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Keith Driver with 3D Film Factory camera rig.

Keith Driver has a word for anyone who thinks 3D filmmaking is a passing fad. “Joe Six-Pack, living in his double-wide, can go down to Wal-Mart, buy a 3D TV, put it up, and watch NASCAR. Game over, it’s done. Anybody who doesn’t realize that just has a bias against the technology. It’s available to the masses – ‘Hey, why not in 3D?’ We have a Vizio TV here” – "here" being the Mission Valley offices of 3D Film Factory, where Driver serves as lead stereographer – “that we picked up at Wal-Mart for something like $650. There’s nothing tricky about it. You can select either 2D or 3D just by pushing a button on your remote. And while you used to have to have active 3D glasses that cost $80-$150, this TV works with the same glasses you get in the movie theater. There are buttons for Amazon and Netflix, but we can also stream content right off of our computer. It’s amazing where this stuff is going.”

“We haven’t even touched what can be done with 3D,” marvels Driver. “It’s like we’re in 1910,” present at the birth of moviemaking. “We’re scratching the surface. Everything for 3D is different. When Dreamworks did the fight scene in Kung Fu Panda where Tai Lung breaks loose, they also did a 3D rendering of it. Some of us got to see it up in LA. They found that nearly 60 percent of the shots taken from 2D angles did not work in 3D. Of those 60 percent, they were able to finagle about half, and the other half were just totally unacceptable.”

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SPECIAL BIG SCREEN BONUS VIDEO: Keith Driver explains the importance of camera angles using antacid and bottled water:

Besides camera angle, there is the matter of cut patterns – when and how often a director cuts from one shot to another. Says Driver, “James Cameron’s Avatar worked very well, because he stopped and let people enjoy the environment. I mean, the story is basically Pocahontas – and how many critics were there saying that the story sucked? But with an over $2 billion return, obviously, he did something right. Remember the news reports, people saying, ‘I just want to go and live on Pandora, screw the real world’? His stuff was just so immersive and beautiful. In his genius, Cameron knew that if you held the shots and let them breathe – if you let people enjoy your world,” they would be enchanted. “With a 2D camera, people would have gotten tired of a shot after 10 seconds. But on a 3D camera, he could hold it for 30 seconds, and people would still be enjoying the shot, because they’d be immersed in it. It changes how film is presented, which is why I say that the masters of this haven’t even been born yet.”

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When he mentions “masters,” Driver may be thinking as much about DW Griffith as he is about Fritz Lang. “I’ve got ideas for horror films that I guarantee will give people nightmares, because 3D can immerse people in it. Remember how Freddy Krueger said ‘You’re in my world now’ in Nightmare on Elm Street? If you get a director who understands how 3D can put people in his world, he will be able to totally terrify them.”

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In the meantime, Driver shoots training video on everything from military safety to proper blood-drawing procedures to fancy haircutting techniques. “They’ve done a ton of tests in Colorado,” he says, “and kids learn 30-40 percent better if they’re viewing stuff in 3D.” He shoots nature footage all over the world, including a recent bit in Botswana about what happens when people live in close proximity with crocodiles. And he shoots indie-level features like the locally produced Super Dentists Strike Back 3D.

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Loyal readers of The Big Screen may recall that I attended the premiere of Super Dentists Strike Back a couple of Saturdays ago at Vista’s Krikorian theater. First shot of the film, BAM: the wicked sugar-merchant Cavitar's leering face filled the screen – and then some. His pointed schnoz and fantastical moustaches jutted out toward the viewer as he ranted about his mad plan to destroy the Super Dentists. The effect elicited squeals of mock-frightened delight from the hordes of children in the theater, and a slight narrowing of the eyes from your humble correspondent. It was…intense.

