Phil “Captain 3D” McNally Interview, Meet The Robinsons

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Movies Online recently sat down with Phil "Captain 3D” McNally, the Stereoscopic Supervisor for Disney’s new Digital 3D film, MEET THE ROBINSONS, directed by Steve Anderson in his feature debut. The film and its outrageously imaginative world will come to dazzling life in groundbreaking Disney Digital 3D on an unprecedented number of screens – more than 600 nationwide –marking Disney’s most creative and ambitious venture into 3D moviemaking yet. This exciting new format brings to life the already beautifully rendered world of state-of-the-art CG animation and presents not only an unparalleled movie-going experience but a glimpse into the future of digital entertainment. In this time-traveling blast of a comedy event, Walt Disney Feature Animation’s latest digital animation technology will jet audiences to an inventive, unexpected techno realm of tomorrow where the wildest dreams come true . . . including those of a young inventor in search of a home.

The story begins with Lewis, a boy-genius with a love of gizmos and gadgets and an undying hope of finding the family he never knew. But Lewis’ journey is about to take him to a place even he couldn’t have imagined, a place where the impossible no longer exists: the future. When Lewis encounters a mysterious stranger named Wilbur Robinson, he’s in for the time-travel of his life and will be whisked off to meet a family unlike any other – the sublimely fun and futuristic Robinsons – who will help him to discover a series of amazing and heartfelt secrets about his own limitless potential. But his incredible trip will also bring him into conflict with a villain who gives evil a bad name: the bungling Bowler Hat Guy, who steals Lewis’ only way home. Filled with unforgettable characters, clever contraptions, classic villains and all kinds of eye-popping exuberance, MEET THE ROBINSONS continues in the beloved Disney legacy of looking ahead to a dazzling world of tomorrow – as it unfolds a story about believing in family, yourself and the wide open future.

Disney pioneered the high-tech rebirth of 3D with the Disney Digital 3D release of the animated hit "Chicken Little". A special Halloween engagement of "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas” in Disney Digital 3D was also a huge success. But those releases, while doing banner box-office business in select cities, provided just a peek into the potential of Disney Digital 3D. So now, Disney takes a major leap, both in terms of more sophisticated 3D storytelling and the opportunity for a far wider audience to enjoy the state-of-the-art 3D experience with MEET THE ROBINSONS - a movie tailor-made for this kind of forward-looking fun.

Movie-goers have always loved the idea of 3D, but the reality of it has never quite been able to match up to the dream, until now. In the brave new world of digital cinema, 3D has finally come of age. In general, 3D films work by projecting a double image: one for the right eye and another for the left, which creates the rich sensation of real-life depth. Traditionally, this was achieved by using two projectors. Disney Digital 3D, however, takes advantage of advances in digital projection technology by needing just one projector, which rapidly shifts between images for the left eye and the right eye, so quickly (144 times per second) that the brain is not even aware of it. Using polarized light, the images are crisper, clearer and more immersive than any 3D process in history.

With MEET THE ROBINSONS in Disney Digital 3D, the technical has also started to impact the creative. For the first time, the filmmakers took the 3D rendering process into account early on in the creative development of the movie. "We actually wrote what we call a 'Depth Script' for the entire film, in which we determined how much depth we would use in each sequence of the story," explains the film's Stereoscopic Supervisor Phil McNally, whose love and skill in the three-dimensional world have lent him the nickname "Captain 3D." "It was a real jump ahead creatively, because we were able to look at the entire story in advance and actually use the 3D to enhance the storytelling as we have never done before."

Phil McNally is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about making MEET THE ROBINSONS in Disney Digital 3D:

Question: Congratulations! It looks amazing.

Phil McNally: Oh, great! We’re all really happy with the final result, so we’re all excited to get it out there in the world and let people see it.

Q: Can you explain the difference between this and ‘Chicken Little’ in 3D, and what makes it different?

