Sunday April 24, 2011
Malaysian filmmakers keen on 3D technology
By ALLAN KOAY
Some of Malaysia’s major film players are jumping on the 3D bandwagon with eager anticipation.
FILMMAKER Bjarne Wong and I were talking about 3D technology and his upcoming movie, The Hunter, which is touted to be the first ever 3D movie produced in not just Malaysia but South-East Asia, when he suddenly asked one of his crew members to hand him “the 3D camera”.
I thought we were going to see the RED 3D camera (manufactured by the pioneering Red Digital Cinema Company) he will be using to shoot The Hunter in June, but what appeared instead was a small black camera that looked like any other compact camera. But the surprise was when he turned it to the LCD screen at the back. There on display were crisp video images – popping out in 3D.
Perhaps what Oscar-winning director James Cameron (The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar 3D) predicted is coming true. Walk into any shopping mall now, and you’re likely to see a 3D TV set on display at an electronics store. Movies in 3D are being screened every single day in digital cinema halls, the number of which is ever growing nationwide. And now, a compact 3D camera. Perhaps 3D is indeed the future. Who knows?
One thing we do know is, the race for the first Malaysian 3D movie is on. While Wong is prepping for The Hunter, a thriller about a group of documentary filmmakers who are pursued by a mysterious force in the Borneo jungles, KRU Studios also has plans for its own 3D movie.
Norman Abdul Halim, the company’s global CEO, revealed recently that the movie will be 29 Februari, a different take on the Benjamin Button story, about a character who ages a year in every four years. The drama will provide audiences with a 3D experience of seeing Malaysia going through changes from 1892 right through WWII and the Japanese Occupation and British rule, till the year 2012.
Metrowealth, too, is now in pre-production for a horror movie that will be shot in 3D. Producer and CEO David Teo would only say that the RM2.5mil production will be directed by Ismail “Bob” Hashim, of last year’s horror movie Nangkung fame. Shooting will commence in May or June. Teo promised that more will be revealed when the time comes.
Then there is also the animated feature, War Of The Worlds: Goliath, from Tripod Entertainment. The 3D post-production for the film – a steampunk epic that takes place 15 years after the Martian invasion of Earth in the original story – is being handled by Kuala Lumpur-based BaseCamp Films, one of a handful of 3D-capable local post-production houses. The project, however, features both local and American talent.
Interestingly, WOTW:G started out as a 2D project, but midway through, the filmmakers decided to take advantage of the 3D craze because the movie is a blend of 2D cel animation and 3D CG animation and is perfect for “dimensionalising”.
Maverick director Mamat Khalid, who made the country’s first zombie movie, 2007’s Zombi Kg Pisang, is also considering making an animated feature in 3D. He is currently researching the project, which will employ motion capture technology. He already has a script, Kelip, about a bunch of fireflies out to rescue their friend who has been taken by a tourist.
The little compact camera that Wong whipped out was the Fujifilm Finepix W3, which shoots 3D video in high definition, just launched last September. He had been using it during location scouting, and one can see from his shots that 3D images of the Borneo rainforest would be quite something to behold.
While in North America, 3D filmmaking is fast approaching something of a norm, here in Malaysia, it is safe to say that no one has yet mastered the art of directing in 3D, and everyone is on a learning curve.
“Before everything, I did my homework by watching a lot of 3D movies,” said Wong of his preparation. “I tried to understand the angles. For 3D, you have two cameras with 3D lenses, two mirrors at the top and bottom. Also, you need people with 3D technical expertise.”
3D filmmaking has had a long history. In the 1950s, it was very much a novelty for cinemagoers. But 3D film production back then was difficult and costly, and cinemagoers had a tough time trying to keep the cardboard glasses on, let alone allow their eyes to focus on the images. The 1950s fad died a lonely death, only to be revived briefly in the 1980s with movies such as Jaws 3D and Friday The 13th Part III.
Digital technology has since breathed a whole new life into 3D. Not only are the images crisp and the effects easier on the eyes, the glasses, too, now in plastic, are more comfortable to the viewer. To go into the technical specifics of 3D would be too complicated; it is enough to say that digital technology has also made 3D filmmaking much easier, if not any cheaper than conventional 2D production.
According to Norman, the cost of 3D filmmaking is easily RM1mil more than 2D. Half of that amount is for production and the rest for post-production. This is relatively affordable, compared to big-budget Hollywood efforts where 3D adds about US$20mil (RM60.5mil) to the production cost of a two-hour movie.
Another local producer, Dominique Hee (Spinning Gasing, Dukun), explained that a 3D movie costs, on average, about 30% more, based on figures for a 2009 project in which she was involved.
With a relatively small movie market in Malaysia, is it still feasible to make a 3D movie here?
Judging by the fervour of the filmmakers in going 3D, it would seem so.
Asia Entertainment Media, the company that has invested in The Hunter, purchased a 3D camera with a long-term view to producing more 3D movies.
“We are looking forward to the future,” said Bjarne Wong. “All in all, including the camera, we spent about RM2mil.”
KRU Studios also has long-term plans; its future in 3D and overall film production has been mapped out. The plan is to produce at least one movie for the international market a year. The period action drama Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, released in March, was its flagship production, to prove KRU Studios’ capabilities.
Another future project, as Norman revealed, is a co-production with the United States, an ambitious 3D outing called Vikingdom, which will be shot entirely using green screen technology, like the blockbusters Avatar and 300. Hollywood actors will be among the cast.