“We shot that for television,” explains Driver. "As a result, when you show it in a theater, the 3D is going to be on the more aggressive side.” (The 3D effect comes from the separation of images, and what registers as a small separation when projected onto a small screen will of course register as a larger separation when projected onto a larger screen.) “But kids like more aggressive 3D, so it was okay. Usually, when we’re shooting for large format, we’ll have a one percent parallax. For aggressive 3D, you can increase that to two or three percent. But if you start hitting four or five percent, the image starts to ghost and break down.”

To illustrate, Driver fires up his laptop to show me “some really bad 3D. I didn’t shoot it; someone sent it in to me to evaluate. It’s of an Austrian body painting festival. I usually tell people that if they can get through more than three shots from it, they’re better than me.” I make it to the second shot – of a painted lady wearing a broad-brimmed hat in a forest – before the pain kicks in. It’s a funny sort of pain – not exactly stabbing into my eyes, but still making me want to look away. Maybe "discomfort" is a better word - but it's an urgent discomfort.

“Take off your 3D glasses and look at the image,” advises Driver. “See all this separation between the images? That’s one of the prime ingredients of bad 3D. This is a 30-centimeter screen. Here in the foreground, you have a three-centimeter separation on her hat. That’s 10 percent. Here in the middle, you have a one-centimeter separation on this tree, which is better. But here in the background, you’re back up to two-and-a-half centimeters on this other tree. On a screen this size, your prime separation would be about .6 centimeters in the background, and .3 in the foreground. That would create a very comfortable image,” while still delivering the realer-than-real look of 3D filmmaking.

That’s where someone like Driver comes in. On a film set, he says, “you have the director, who handles the actors and the overall action. You have the director of photography, who handles the cameras and the exposures and things like that. And then there’s me, the director of stereography. My job is all about breaking a shot down into specs like the ones we discussed and manipulating the camera rig to dial in those specs. It’s all a matter of how you do your convergences, the separation of your cameras.”

Here, let 3D Film Factory CEO Karl Kozak explain. It’ll help if you have a pair of cheap red-blue 3D glasses, but it’s not essential.

3D Film Factory was born out of a discussion between Kozak and Driver on the merits of shooting in 3D vs. shooting in 2D and then converting to 3D in post-production. Driver, who had been shooting in 3D “since before it was cool,” got Kozak to accompany him to Yosemite for some test shooting. While they were there, Kozak made a discovery. “Keith was shooting, and he was showing me this primitive homemade box rig for holding the cameras. I said, ‘Couldn’t you have bought a rig?’ Keith said they were super expensive – like forty to fifty thousand dollars. A light went on. I thought, ‘How is this ever going to get popular if you can’t buy one without a studio budget?’” So Kozak, who has had a hand in a number of smaller-budget films, set out to build an affordable 3D rig for people like himself.

He succeeded. “For the last three years, we have made the world’s most affordable camera rig system. People have used them for several indie-level features. We’ve sold rigs to NASA, ESPN, Disney… Sephora wanted five rigs, and they didn’t want to spend forty grand.”

"It's a solid rig," notes Driver. "I've been on sets with other rigs where we're shooting straight up or straight down, and the rig will start to flex. But with ours - I was doing a horror film in Mexico city where they wanted to shoot straight up at a girl's head in a tank of water, so that you could see the bubbles coming out of her mouth as she tried to scream. We were able to do that. A lot of rigs couldn't."

Rigidity aside, however, “the real magic of a rig is in how the cameras are mounted, how they’re adjusted.” The smoother the adjustment, the less time you have to spend setting up a shot. “The more expensive rigs have computer controls, and they move electronically as opposed to manually. But with our latest model, you’ll be able to control everything by hand-dialing it in – no tools. And it’s going to be one of the lightest rigs in the industry. It’s going to be amazing.”

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Driver with 3D Film Factory's new Bullet Rig

[Photos of Driver from 3D Film Factory's Flickr.]

ENDNOTE: Driver has one final word regarding that original conversation about filming in 3D vs. converting in post. "Give me water or a strand of hair with live-shot 3D, and I'll give you a masterpiece. For a conversionist, water and hair are hell."

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