IPM Exclusive: Steve Schklair, CEO of 3ality Technica is interviewed by IPM co-editor Judith Rubin. Note: This is the cover story of InPark issue #42 (2012).
At the Themed Entertainment Association Summit last March, I was pleasantly surprised to run into Steve Schklair, well-known as the CEO of 3ality Technica, developer of sophisticated technology behind the 3D boom in television and feature films. Steve’s roots are in special venue cinema, and when I first knew him in the late 1980s he was running Infinity Filmworks with director Keith Melton, producing innovative media pieces such as Sensorium for the Baltimore Power Plant. (Keith still runs Infinity, and the two are still good friends.)
Steve moved on to work in visual effects, video game production and more, always positioned at the point where creativity and new technology converge and always, through his vision and contributions, moving that crossroads forward. His company 3ality Technica is a reflection of that - about half of its 100 employees are engineers and half are creatives.
What do you like best about special venue production? Do you want to get behind the camera again?
New challenges, creative satisfaction and some creative control: special venue offers the opportunity for all of those. I was born a cameraman. I shot Sensorium and all those early projects with Infinity Filmworks. I wouldn’t mind getting behind the camera again, but I get the same kind of creative satisfaction from solving the technical and logistical problems of unique productions. I want to find a good project and take it on. Hopefully it will be something very new and cool that’s never been done before.
"It’s great to tell a story in a 12- to 14-minute format."
I love the work we do supporting features such as The Hobbit, but it’s not our movie; we play an advisory role. In special venue, you get to participate more in the filmmaking process, and then you get to go work on the install, too - to design components for the theater that do new and cool things. It’s where my heart is and it is always innovative and fun - it’s great to tell a story in a 12- to 14-minute format.
|Steve Schklair in 1984 working on Sensorium. Courtesy of 3ality Technica.|
I’m bringing the tools and expertise used for 3D features and broadcast production. There’s nothing more demanding than live TV: you have only one shot to get it right and no opportunity to fix it later. Since we are fairly camera agnostic, we can switch up a broadcast camera for a movie camera and the 3D tools are the same, although aspects of the workflow are different.
Is the special venue production community using these tools now?
For the most part, they are not- which is why you primarily see animated 3D in special venues. The special venue sector hasn’t been deeply involved in the discussion in the feature film and television world, and it’s only in the last few years that the tools have existed to this level. 3ality Technica developed this technology so that 3D feature films could be made on 2D schedules and close to 2D budgets. And that has worked out: the latest Spider-Man was planned in 2D up to a few weeks before production began; it switched to 3D with no change in schedule and finished on time. It’s the same with the other 3D features we’ve been involved on - for none of those has the director had to wait for the 3D cameras to be tweaked before every shot.
The tools we’re using today have zero to do with the tools we used to use when I was in the special venue business in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Live action 3D is no longer among the dark arts.
"The 3D tools we’re using today have zero to do with the 3D tools of the '80s and '90s."
What are the key tools?
The 3D rigs and the Stereoscopic Image Processor™ (SIP) are the crucial ones. The new 3D rigs shoot very, very high resolution and can be hand-held, or run on a Steadicam or the end of a jib arm. They can go anywhere and are 10 times more capable than those big old hunks of metal we used to rely on for live action 3D shooting. For special venue nowadays you’d go with RED Epic cameras that shoot 5K; the rigs and cameras are wireless so the Steadicam operator can run free and move fast. They also have more motors and axes of motion than the old ones, which is important because you can align them remotely. In the past, camera alignment and weight have been the biggest problems for special venue 3D shooting.
|Steve Schklair and Keith Melton back in the day. Courtesy 3ality Technica.|
This is all stuff we invented at 3ality Technica. These tools are needed now in special venue, where you always want to apply the latest and greatest to keep making new things, and differentiate leisure offerings from the neighborhood movie theater. Regular movie theaters are now starting to add 4D effects, so it’s time to come up with even more new stuff.
Is there a place in special venue for live 3D TV as well?
Yes. In fact, there is 3D broadcast now of every major sporting event, including the 2012 Olympic Games and the World Cup. Theme parks could, for example, simulcast or play back live shows in 3D, especially if they have brought in major musical talent.
"My favorite projects are where I get to solve problems and do things that have never been done before."
Speaking of major musical talent, tell us about the U23D movie, produced by 3ality Technica.
U23D was the first live-action 3D film shot digitally and put into theaters. I would say it was more of an art project than anything else, along with a proof of concept. I had theories that audiences could be comfortable watching 3D for 2 hours, not just 12 minutes, and it was a chance to put those theories into practice. We used effects that nobody had ever before done in 3D, and it was a huge breakthrough.
3ality Technica is represented by ICM. Will that be utilized in pairing your company with special venue projects?
It will support the endeavor. If we need access to talent, to top directors, we can reach out through ICM, as well as through our own established relationships. In conversations with features directors, I find that most of them are interested in special venue. It appeals to them because of the shorter length and as an opportunity to do something different.
Access to top Hollywood talent is certainly one of the things we bring to the table, along with an understanding of what a major feature or visual effects director expects in a work environment.
What about the projection end of things?
Projection should be digital. At this point, I think special venue producers need to look at digital laser projection for lots of reasons, including brightness and cost savings, but also because these projectors don’t need to be housed in a big booth. You can hang them right in the theater, and their flexibility and small size open up a new world of creative possibility for 4D experiences.
|Steve Schklair behind the camera in the 1980s. Courtesy 3ality Technica.|
Sensorium, first of all. It was such a challenge, and my first 3D project. The budget was ridiculously low, and we had to solve so many technical problems. But we were just out of film school, so of course we said yes. What we were trying to achieve would have been easy in today’s digital world, but this was analog, crazy, impossible. The show included smells. We were syncing smells to the movie using a timecode hack because it was playing from a 35mm projector. It was a 15-minute tour of period America, based on Phineas Fogg, the centerpiece character of the Baltimore Power Plant. For a budget so far below $1 million that I don’t want to mention it, we shot a 3D film that required location shooting all across the US, with synchronized smells added in post. I was the DP: I co-produced and drove the truck. We’d shoot all day and stay up all night and produce. Keith Melton was director and co-producer. This was in the mid-1980s, an amazingly fertile period for themed entertainment.
"We have merged production and technology as no one else has done, and this is one of the reasons mainstream 3D took off."
Our work on Sensorium led to being hired for another huge and rewarding challenge in the 1980s - recreating the shots for a series of attraction films in which the 3D wasn’t working for Warner Brothers Movie World in Australia. They needed to replace about half the footage, and it had to be an exact match in terms of the location, lighting and color. That was one tough assignment!
More recently, we shot the film for the 4D theater at the Newseum in Washington DC, working with Cortina Productions. That project was the very first with our new 3D digital rig. We brought in Peter Anderson as DP.
My background is cinematography, film producing, special effects, 3D and digital technology: that’s kind of perfect for the special venue world. My favorite projects are where I get to solve problems and do things that have never been done before, and with 50 engineers on staff, I have the resources now that can build anything, manufacture anything, and write the code.
Where can we expect to find you at industry trade events?
I’ll definitely be at IAAPA this November in Orlando to speak with potential partners. I’m ready to meet with designers, park operators and distributors. We have merged production and technology as no one else has done, and this is one of the reasons mainstream 3D took off - because of this dialog happening right where it needs to happen. I have encouraged that. 3ality Technica engineers get to go to movie sets, see how tools get used, talk to filmmakers and find out how the tools can be made even friendlier, even faster. The possibilities for special venue are very exciting and I can’t wait to get started. • • •