Norman said they completed 3D research and development and a test shoot in January in Thailand. What they have managed to achieve will be unveiled to the media soon. He said even before he saw 2009’s Avatar, after action adventure Journey To The Center Of The Earth in 2008 had done brisk business at the box office, he was already trying to convince his team to go 3D.
Lack of expertise
The one stumbling block for all the local filmmakers is the lack of local 3D expertise. Understandably, the technology is still new in this region. Wong is working with technical experts from Hong Kong and South Korea, while KRU and Metrowealth are looking to the Thais for help.
“I learned from my cameraman who is from Hong Kong,” said Wong. “3D technology is still new in Hong Kong, China and South Korea, so all of us, in essence, are still learning. For those countries, they also brought in expertise from foreign countries.”
He said 3D requires more depth to the picture, and therefore lighting is a little more complicated than normal, while there are a lot more angles to consider for each shot.
For KRU Studios, its experience in CGI work in previous films such as Cicakman and Merong Mahawangsa makes it a lot easier to grasp the technicalities of 3D.
“It’s really about making the right calculations and using the right lenses, getting the right distance between the object and the lens,” said Norman. “It gets a bit more complicated in post-production. You’re mixing the left-eye and right-eye elements and you have to get it right so that viewers don’t get dizzy.”
And that also means the post-production will require double the work. For Merong Mahawangsa, KRU Studios had 12 people working on the CGI.
“For stereoscopic 3D, you have to create two sets of visuals, for the left and right eyes,” Norman explained. “So we would need more people and the right people who would come up with something extraordinary.”
The ayes and nays
Norman and KRU Studios are ready and raring to go, as is Wong, who said excitedly: “I can’t wait to shoot. I wish I could start right away!”
But not everyone thinks 3D is the right way to go. Recently, Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient) delivered a scathing attack on 3D technology. He noted that the human eye and brain are simply not equipped to perceive manufactured three-dimensional images. He said when audiences watch 3D movies, they “are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for”.
Others simply do not see how much more immersive a film can be apart from having an engaging, involving story. Ho Yuhang, arguably Malaysia’s most internationally successful independent director, said: “Aren’t movies already in 3D? Otherwise why do people laugh and cry watching them?”
Still, others such as producer Nandita Solomon (Karaoke, Bunohan) thinks it would be a dream come true to shoot a 3D movie. Incidentally, one of her uncles had shot India’s first ever 3D movie titled Kuttichathan, a “super cool Indian supernatural E.T.”, back in the 1980s.
“I love the magic about movies, and 3D just ups the ante,” she said. “I’ve seen nature documentaries in 3D, and I tell you, that is phenomenal. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but I think 3D will be part of our entertainment scope.”
Indeed, even renowned intrepid director Werner Herzog made his latest documentary, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, in 3D, which has garnered critical acclaim for bringing to “life” the 30,000-year-old cave artwork in Chauvet, France.
While everyone else is celebrating the advent of digital stereoscopic 3D, there are ominous rumblings in North America. Slate, a US-based online current affairs and culture magazine, last year published a study that showed 3D revenues to be on a downtrend even before Avatar and Alice In Wonderland, and that the 2D version of Toy Story 3 outperformed its 3D one.
All this can be read in an interesting post on film critic David Bordwell’s blog, written by his wife Kristin Thompson. In North America, 3D digital cinema halls are on the increase, from 4,400 in May 2010 to 8,770 in December, writes Thompson. The number of 3D movies produced grew from just two in 2008 to 22 last year, while as many as 30 are expected this year.
It is also interesting to note that 3D films earn three times more outside the North American market. This simply means we, the rest of the world, are just crazy about 3D movies.
In Asia, the current buzz is, not surprisingly, the release of the 3D softporn movie Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy in Hong Kong. Bollywood will be releasing Haunted, a 3D horror movie by Vikram Bhatt.
In Malaysia, there are 84 digital screens, out of a total of about 590 in cinemas nationwide. Ticket prices for 3D movies can be up to RM20, on average double the price of a normal movie ticket. Still, filmmakers such as Wong and Norman are looking to the international market to ensure maximum returns.
The Hunter will be released in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
“My family is in the cinema business, so I know that 3D is still doing good business here in Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, unlike in North America,” said Wong.
KRU Studios is, understandably, hoping to tap into the foreign market.
“In my opinion, 3D will be the saviour for the local industry in the long run,” said Norman. “Now we have all sorts of methods of content consumption, but they don’t offer the cinematic experience of 3D. But I must admit, not all movies are suitable for 3D. Movies that have a lot of action give you an adrenaline rush, those are the kind that are suitable.”
“We have to embrace 3D sooner or later,” said Mamat. “It will add a new culture to our society and I think it’s cool. We have to adapt to new approaches in film production. That’s why we should develop 3D filmmaking.”
Leon Tan of Tripod Entertainment and producer of WOTW:G said: “The trend of stereoscopic 3D movies, like any other trend, will experience an initial upsurge, and then the numbers and take rates will settle. But the reality is that stereo 3D is here to stay.”
According to Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC), digital 3D movies account for an average 20% to 30% of its total box-office takings. Almost half of the 84 digital screens in the country are GSC’s, including the giant IMAX screen of GSC Maxx in Berjaya Times Square, Kuala Lumpur.
“In fact, there is greater demand for digital projectors, servers and 3D glasses now after Avatar, which has resulted in a waiting list for these items worldwide,” said a GSC spokesperson.
“I totally believe that 3D will be the standard in the long run,” said Norman. “It will be like when films went from black-and-white to colour.”