood favorite of mine, and every time I hear “The Circle of Life,” I get goosebumps. Needless to say, I look forward to viewing the film on the big screen, something I may have done when I was little but can’t recall. However, I do wonder how a film from the ’90s will hold up, animation wise, and how a 3D conversion of it will fare on the big screen.
Today, Disney sent over some images showing just what the conversion process entails, including adding notes of depth and then using filters to key in on what will be in the foreground, background, and everywhere in between. The process is a lot more difficult than this, but it gives us a great idea of what the process entails on a basic, easy to understand level. Hit the jump to view those images, including a description of what we are looking at, a discussion with the stereographer Robert Neuman about the procedure itself, and my impressions of the scenes they showed before Cars 2.
First, let’s get to the good stuff. Disney sent over two scenes that show off the process. The first is of Pride Rock and the second is of Scar. The basic process is taking a finished image, adding a layer and marking depth details, and then using a layering system to key on those depth markings in the image to tell the computer where to place the image. Here are those images [click to enlarge]:
Here are the captions Disney sent over as well, explaining the images in more detail:
1. The original film image.
2. The 3D Depth Map created by Robert Neuman, the 3D Stereographer on the film. Positive numbers refer to the amount of pixels the image will come out of the screen and negative numbers refer to the amount of pixels the image will go deeper into the screen, creating the 3D depth.
3. Grey Scale – The final image in the computer representation of depth. Darker images will be furthest away, and lighter images will be closer to the viewer.”
As for how it looks on the big screen, it was quite impressive. I won’t claim that everything looked silky smooth, as some of the animation did show its age. However, let me back up a bit. Ahead of the Cars 2 screening, we were treated to the opening scene of The Lion King 3D which entails the entire “Circle of Life” song that ends in the title card. So, nearly four minutes of footage. The brightness and the clarity were great, and there are scenes that seemed tailor-made for 3D in retrospect. We have plenty of creatures walking towards the screen, and numerous opportunities to show off different depths, including a shot of ants climbing on a branch with zebras crossing in the background.
As I mentioned, though, there are some problems and they seem to be inherent in the original animation. With the clarity turned up and the 3D enhancement, some sequences will simply not hold up that well. This can be seen during a flight scene, which has a few hitches that is apparent when compared to the silky-smooth CG animation we are use to now. Remember, this is hand-drawn animation. Despite those few nagging remarks, I will be the first to admit that I am fully on board with the theatrical 3D release from Disney. The film is one of those rare moments where the story, animation, music, and voice acting are in perfect harmony, and it is part of the golden age of animated musicals in the late ’80s and early ’90s that was such a large part of my life and many other in my age group.
I look forward to seeing the film in a crowded theater, screaming babies or not. I also love the fact that a lot of parents will be introducing their children to the film in the theatrical format, and what better way to enjoy this masterpiece? For those wanting to know more about the film, we will be covering Disney’s upcoming D23 Expo in Anaheim on August 19th-21st where they will be screening the finished film in 3D. Before I let you go, below you can find the discussion Disney provided us with in which The Lion King 3D stereographer Robert Neuman expounds on what he does and how he does it. The home video versions, which do include a non-3D Blu-ray format, will release on October 4th, 2011 and are available for pre-order now.
How do you take a hand-drawn animated Disney classic like The Lion King and turn it into a 3D masterpiece? We talk to Disney Stereographer Robert Neuman to find out…
How long has 3D cinema been around?
We all know that 2D cinema has a rich history spanning more than a century, but 3D cinema has been around much longer than most people think. Back in the 1930s, the Lumiere brothers – who invented film – remade one of their features in 3D. They were convinced that 3D was going to be the next evolution in storytelling, but it didn’t catch on in that period of history. This means that 3D cinema has been around for nearly 80 years, but thankfully we’ve now gone past the gimmick stage. Today we’re ready to use 3D in order to tell a better story.
What does 3D add to an animated movie like The Lion King?
From my standpoint as a filmmaker, the most important aspect of a movie is the story. I knew we could add something to the storytelling of The Lion King with 3D. If we couldn’t use 3D to enhance the story, I wouldn’t be interested in the project. However, I knew we could take a classic and plus it – and I think that’s exactly what we’ve done with The Lion King 3D.
What does the job of Stereographer entail?
