Monday, February 09, 2009

MONSTERS vs. ALIENS—Jeffrey Katzenberg Presentation

Recently, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, came through San Francisco and delivered an insightful presentation regarding the 3D technology supporting the upcoming DreamWorks release Monsters vs. Aliens.

"To place this into context," Katzenberg began, "when I think of the history of film and what have been the revolutionary changes in film, there really have been two. The first occurred in the 1920s when silent movies became talkies. The second came in the 1930s with the introduction of color. Now, seven decades later, I believe we are about to enter what will be the third great revolution in film: the introduction of this new platform, this new generation of 3D. The first two—sound and color—were actually about bringing a better experience out to the audience. This one [3D technology]—as I hope you will see today—is actually about bringing the audience into the film experience itself."

Donning a pair of anaglyph 3D glasses with red and blue cellophane lenses, Katzenberg specified, "It's important to note that—when I talk about 3D—I am not talking about my father's 3D. These beautiful things are quite remarkable in that anyone would imagine you could look through them and it would look like anything other than grey, which is in fact what happens. These were a cheap exploitation gimmick. The technology was primitive and the film was blurry. People got headaches and some people even got nauseous. I have to say that I have yet to think of a successful business that makes its customers throw up," Katzenberg joked, "except maybe beer."

"In the last few years," Katzenberg continued, "all of this has changed. Now the glasses use state-of-the-art polarized lenses. They're very comfortable. When you put them on you will very quickly forget you are wearing them. 3D projection used to require side-by-side projectors but now there is a projector that delivers a crisp, clean and very bright image in perfect alignment between right eye and left eye and it's flicker free. When you think about what has happened to bring 3D into the 21st century, it all revolves around one word: digital. Digital technology has quite dramatically altered special effects, allowing audiences to feel as though they were sailing on the Titanic or leaping buildings with Spiderman or coming face-to-face with King Kong. So, too, is it now about to transform the 3D experience into something that can replicate what I think is the most remarkable of all the human senses: the sense of sight. To appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment, we can look to what has happened in terms of the innovations that have occurred with the sense of hearing. In just a few decades we've gone from vinyl records to 8-tracks to cassette to CD and now to digital. Today we can capture, score and replay audio with near-perfect fidelity for the human ear. Current 2D movies are the equivalent of the vinyl era. Many of them are amazing movies, works of art, but they don't capture the sense of 'being there' as 3D does.

"3D represents an opportunity to re-energize audiences worldwide about the film experience, about what it means to come into a movie theater. When I think about the last decade—the rate of innovation that has occurred in the home experience with flat screen TVs, HD, Blu-Ray, stereo sound, is quite extraordinary—yet, what we do in the movie theater hasn't changed that much at all. 3D is a chance for the theater experience to take a quantum leap over anything that can be done in the home. Not only is it an opportunity to offer a premium experience to people who love to go to the movies, but it's a way to get people back into the movie theaters that have stopped going because there really isn't enough of a difference for them when trading off the home vs. theater experience.

"At DreamWorks Animation we believe strongly enough in this that we have retooled our entire operation and—in order to be able to produce in 3D—beginning with Monsters vs. Aliens this year, every film that we're making from the first storyboards to the final print is being authored in 3D, using new proprietary technology that we call InTru3D. This is something we have developed with our partners at Intel and HP. We have created a set of authoring tools that really take full advantage of all the immersive storytelling possibilities of stereoscopic 3D. These tools allow us to approach filmmaking in a whole new way. Until now almost all of the 3D films that people have experienced—the vast majority of them, particularly the animated movies—are films that were actually made in 2D and then post-produced into 3D. Again, using a new set of digital tools, so it's a significant qualitative step to what people used to see in this medium; but, it doesn't touch what happens when you actually author, design and create in 3D. It's a bit analogous to taking a movie that's been shot in black and white and colorizing it. You can do it; but, it doesn't really take advantage of the technique.

"We have started to enter a new creative world. The way we think of filmmaking and the filmmaking process is going to change in a dramatic way. If we go back to an example, D.W. Griffith started the panning shot, which has now become an amazing tool for filmmakers with its ability to track across the screen—most notably in a film like Lawrence of Arabia—to suggest the vastness of the desert. Now, for the first time, filmmakers can use a pan shot to move into the world that they have created and designed. This is much more than just a camera move because it's about storytelling; it's a storytelling device. It's why we talk about the "D" in 3D being—not just about physical dimensionality—but, more importantly, about emotional dimensionality. Bob Zemeckis, Jim Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, they're all working in 3D today and I think we can agree that the collective innovation of these five filmmakers over the last 30 years has pretty much put them on the leading edge. They all see 3D as the next great frontier in storytelling. I can't wait to see what they do working with these new tools. I hope it's not—and I don't think it is—an exaggeration when I say this is the beginning of the next great revolution in the history of cinema.