PM: I think what is different has been the opportunity to art direct the depth. ‘Chicken Little’ was more of a one size fits all. So, whatever the shot was, it more or less fit into the same box. What we’ve been able to do here is look at a shot and say, for example, "Okay, it’s the first time we go to the future city. The future city is the biggest, deepest, highest city that we’ve ever seen before.” So, we’ve saved some of the depth, through the beginning of the movie, so that the first time we go to the city, we’ve got somewhere to open it up. And then, you get to something like the dinosaur chase, and that’s the time where we start to have the frame get broken by the dinosaur who’s literally breaking out of the box, into the space that has been established as a nice, safe zone. Everyone’s behind the frame and it’s all composed, and then, suddenly, things start to break apart. It’s one of those unstable sequences. I think the main thing is that what we’ve been able to do is look at it shot to shot, sequence to sequence and develop what I call the depth script, which is a graph for the whole movie where you can say, "Okay, this is going to be a big sequence. Now, we’re going to bring it back and let people recover and calm down. And then, we’re going to break out of it again.” That’s really what you’re going to see that’s different from the 3D movies that we’ve had so far.

Q: When you think about a 3D movie, do you think about it as if it were on a stage with real sets?

PM: Yeah. I think that is a good comparison. It’s much more like a theatrical experience, in that you’re literally seeing the people, relative to each other in space. And, it’s not like regular movies don’t have depth. Of course, there’s always composition for depth. There’s perspective, which gives you depth cues, and all that type of thing. But, with stereoscopic movie making, you’re literally able to put depth in between the characters and separate things out or pull them together or push them back and make the city look big, or see the bowl hat fly up the through the rafters and really feel like you’re up there and feel the space that’s down to the floor.

Q: Did the technology change the story at all, or did you get the story and fit the technology to it?

PM: Literally, the technology side allows us to deliver anything, at this point. We don’t have any restrictions in what we can deliver to the screen. So, we can more or less take the technology out of the equation, in a good way. Real D has done a fantastic job to build a system that allows that. What we’re able to do, in terms of applying the depth artistic decisions to the movie, and what we were very careful of, is that the story should drive the decisions. What we don’t want to be doing is having 3D make the story do something, ‘cause you end up in that situation where things are getting thrown at the audience, even though you’re in the middle of an important dialogue. Of course, there are natural points in the story where things get thrown at the camera. It’s part of the movie, and that’s exactly where they should be used. If you’re firing a meatball cannon at a dinosaur, and that’s the shot, that is part of the shot and of course we’re going to make the absolute most of that, that we can.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your history in 3D?

PM: My friends used to call it a 3D ordeal. What would happen is, they would come over and I’d have another 100 slides that I needed to show them, even though they thought we were going to be doing something interesting. [Laughs] But, I did furniture design at the Royal College of Art in London, and there was a holography department that allowed anyone to come and do a two-day course. We made some holograms and we talked about stereo-photography, and after that, I put two cameras together and started taking images. That was back in 1990. So, that’s really my story. I’ve been a stereo-photographer since then. But, in terms of in the industry, I started work as an animator up at Industrial Light and Magic. When ‘Chicken Little’ came along, the two worlds lined up nicely for me, that I had this stereoscopic background and industry experience, and that’s where it’s gone from there.

Q: Is doing a live-action 3D film impossible?

PM: No. It’s been done since 1930-something. ‘Dial M for Murder’ was a stereoscopic film. ‘House of Wax’ was a stereoscopic film. If you really want to look it up, just look for films in 1952 or ‘53. ‘Kiss Me Kate’ was a stereoscopic film. It’s that problem of, "What type of films do we make here, 2D films or 3D films?” People used to talk about that here, at Disney, as 2D is hand-drawn and 3D is computer. But, now, it really should be traditional, computer graphic and stereoscopic, to use the real term. But, to the public, a 3D film is something you put glasses on for. The problem with the old films was more about the delivery. There were problems shooting them as well. Imagine the size of two cameras, in real life, and you’re trying to capture that, all in one go. We’ve got incredibly detailed control over the cameras because it’s all in a computer world. We can put the cameras anywhere we’d like, and we can have them overlap each other, if they’re not physically hitting each other. We can control every tiny detail of the camera controls that allow us to change the depth. There’s certain live-action productions going on now, and that’s all going to help push out the roll-out of 3D cinema. James Cameron is a huge fan of stereo, and he said he’s never going to make a flat movie again. This movie excels at the fact that we have absolutely dialed in the stereoscopic depth. It’s in the flow of the movie, and we very carefully managed when we were going to spend our depth dollars to give that experience at the exciting point, and when we were going to let it draw back to let people settle in again. It’s like the soundtrack. You’re watching a film and there’s an explosion, of course the explosion is loud, but you’re not expecting to have that kind of volume to run for the full 90 minutes. The soundtrack is up and down. Lenny Lipton, who was one of the designers and makers of the real D system said, "There’s a funny thing about 3D -- it’s like having a musician and always making him play loud.” That’s historically what’s happened. "Oh, it’s 3D, turn it up.” I think what we have this time is something that’s much more in the flow of the way we approach every other part of the design, whether it’s art directing color, doing the sound design, doing the lighting, all those things. We’re in the same mode with the depth.