As Stereographer on The Lion King 3D, I’m responsible for all of the 3D aspects of cinematography. I designed the 3D look of the film, which involved working out how the characters were going to look in 3D, as well as what was going to move back into the screen and what was going to come out of the screen when you watch it in 3D. I also had to come up with a way to use depth to enhance the storytelling, which was of paramount importance.
How do you use depth as a storytelling tool?
The way I approach depth on the movie is to create a depth score, which is a similar process to the way that a film composer creates a musical score. A film composer uses the rises and falls of the score to echo the emotional content of the film. I try to do the same thing with depth in the movie.
To do this with depth, I created a chart by going over the story of the film. I quantified the chart from a scale of one to ten. At a level of one would be a scene that has very low emotional content, for example an expositional scene. At a level of ten would be a big emotional moment in the movie, a big action sequence or a climatic action point. The chart is called my ‘depth script’.
What do you do with the depth script?
I equate stereoscopic depth to emotional depth. In other words, the shots in the depth script with a value of one get the minimum amount of depth. We’d pull out all the stops on shots with a value of ten by using as much depth as possible. Additionally, if there’s a scene where we’re supposed to feel detached from a character, then I put the character further back into the background. If we’re supposed to feel connected to a character, I bring them further forward. In this way, we’re not using 3D randomly. We’re using 3D as part of the narrative.
Is a Stereographer responsible for anything else in a movie?
I also spend a lot of time researching viewer comfort. There have been plenty of 3D movies that don’t consider viewing comfort when they are made. They don’t maintain depth continuity to ensure a great viewing experience, but that was extremely important to us. I wanted to make sure that the viewer would be comfortable and that their eyes aren’t strained when they watch the action in 3D.
How large was the team that worked on the conversion of The Lion King?
A team of 60 artists worked on the project, alongside four Sequence Supervisors and myself, the Stereoscopic Supervisor. We divided the artists up into teams that would take on one sequence at a time. That way, we were able to ensure there was 3D continuity within that sequence.
How long did it take to convert the movie into 3D?
It took four months to complete the conversion. It was extremely challenging and a very busy four months, but we got there in the end. We couldn’t be more proud of the outcome.
At the onset, our technology team had to de-archive the original movie. The Lion King was one of the first features created with a pioneering digital ink and paint system that Disney developed called CAPS. Before that, everything had been painted by hand and was photographed on multi-plane cameras. The technology team had to convert the old system into images that we could use. Once we had the images, we could start the conversion.
What was the most difficult scene to convert into 3D?
The wildebeest stampede was very difficult. There were a lot of effects elements in that sequence and there was an entire herd of wildebeest to deal with. We also discovered that some of the movie’s characters were more difficult than others. The idiosyncrasies of the design of the bird Zazu were challenging because he has very angular features in his beak, wings and tail. Angular details are more difficult to work with in comparison to the more rounded features of other characters, such as Simba or Mufasa. That was certainly a challenge, too.
Is the same 3D version used in theaters and on Blu-Ray?
It’s basically the same version; although we slide everything back a little for Blu-Ray because a television screen isn’t as big as a movie theater screen. We take the final images and slide them along by a few pixels. But other than that, everything is identical.
How much input did the original filmmakers have into the 3D version?
One of the great things about working on this project was the fact that we had access to the original filmmakers. The input we were able to get from the original directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, and the producer, Don Hahn, was extremely reassuring. It was great to make sure that what we were implementing was their vision.
Why do this with such a great, classic film? In creating this 3D version, we’re creating a whole new art form, a whole new medium. You have all of the charm and the energy of the hand-drawn line that the original artists put down on paper, but there’s a tangibility that you usually only get out of something that has more dimensional framework. Let me give you an example… It feels like you can touch the characters in Toy Story because they’re starting from this truly dimensional framework. The Lion King 3D has the same characteristics. It has this tangibility, charm and, in my eyes, it has become a distinct form of animation. Even if you’ve seen the movie a hundred times, you’ll feel like you’re seeing it for the first time when you see it in 3D.
Will we see more classic Disney animations in 3D?
It’s certainly a possibility, but nothing has been decided yet. We have the technology available, but there are no specific plans to do anything else right now. Personally, I think it would be amazing to see something as vintage as Snow White come to life in 3D. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it happens one day soon – and that I get the opportunity to work on it.