The Technology of Up

Most Pixar films have had one area of groundbreaking technical achievement. Monsters Inc had a lot of new hair and fur simulations. Finding Nemo debuted a lot of new fluid dynamics. With Cars it was volumetric dust, and Wall-E made some serious advances in emulating light in physical camera lenses.

I wan’t sure what Up would bring to the table, since it used tech from all the previous films. The balloons cluster needed some seriously impressive collision detection, of course. Now the ballons themselves are basically simple spheres, so that’s easy math, but remember that each balloon is on a string. That’s where the hard math comes in.

In many ways, Up’s tech is just the latest generation of previous innovations. For example, a lot of the character and cloth work from Ratatouille has been improved for this film, as has the subsurface scattering from The Incredibles. And of course, the volumetric renderer has been beefed up for some seriously impressive clouds and atmospheres.

However, as far as pioneering goes, this is Pixar’s first stereoscopic film. There’s a lot of extra work to do for films that will be shown in 3D, but the extra dimension adds some new storytelling tools. The directors have complete control over how wide the depth of a shot really is, as well as whether objects push out of the plane of the screen or recede behind it, and how far.

For Up, this control is used subtly and well. For example, the altitude of the floating house is very apparent. The scene with Russell on the porch high above the ground had a much better sense of jeopardy and vertigo to it than when I’d seen it in the 2D trailer. Large objects like Muntz’s zeppelin seem more imposing because they can be huge on the screen and obviously far away at the same time, giving the audience a real understanding of their true scale.

More importantly, though, the film develops a cinematic language for 3D early on, and the audience picks up on this. The emotional moments are fairly shallow in their stereography; taking place in small spaces. This forces viewers to focus on the dialog there, and it makes the visual depth of the sweeping vistas in other scenes more breathtaking by comparison.

Unfortunately, the technology behind 3D films isn’t perfect. The circular polarization of the new Real D glasses easily beats the linear polarization and anaglyphic lenses of yesterday, and the 144hz refresh rate of the projectors beats trying to keep two reels synced, but there are still limitations.

For starters, the image was very dim through the glasses. 3D projectors need to throw more light at the screen since the polarized lenses block so much of it. During several scenes I had to take the glasses off just to get a better idea of what colors and tones the lighting technicians were using. And of course, fast horizontal motion will cause some ghosting in the image. Besides, to some extent, modern cinematic editing techniques need to be tweaked just to be watchable in 3D.

For example, high-energy films will often cut quickly back and forth between medium, wide, and extreme close-ups of action. Editing in 3D, the director now has a choice; he can jump the action closer to the audience when the camera cuts closer, which makes sense in physical space but forces the audience to constantly “refocus” as their focal point leaps back and forth in 3D space – or he can keep the action the same relative distance from the screen regardless of what the camera does, which looks strange but is less jarring to the viewer.

So, 3D films need to take these issues into consideration, and Up does a great job of that. Every shot is long enough for audiences to take in all the spatial data, and the cross-cutting nearly always happens along similar planes so the images don’t appear to leap forwards and backwards from the screen. Even the exciting chase scenes feature long, swooping camera moves that show off the 3D effect without fast cuts or the main action jerking around in frame.

In the past, the 3D element of 3D films was always a gimmick. It was really too crude to enhance the story , but now it’s coming into its own. Directors are learning how to use it, rather than work around it. Studios love it because it’s a powerful anti-piracy measure; as long as you can’t watch 3D movies at home you must go to the theater. Even audiences seem to like 3D movies, but that may not last, since they are really no longer a novelty.

As of this writing, I think all upcoming CG animated movies are being released in 3D. All the trailers before Up were shown in 3D, and they were almost all awful. Ice Age 3 fared the best because its teaser was basically a continuous short, but the others all pushed 3D further than they should have; extremely short shots, attempts to push the depth farther than it could be maintained, and too much fast motion. Also, since most trailers recut movie scenes, there was no spatial coherence between shots, which made the recutting more obvious.

The 3D effect was far more satisfying when used by the Pixar team in small ways. For example, there’s a scene where Carl and Russell chat by a campfire. The camera is static, and the shots are long, but just seeing the stars in the deep background and the house slowly rotating in the wind gave the scene tremendous visual appeal. Also, the “chunkified” stopmotion-style props and sets were well suited to stereoscopic display; many establishing shots felt just like my old Disney View-Master discs.

Try crossing your eyes...

In fact, it was so visually interesting that over the last few days I’ve done some of my own 3D tests in Lightwave. Keep an eye out for those next month. In the meantime, remember that in the same way that Pixar’s films are usually the best examples of the art serving the story, they also demonstrate how technology can serve the story as well. By doing so, the art and technology are far more interesting than they would be on their own.

All images copyright Disney/Pixar. This is the third in a series of articles which include the Story of Up and the Art of Up.

  1. It’s breathtaking to me of how much work goes into just ONE aspect of 3D Computer animation movie making. It is a LOT of work!

  2. Fascinating! I had never really thought (in depth) about stereoscopic film until I read this article. You made some excellent points here; specifically, the fact that the human eye has to refocus when the camera changes focal points, and how studios use 3D film as an anti-piracy measure.

    Great read!

    Keep posting! I’ve enjoyed all your articles in the UP series.

    - Ethan Blayze
  3. Thanks for the impressive analysis of technique and style for Up’s 3D. I had never really thought about why certain films’ 3D was good or bad, except knowing that it was. On an interesting side note, I’ve seen some of the newest TVs and some BD releases offering different 3D technologies in the home, perhaps drawing down the studios’ theater advantage for 3D in the future. Have you heard of these experimental systems?

    Question: Are you going to share the 3D experiments you’re working on in anaglyph or another process? As the recent Aliens vs. Monsters release demonstrated, anaglyph can be used to a certain effect on the web…

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