I recently featured filmmaker Jesse Blanchard’s 3D short film “Shine” on this site. Not only is it a great piece of filmmaking, it was shot with an inexpensively-built 3D rig that Blanchard designed himself. I had a great chat with Blanchard via email about his explorations in d.i.y. 3D and the exciting feature project that he is building towards…

MTM: Let’s start with the background. Tell me a bit about yourself. Did you go to filmschool? What kind of filmmaking experiences did you bring to “Shine”?

Jesse Blanchard: I am a self-taught filmmaker. I first picked up a camera about ten years ago. I went out and shot a bunch and then sat down with the manual to Final Cut Pro 2 and just started going through it.

I’ve worked professionally for the past six years or so. In that time I’ve done everything from How-To videos to shoots for Bonnaroo and Maxim Hometown Hotties.

I’ve had some personal film successes which included the short doc “The Ranch”, which premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and my zombie short “Run For Your Life” was picked by George Romero to be a bonus feature for Diary of the Dead. I was selected by Drew Barrymore for an indie director show on VH1 she produced. But I’m still doing film for other people 9-5. I haven’t been able to transition to just my own narrative projects… yet!

When did you first get excited about 3D? When did you first decide to build your own 3D beamsplitter?

I was stoked on 3D for a whole year building up to Avatar. Then I saw the movie and that was it. I was already a huge James Cameron fan and that really sealed it. I didn’t know anything about 3D so I just started reading and reading. Everything I know about film I’ve learned myself so this was just another step in the process.

“Shine” is awesome. Tell me a little about the production. How long did it take to shoot? How long to do post? What were some of the challenges you faced?

With my rig, there’s no auto focus, no real time 3D. So, you have to prepare very carefully. I also had to light the puppets really hot to shoot at f4-5.6 to keep a large enough depth-of-field but also light it so the puppeteers remained hidden.

I do a lot of prep work. So, the shoot itself went pretty smooth but we still did over 40 hours of shooting spread out over a couple days. I also can’t rack focus with the rig so I had to plan the shoot to keep the camera moving but always within the limited depth-of-field of HDSLRs.

Post was very time-intensive. One of the most difficult aspects of 3D production is rendering time. On my machine (an 8-core, 2009 Mac Pro) it would still take over an hour to render the three minutes of footage.

I actually comped everything in Final Cut Pro. I prefer After Effects for effects shots but if I can do it in FCP then I stay there. Keyframing is mind-numbing in FCP but it saves me a lot of time roundtripping. I storyboard very extensively, including animatics for my stuff, but despite that, I probably spent over 100 hours in post.

One thing that worked out great was including 2D elements at the screenplane (that is where the projection surface matches the audience’s perceived depth). I had a hunch that I could comp in certain effects in 2D as long as I was careful where they were. And sure enough, it worked just fine. Even on my big projection system, the effects integrate seamlessly.

We’ll talk about your projection system in a moment, but first I want to talk more about your dual Canon T2i camera rig. People should obviously go and watch your videos about the rig (Phase 1, Phase 2), but can you just describe a bit about your design and some of the thought process behind it?

For my rigs, I try and make the design as simple as possible and as small as possible. Both of these goals are in service of reducing errors in camera alignment. With 3D, the fewer the errors, the better the result.

For materials, I just spent a lot of time online and a lot of time in Home Depot. It was really about trying loads of stuff and seeing what worked and what didn’t. I had a four point screw platform at one point. Good idea, but didn’t work. I had a modified drawer slides in my first rig — also didn’t work.

In the end, I sought straight angles and that’s what led me to the pieces of angled aluminum which really helped a lot. The mirror I got from www.stereoscopicmirrors.com.

How difficult has it been to work within your “$100 budget” limit?

I probably spent a month or so really refining the final design. The mechanisms for aligning the cameras are pretty different from anything on the market right now. Once I had them, it went smoothly.

I say I’m ‘self-taught’ but I’ve really learned a ton from other people via the internet. I worked really hard to make a viable 3D rig for a price that other filmmakers just getting started could afford. It felt great to give a little something back to the online community.

You’ve called “Shine” a “promo short.” What’s it a promo for?

I’ve had a creature flick germinating for two years, Chompers 3D. The script is done. The storyboarding is done (over 2,500 panels!). But how to shoot this huge movie on this small budget? Because of the 3D aspect of the film, I have to make the creature as a practical puppet. In looking at the script and everything I wanted to do, I realized if I made the whole thing with miniatures/puppets, I could shoot the movie the way I have it in my head. But I needed to do a test film first because I’d never worked with puppets. “Shine” is the result. I’m really happy with how it turned out — so full steam ahead with the 3D-monster-puppet movie.

What is Chompers 3D about?

Chompers is a shape-changing monster that gets bigger and better at camouflage as it eats. It disguises itself as everyday objects — a coffee cup, a cookie jar, a trash can (always something round) and waits for its victim to place their hand or other extremity within its jaws before clamping down.

It’s written with the same pacing as Jurassic Park or The Descent. Fun, fast, a few jokes, but a relentless pace. I’m personally tired of seeing the same monsters over and over again. So, this is my attempt to surprise the audience with something new.