Q: The deeper the shot is, is that more complicated for you? Does that take longer?

PM: The more depth you put into a shot, the more likely something’s going to show up, which you’re going to have to deal with, even in a very natural way.If you have a very reflective surface, you could position yourself so that your left eye can see this blue light reflected, but my right eye is just off the edge of the table and it doesn’t see it. Now, in real life, we’re moving around all the time, so that doesn’t bother me because I can lean a bit and it actually disappears. But, in the movie, if the camera is locked and you set your depth and then you render out the image and you see it, suddenly you’re like, "Oh, there’s a blue light that’s in one eye, but not in the other,” and it becomes a distraction. That’s something that we deal with either by moving the camera a little bit or taking the light out, or whatever it is. Naturally, the more you put in, the more likely it is that you’re going to have to deal with things. But, it’s not something that’s been a restriction, in reality. We’ve been able to put in whatever we want, and just little tweaks will clear up any problems like that.

Q: Are you doing that while you’re shooting, or do you do that after you’ve shot it and you recognize the problem?

PM: It’s a two-step process. We’re working in the computer, so one step happens, then the next step, then the next step. At the time we get the shot to set up the cameras, it’s very early on, when you have a rough computer model of what the set is. The camera is in the set, and you set up your left and right view, and it just looks grey. There’s no color. It’s just the geometry of the scene. And, we can render that as a stereo image and we can put it in the theater, and we can put it in the cut with all the other shots, and we have this grey version of the movie. We think we get a good job done and we’re all ready to pass it to the next stage where it gets textured and lit, and the animation is finaled, and all those types of things, and then it comes back for a second round of checks, and that’s the point where something like a reflection issue might come up because it’s not there on the first one. And, we have the opportunity to either do a manual fix, or take it back and change the camera. It’s a two-step process. First, we think we’ve got the depth set, and then we find out what the result is. We’re talking about a few percent that will need that extra clean-up.

Q: How big is your team?

PM: For the actual camera work, there were literally about four people setting up cameras. The total team is probably about 7 or 8, and that was just to set up the 3D. We did partner with Digital Domain to actually produce the color version of the right eye. All the creative work is contained in the camera setting, so the camera set-up is what puts the depth into the film. When you’ve set the camera, you now need to make a finished final image from each of those cameras, to go into the movie, and Digital Domain helped us with the final image of the right eye camera because the capacity at Disney was fully concentrating on the left eye, at that point. But, they took all our direction.

Q: So, it’s really like making two movies?

PM: It’s exactly making two movies. It is literally making two movies. It sounds crazy, but you make one movie from here, and then you make the movie again from over here. That’s what it is.

Q: So, you plan it all out strategically and think out all your shots.

PM: This is the crazy world of animation movie making ‘cause nothing exists. Everything is created from scratch. Every step whether it’s animation or modeling, or whatever it is, everything is in the same situation.

Q: Is the movie done as a mono movie and then you take it and make it into this?

PM: That’s how ‘Chicken Little’ was. This was integrated earlier on. As we’re progressing with the films, we’ve been able to integrate it earlier and earlier. The aim would be to actually have camera set-up and the color rendering all happening in-house, in sync with each other. That’s what we’re moving towards.

Q: Is there ever going to be a time when you can put 3D glasses on at home and watch it on the DVD release?

PM: I think there is a possibility technology will go that way. ‘Meet the Robinsons’ is designed for the theater. It’s always going to be the primary place to see it. The delivery of that 40-foot screen, in stereo, is a huge difference.

Q: But, it’s only in theaters for a limited time and then it’s gone, and it’s on DVD forever and you don’t have that experience.

PM: That’s true. So, we should re-release it every year.

Q: Now there’s a Disney idea! Thanks so much for you time today.

PM: Thanks a lot.

MEET THE ROBINSONS opens in theaters on March 30th.

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