"Again, as I said, for us it all starts with our March release of Monsters vs. Aliens. Let me tell you just a little bit about the story. As the film begins, our planet Earth is about to be attacked from outer space by an alien who definitely isn't coming in peace. All of our weapons, everything that we try to defeat it, nothing is effective, nothing works against it. So the U.S. government has no choice but to tap into the most highly super top-secret program in its arsenal. I know it's very hard for any of us to believe that our government does something that we don't know about; but—unbeknownst to all of us—for the past 50 years they have rounded up all of the monsters and locked them up in a super maximum security prison.

"These monsters represent Earth's only and last chance for survival so I think it's important that I introduce them to you. The smartest of the bunch is the brilliant scientist Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. played by the brilliant Hugh Laurie. Next is B.O.B.—voiced by the hilarious Seth Rogen—who's an indestructible gelatinous blob that will eat anything and everything. Next is Insectosaurus, a gigantic power who speaks in an unintelligible roar that can only be understood by his best friend The Missing Link (Will Arnett). It's hard to classify The Missing Link. As his name suggests, he is the missing link between man and our undersea ancestors. The newest addition to the team is Susan Murphy, played by Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon. Susan was about to have the happiest day of her life, her wedding day, when—in a completely unanticipated and inexplicable event—she gets hit by a meteor. The impact covers her in some mysterious space goop that causes her to grow to be almost 50 feet tall in a matter of minutes. Over the years, there has been only one man tough enough to track down this team of misfit monsters to lock them away: General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland). General Monger's position is so important and so sensitive that he reports directly to the President of the United States (Stephen Colbert). As our story begins, this alien force has sent a gigantic 350-foot-tall robotic probe to Earth. The President of the United States has decided that he—and only he—should personally go out to greet it. This probe lands in Modesto, California and is actually—dare I say?—making its way to San Francisco. Some of this footage is going to be very disturbing to some of you; that's your advisory warning. General Monger has rounded up this group of monsters and he has shipped them from Area 52 to San Francisco where they come together as a team on the Golden Gate Bridge."

Katzenberg then previewed three mind-popping scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens. Believe me, this is unlike anything I have ever seen in 3D in a moviehouse. Simply astounding! The final scene on the Golden Gate Bridge especially is a wondrous cataclysm of destruction. Katzenberg apologized afterwards for those of us who might have trouble getting home with the bridge out.

In the five years that he has been working on Monsters vs. Aliens, Katzenberg claimed it to be the most exciting development that has come along in his career and he opened his presentation up to questions from his enthusiastic audience.

Asked if the proprietary InTru3D software would eventually become public, Katzenberg asserted that DreamWorks Animation is not in the software ownership business. Their collaborator Intel will be commoditizing the software into a suite of products that will make its way out to the Web, where they see a tremendous future for 3D imagemaking. They envision 3D video on the web down the line. Intel will be bringing these tools to the marketplace at some point down the road.

Asked to describe the projection equipment necessary to project DreamWorks Animation's 3D slate, Katzenberg replied these new 3D projectors are specifically for digital, not 35mm. To convert a theater to 3D by putting in a digital projector and 3D equipment on top of that, costs on an average $80-$100,000 per theater. If you take the 43,000-44,000 theaters in the U.S. today, about 5,000 have digital equipment in place. By the time Monsters vs. Aliens comes out in late March, somewhere between 2,200-2,400 of those theaters will be equipped with 3D projection capability. The rollout is slower internationally; they're about a year or two behind. By the time the fourth chapter of Shrek arrives in Summer 2010, DreamWorks anticipates there will be about 7,500 screens for that movie. To accommodate those theaters not yet 3D-ready, DreamWorks will be releasing both a standard version of the movie and a 3D version. The 3D version will have an incremental charge of around $5 or so. So the choice is there. If people want a premium 3D experience, they can; but, the standard one-movie theater-next-door is available as well.

With regard to authoring in 2D in contrast to 3D, Katzenberg relayed that—interestingly enough—if you author in 2D it's not a great experience and does not take advantage of the full opportunity of what is possible today. In fact, that's an understatement. In 2D you can only access a fraction of what's possible. Inversely, if you take a film authored in 3D and convert it to standard, it looks great. DreamWorks anticipated there might be necessary editorial adjustments in order to insure that audiences didn't experience eye strain; but, in fact, there weren't. Because filmmakers now have to think about every single shot within the dimension aspect of it, the standard version ends up being even more cinematic.

As to why Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation decided to commit themselves to 3-D authored fare, Katzenberg admitted his "eureka!" moment occurred when he saw Polar Express in IMAX 3D. Even though Polar Express had been authored in 2D and post-produced in 3D, Bob Zemackis—who Katzenberg considers one of the finest, most innovative filmmakers around—designed the film for the 3D experience. Katzenberg worked with Zemackis nearly 20 years ago on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? After watching Polar Express, Katzenberg was so excited by his experience of the film, something he'd never experienced before in a theater, that he walked out of the theater, picked up the phone and called his team to say, "I think this is our future. We need to understand what's coming and how to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of it for our movies." That started DreamWorks' 3D journey. The rate of innovations of the tools in just a few years' time has been downright amazing.

Asked whether the story of Monsters vs. Aliens was based on a comic named Rex Havoc and the Ass-Kickers of the Fantastic, Katzenberg confirmed that DreamWorks optioned Rex Havoc many years ago and that its storyline does, indeed, include a monster hunter at its core. But filmmakers Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman ended up creating the storyline for Monsters vs. Aliens from scratch. The similarities between Rex Havoc and Monsters vs. Aliens are fairly distant.