Besides the 3D, what are some of the other challenges you’re tackling in getting Chompers 3D off the ground?

I’ve done almost fifty indie films and the hardest part by far is getting the pieces in front of the camera. That’s why I’m so excited about making a feature with puppets. They don’t get sick, they look exactly like I want them too, the locations won’t get rained out, I won’t get kicked out of the location I don’t have permission to use…

There are still some major 3D issues that I have to figure out. Namely, what cameras am I going to shoot it with? (Do I want a 35mm sensor or a 2/3, etc.) Besides that, it’s really just connecting with other people who are excited about working on my project. I’ve made films alone before and that’s not how I want to do this one. Without money, you have to tap into people’s excitement and you have to maintain that energy for a long time.

It looks like you have some sponsors for the film. Tell me how that came about and what advice you have for filmmakers in terms of finding and partnering with corporate sponsors.

This is the first project I’ve done where I’ve worked to get support. My approach has been to talk about the project, talk about how the sponsor fits in, and promote the hell out of the people that are helping me. At this point, I’m just one of a million filmmakers trying to make a movie. So the fact that they are willing to help me out is just incredible.

But I also send business their way. I get questions all the time about my 3D set-up and it’s great to point people towards my sponsors and honestly say “This is who I use and I’m happy.”

Film Equipement – Picture This Productions Studios
Projectors – Infocus Corporation
Silver Screens – Awater 3D, Strong MDI
Circular Polarizers – API Optics
3D Glasses – Dimensional Optics

My advice to anyone seeking sponsors is: be honest, tell them the benefit of sponsoring you, and then follow through with your commitments.

I love the idea of promoting the film using custom-printed 3D glasses. Where did you order them from and what are some of the costs behind it?

I customize the 3D glasses myself. I just order plain white ones and then paint, speckle, and stamp them.

It’s expensive to send them out. It costs me almost $2 a pair. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep up with it. But for now, I really enjoy sharing them with my fans — plus how cool is it to get something in the mail!

Do you believe there is such a thing as “good 3d” and “bad 3d”?

Absolutely! 3D is not actually 3D: it’s an illusion. Just as depth in film has always been an illusion (a pretty good one, too). What’s different about 3D is that you have to present the brain with information in accordance with that illusion, a process which is really tricky. When it’s not done well the brain detects that there’s something wrong, the illusion fails, and the viewer is frustrated.

There’s bad 3D just like there’s bad audio, bad lighting, and screenwriting. For more on this, look into ‘stereoscopic occlusion’. It’s the strongest depth cue and the source of most of the problems with bad 3D.

We’re still seeing top directors dip their toes in 3D. Martin Scorsese has Hugo, Spielberg has Tin Tin and Sam Raimi has the Oz movie, to name a few that have yet to come out. Different directors seem to approach 3D in radically different ways. What is your approach and where do you think the film grammar of 3D is headed in the future?

That’s a great question. Take Spielberg and Raimi: both treat the camera very differently. Spielberg connects the dots — start with A, end with B. Next shot starts with B and gets interrupted by C. Raimi treats it like a roller coaster — start with A fly through B twist it around and end on C. I can’t wait to see how these guys tackle 3D.

What’s great is that the grammar of 3D is so new, who knows how people will use it? It is very limiting compared to 2D filmmaking and I’m excited to see how different directors tackle these limitations. I just saw Transformers 3 in 3D and they’re were a ton of ‘rules’ successfully broken in that film.

I think I will be more on the conservative and controlled side of 3D filmmaking. It’s dangerous territory now for audiences and I want them to get lost in the story not the filmmaking. Plus, I’m a believer in learning the rules and then breaking them.

You’ve not only shown how to build a 3D rig, you’ve shown how to build your DIY 3D home theater. I love that you’ve modeled it after the RealD system, which is my personal preferred 3D projection system. Is building a 3D theater something you recommend for filmmakers who want to work in 3D?

Yes. You have to watch 3D at the dimensions you intend your audience to view it at. The smaller the viewed size, the less the 3D effect — and vice-versa. Take “Shine”, viewed at fullscreen on Vimeo, the depth is okay. Viewed full-size on my 3D theater, the depth is almost too much. This will be one of the big obstacles that the medium will have to address: the varied resolutions of viewing platforms.

For filmmakers serious about big-screen 3D, it is necessary to invest in large scale playback.

What advice do you have for other indie filmmakers who want use 3D?

Get out there and start shooting. There is a lot of misinformation about 3D and you will only discover what really works for you by actively shooting in 3D. Also, here’s a big secret: You can get away with murder in post. The digital pipeline is the main reason for 3D’s revival. So, shoot what you can, and fix it in post. You can’t fix everything, but you can shoot 3D with a $100 rig and learn a ton.

Where should people go if they want to learn more about Chompers 3D and your other work?

First, go over to www.Chompers3D.com and request some free 3D shades. They can also check out my vimeo page. If they were to watch one other video of mine I would suggest “Space Bugs”. Turn up the volume and watch at fullscreen if you can.

UPDATE: “Shine 3D” will play at the 3D Film Festival in Los Angeles Sept 22-25.

Space Bugs from Jesse Blanchard

Chompers 3D Teaser (Red/Blue Glasses) from Jesse Blanchard