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What Lies Beneath the Sea: Shooting in Stereo 3D

By Dominic Milano for Digital Innovation Gazette

Scott Cassell and Dave Faires are on a mission. Cassell is a wildlife filmmaker and underwater explorer. Faires is his director of photography. Together, they’re out to help marine researchers, educators, students and “citizen scientists” discover and safeguard what lies beneath the ocean. As Cassell puts it: “People are motivated to preserve and protect the things they understand and appreciate.”

To accomplish this, the duo has been documenting Cassell’s underwater adventures using cutting-edge digital video technology. So when Cassell attempted to break a world record by swimming underwater from Catalina Island to the California coast -- a dive of 30 miles -- they assembled a support crew and armed them with an array of 2D and S3D video cameras, which included Sony XDCAMs, Sony HXR-NX3D1Us, Panasonic AG-3DA1s, a Panasonic HDC-Z10000 and multiple GoPro 3D Hero rigs. In addition, they used Canon EOS 7D Digital SLRs to shoot both 2D still pictures and HD video. Their documentary, 30-Mile-Dive, is currently in production.

“We decided to complement traditional 2D video with stereoscopic 3D (S3D) footage because it has such a powerful effect on audiences,” says Faires. “We had cameras everywhere you looked. A Sony XDCAM caught the action above water from the deck of our boat. On the tow sled, we had 2D and S3D cameras covering Scott. The support divers used helmet cams.”

Underwater Shooting in S3D: The Challenges


Cassell learned that shooting stereo footage underwater requires a different approach than he was used to. “You really need to be aware of distance so that you can get the (stereo) convergence right,” he explains. “Instead of rushing toward things to film them, you need to keep 5-8 feet distant from what you’re shooting -- otherwise the convergence will be off. It’s really exciting to see underwater subjects in 3D. Things swim. They hover. All the debris is floating, so you really are in a 3D environment.”

Another lesson Cassell learned was that all of that floating debris can look like a snowstorm if it’s not lit properly. “S3D requires a little more light. It’s been difficult to figure out how to light things,” he says. “You don’t want too much, because you have a lot of floating particles; with more light, they look like a blizzard. So lights need to be farther away, positioned to the side and a little below where you’d normally place them. It’s been quite a learning experience, but it all makes me feel like a kid again -- something new to play with and learn.”

The team shot so much footage that it created some logistical hurdles. The cameras recorded to a variety of digital storage media with finite capacity. As the flash memory cards, SD cards and XDCAM discs filled up, a very capable production assistant transferred the content to a data repository. And to be certain they didn’t lose any footage, they copied everything three to five times.

“We had 5 or 6 terabytes of storage on the boat,” says Faires. “We had to be sure to stabilize all of the cards and hard drives so they wouldn’t go flying off the deck when the boat tossed in the waves.”

The PA logged everything, keeping track of what was shot under and above water. “We were able to use the time-stamping supplied by the Panasonic cameras to help us sort the footage,” says Faires. “But we also had to keep track of the stereo footage by carefully marking right-eye, left-eye footage. The Panasonic cameras made that easy because they record each eye to a separate memory card. The Sony HXR-NX3D, however, automatically muxed (combined) the video signal for each eye into a single file.”

Streamlining the Editing Workflow

To assemble and edit all of that footage, Faires turned to Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5. “The GoPro, Sony, Panasonic and Canon cameras all shoot HD video, but they save it in different formats. Premiere supports all those formats natively, so I could bring them into my timeline, without having to convert them to another format,” he explains. “Plus, Premiere integrates with GoPro Cineform Studio Premium -- software that allowed me to edit the stereo footage.”

“Originally, we were using Sony Vegas to import the S3D files from the Sony HXR-NX3D1Us, where we’d mute the video signal from one eye and output an XDCAM clip, bring it into Cineform and then into Premiere,” says Faires. “Having to do that for so much footage was incredibly time-consuming. But then we got hold of a prerelease version of GoPro CineForm Studio Premium, and that’s made working with our S3D footage so much easier.

The next step in their postproduction process is to take their finished work and output Digital Cinema Package (DCP) files for digital projection in theaters with RealD S3D technology. “Our goal has always been to produce, shoot, edit and finish 30-Mile-Dive in 2D and S3D for broadcast and theatrical release using cameras and lenses characteristically not designed for the cinema,” says Faires.

“We feel we have a compelling documentary on the declining state of the ocean and how we need to pay attention to her,” he adds. “If her health goes away, so do we.”

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