Responding to a query regarding how many dimensions DreamWorks is intending to pursue to make their films realistic, Katzenberg stressed that DreamWorks is not interested in making films "realistic"; they're interested in pursuing what they call "realism"; the difference being that to try to create something "realistic" or "photorealistic" through animation is not only inefficient but costly. Their movies on an average cost $150,000,000 apiece to make; a 3D movie is $165,000,000. For an 80-minute length feature that's about $1.6 million a minute. Striving to achieve the photorealistic in animation misses the point that animation exaggerates; it's bigger than life.

Katzenberg confirmed that the current economy has definitely impacted the transition of theaters to 3D. The financing for what would be billions of dollars to convert theaters to 3D exhibition capability has slowed down. Last year DreamWorks projected 4,000-4,500 screens would be available for Monsters vs. Aliens, as opposed to the 2,200-2,500 screens that ended up being available; a direct effect of the inability to secure financing. It's coming but, without question, the last six months have dramatically slowed it down.

One fellow—aware that 3D moreorless got its start in live-action features before shifting to animation—wondered if the new 3D technology would continue past animation and return to live-action features? Katzenberg replied it's already being done. Though Monsters vs. Aliens starts the year of this next platform, this 3D generation, the year will end with James Cameron's live-action 3D film
Avatar. Katzenberg has had a chance to catch a few minutes of it and says it's "brilliant." In the way that Monsters vs. Aliens will hopefully raise the bar about what it means to go see an animated movie in a movie theater, Katzenberg is convinced Avatar will do the same for live action.

People ask Katzenberg all the time what kind of movies will be made in 3D. He answers, "All." The reason he says that—even though he's aware it will be a long time before we actually get to that place—is because he has to look back at the other times when there have been these transformations, these revolutions. With the introduction of sound, within five years silent films were all but obsolete. Within a decade or so of the introduction of Technicolor, black-and-white films pretty much went away and—over a slightly longer period of time—were almost gone. People see in 3D. It is absolutely natural for the human animal. It's how we take in information; i.e., emotions, storytelling. Engaging the emotions of the audience is what DreamWorks tries to do when they make a movie. The tools for doing this, along with narrative, is sound and sight. Every time the bar is raised on those tools, that experience can be made greater: more immersive, more emotional. There are 12 movies being authored in 3D this year alone and it will be double that next year. In the same way that DreamWorks has invested nearly $30,000,000 a year in 3D authoring tools, Disney has likewise invested a tremendous amount of money in improving the tools of converting 2D to 3D. They already have a giant library and they're going to start by bringing the two Toy Story films out in 3D.

The 3D glasses came under discussion. Everyone, Katzenberg joked, wants to know when we'll be able to do 3D without glasses. That's actually called autostereo and is a science that is already known. It works with very small things, like in posters. It's still a good decade or two away before autostereo will be fully maximized in the moviegoing experience; but—in the meantime—DreamWorks has entered negotiations with Luxottica Group, the largest eyeglass company in the world. More than half of the eyeglasses in the world come from Luxottica Group, many different brands, some of which they own, and some of which they make for other companies. Katzenberg approached Luxottica a couple of years back to initiate development of eyeglasses which they hope to have ready by the end of this year that will serve as sunglasses when outside and transition to 3D glasses when in the movie theater. They'll be privately-owned glasses. Very quickly—for people who are regular movie goers watching 3D movies—personalized glasses will become preferable to the existing recyclable glasses.

Some concern was expressed about exactly how recyclable these disposable 3D glasses are and whether or not they would start contributing to overburdened landfills. It was suggested that—rather than characterize the glasses as recyclable—perhaps it's best to think of them as collectible? Katzenberg conceded that it's certainly up to an audience member whether or not they prefer to collect their glasses or dispose of them and—in all honesty—he couldn't specify exactly how the glasses are "recyclable"; whether they're steam cleaned or spit polished and reused or what. He's confident that "recyclable" means more than simply cleaning the glasses and putting them in new plastic bags.

Yet another advantage of the new 3D technologies is that 90% of piracy—$6 billion a year—will become obsolete. Someone sitting in the audience with a camcorder will not be able to record what is on the screen. Without the appropriate 3D glasses, the screen will be blurry.

Wrapping up, Katzenberg wanted to make sure everyone understood that—with all the money that DreamWorks has invested in 3D technology—they have assembled the greatest talent in the art and technology of 3D. They've hired 150 people on top of their existing 1,600 employees at DreamWorks Animation. There's been a 10% increase in the size of their enterprise, specifically to make these 3D movies. With all that DreamWorks has done and all the amazing tools that have been created, the one thing it hasn't done yet is figure out how to make a bad movie good. If that would happen, DreamWorks would really be in great shape. Developing 3D movies is about creating something that's a truly terrific movie experience and then offering a premium presentation of it. It isn't going to take something that doesn't work and fool the audience into thinking it's something better than what it is. It will not do that.

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