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‘Jurassic Park': How a 2D Movie Becomes a 3D Movie

Today, moviegoers across the country will have the opportunity to see a 20-year-old movie on the big screen — and with an extra dimension to boot. Jurassic Park 3D is the latest case of a two-dimensional movie getting the three-dimensional (or “stereo”) treatment, following in the footsteps of several Disney titles and last year’s 3D re-release of Titanic. Since this is a new process, one that’s not yet been painstakingly demystified by DVD extras and behind-the-scenes reports, it seems, frankly, to be some sort of witchcraft; how do they take a movie that was finished two decades ago and transform it into a 3D experience? Luckily, we were able to get William Sherak to break it down for us.

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Sherak is the president of Stereo D, the company responsible for the 2D to 3D conversions of Jurassic Park and Titanic, as well as more recent titles like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and The Green Hornet. It is, as he explains it, a multi-tiered process, attempting to merge both creative and technological considerations. It starts with a creative meeting with the filmmaker, in which they watch the movie film together, discussing it scene by scene and point by point: “What are you looking for, what do you want from this, how do you want it to work?” For Jurassic Park, that meant a long sit with Steven Spielberg, which Sherak defines as “the most awesome meeting of my life… I’m sitting in a screening room with Steven Spielberg watching Jurassic Park on mute and talking through how he did the movie 20 years ago. Just as a fan, I mean, talk about a cool meeting! You try and do that as many times as you can just ‘cause you wanna relive it again and again and again.”

Next comes a step that will warm the hearts of film preservation advocates: a full 4K digital scan of the original negative, followed by a restoration to eliminate scratches, grain noise, and other natural artifacts incurred in the 20 years since its completion. And then the conversion begins, which breaks into four basic steps:

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  1. Rotoscoping. This is the process, according to Sherak, of “literally isolating on the computer, tracing every single image in the frame so that we can then assign depth to it. And when I say every image, I’m actually talking, you’re isolating somebody’s nose separate of their cheek — so that the nose can play further from the cheek — down to every drop of rain during the rain sequence, during the storm, every move is isolated.” They do that for every single frame: 24 frames per second, 1440 frames per minute, equaling 182,880 frames for the 127-minute Jurassic Park.
  2. Depth map. “This is where real artistry comes in,” Sherak explains. “This is where hundreds of artists sit down with every frame and they assign depth where we believe Steven will be happy, so we create depth of every frame — meaning we isolate every image. You place it in space, and then you create internal volume inside each of the items individually as well. So a body is not just separated from the chair it’s sitting on, you then have to give that body volume as well.”
  3. Creative feedback. When the depth map is complete, the filmmaker — in this case, Spielberg — comes back in to take a look and approve it. “Steven watches it and gives notes on how he likes the depth,” says Sherak. “Is he happy with our choices? Does he want us to make changes? What would he like, you know, I want this out more, I want this dinosaur to feel bigger, I want this glass of water to have less volume so that you’re really focusing on the person that’s holding the glass, all of those.” After all, “it’s the first time he’s seeing his movie in 3D.”
  4. Painting. Once Spielberg and the conversion artists are happy with the depth on every frame (“Yes, every single frame,” Sherak laughs) they begin the cleanup process. “When you assign depth to something that was 2D,” he explains, “there’s missing information in the frame. Right? If I create volume in your head from a 2D photograph, the side of your head you could never see before is now visible, because now there’s volume so that information on the side of your head is stereo noise on the frame, a bit blurry, so we now have to go and clean all of that up. And that’s what’s called the painting process.”

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The filmmaker continues to give feedback on the work (“Steven might watch the shot five times until every note is addressed”); once they think they’ve got it down, they’ll run the film on a giant screen to check for little imperfections that they might’ve missed on their smaller screens and computer monitors. In the case of Jurassic Park, a new sound mix was created for the 3D re-release, and voila: project completed.

For this project, Sherak says, the process took a total of about nine and a half months, with more than 700 people on the job. Contrary to what you might think, the film’s age didn’t make it a particularly difficult conversion: “The challenges in this film were not because it was old. The challenge in the film was because – remember when we talked about the rotoscoping process? The challenge in this film is that it took place in a jungle with a rainstorm.” That means isolating every drop of rain — and that’s rain that was created practically, on the set, not in a computer after the fact (as might have happened were the film made today). “In today’s world you’d be given the visual effect,” Sherak says, “and then we’d just dimensionalize the CG rain that’s already technically in 3D and then we’d just add volume to it, because the CG raindrop is created in the 3D program inside a computer.”

With Jurassic Park in theaters today, Sherak is plenty busy, in the midst of 3D work on the upcoming Star Trek sequel, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, and Iron Man 3. Those were all films initially intended for stereo exhibition (unlike Jurassic Park of G.I. Joe), but Sherak stresses that, contrary to the negative connotations that have sprouted around some post-conversions, “we still convert the movie after it’s shot. You still have to let them capture the image. The difference is, yes, we were involved from the beginning.” They’ve got people on set, working with the filmmakers during production; “they’re making the decision before they shoot but they’re saying I want more leeway later so I’m gonna shoot the movie in 2D, then we’ll convert it later but knowing 100% from day one that it will be 3D.” But these conversions of older films are a dream come true for a movie lover like Sherak. “When we sat with Steven and he was talking about lens choices – I mean, 20 years later, how many movies… he remembered the lens! This was a 45 mil. Wow. Like, really? You can tell me every lens choice from that film? I’m the film geek who watches the behind the scenes on the DVD extras, right? So I got to do it for real.”

Jurassic Park 3D is out today in wide release.

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