Murdo Macleod/Warner Bros.
Murdo Macleod/Warner Bros.

Namit Malhotra, the Man Who Helped Make 'Gravity' 3-D

Murdo Macleod/Warner Bros.
Murdo Macleod/Warner Bros.

For fans of in-your-face moviegoing, the difference between a 2-D film and a 3-D one is simply a matter of slapping on a pair of plastic glasses. But for the movie artists behind the rendered images, the process is a bit more complicated—especially when the 3-D movie isn’t filmed in 3-D. Case in point: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Though lauded for its groundbreaking use of 3-D, the lost-in-space blockbuster was actually filmed in two dimensions. It was up to the conversion experts at Prime Focus World—in collaboration with the VFX masters at Framestore—to change all that.

Cuarón and Gravity's producers certainly approached the right people. Before they were converting 15,531 frames of film into one of the longest stereoscopic shots in cinema history for Gravity, Prime Focus World was giving three-dimensional life to such films as Avatar, the first three episodes of Star Wars, and the recent re-release of The Wizard of Oz.

In the wake of Gravity's impressive 10 Oscar nominations—including nods for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects—we spoke with Namit Malhotra, Prime Focus World’s founder and CEO, about floating cameras, sculpting superstars, and making movies set in a galaxy far, far away.

It's become a favorite pastime of film industry insiders—and even moviegoers—to declare that 3-D is dead. Clearly you feel differently. In what ways has Gravity changed the 3-D playing field?
The film sold more 3-D tickets in its opening weekend than any other film to date (80 percent)—even more than Avatar. What this says to us is not that 3-D is dead, but that good storytelling is alive and kicking. If a story is good, and the technological and creative toolset chosen work to support that story, then the audience will love it.

At what point in the production process did you guys get involved with Gravity?

Back in 2010, executive producer Nikki Penny approached Prime Focus World with a proposition to take a single eye from a native stereo test shoot the Gravity production team had done and convert it, to allow a side-by-side comparison to be made between the native and converted footage. The test footage had been shot in a tight set, designed to replicate a space capsule, but the set was too constrictive to accommodate the bulky stereo camera rig. Director Alfonso Cuarón and producer David Heyman reviewed the results and were delighted to find that the converted shots and natively shot scenes were indistinguishable from each other. Duly impressed, the production put aside plans for a native shoot and Prime Focus World were welcomed into the creative filmmaking team as the exclusive conversion partner for the movie.

Was there any element of the planned production that gave you pause about signing on for such a complicated film?
We were in a unique position where we were brought on early in the overall process. From this early involvement, we were able to foresee the most challenging element, but also one that Prime Focus World is the most proud of tackling: the integration of the converted live action shots produced by Prime Focus World and the stereo-rendered CG that would be created by VFX supervisor Tim Webber and his team at Framestore. We were able to develop customized techniques that would make the particular technological and logistical aspects of the process easy… We were able to analyze and then streamline the immense visual and technical complexity of the sequences, integrate the processes seamlessly and virtually eliminate technical snafus, allowing everyone to concentrate all [their] attention on fulfilling Alfonso and stereo supervisor Chris Parks’ vision for the film. So, in a way, it was specifically through the opportunity to take a pause, and understand the complexity, that we were able to solve for it and ultimately make the creation of great 3-D the prime focus.

You guys pulled off the 3-D equivalent of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas tracking shot with Gravity, converting 15,531 frames into 10 minutes and 47 seconds of screen time. What was your first thought when you learned about the task at hand?
You know when you sign on to a project with Alfonso and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki that you can expect those signature long, seamless shots. To us it was immediately exciting to imagine how those long, unbroken, floating camera shots would work spectacularly well in stereo space. It’s also a tremendous feeling to know Prime Focus World is able, with flexibility and innovation, to meet these record-breaking challenges. It really allows us to ask filmmakers in earnest “What do you want to create?”, knowing that whatever that is, we can make it happen.

How much harder does a conversion become when your only actors are two of the world's most recognizable superstars?
It does not become harder at all. We put a lot of time into look development at the start of the conversion process, which includes detailed sculpting and depth mapping of character faces and environments. We used the same process to convert faces like Brad Pitt’s in World War Z and Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz, so dealing with recognizable faces is not an issue—it's part of what makes the process fun. We get to focus on bringing even more life to these characters, more of a visceral element by bringing them into the theater in a way that most filmgoers have never before been able to see.

Is it part of your job to get the science right, or do you leave that up to the director? In other words: did you feel compelled to have a firm grasp of the physics of space in order to offer scientifically sound creative solutions of what might be (or not be) possible?
With visual effects across the board there is a tremendous emphasis on believability being the benchmark. What’s great about working with stereo as a storytelling tool is that it can help use the perspective of the viewer to communicate feelings. We could use the depth to create a contrast between the vast, unending feeling of space for the exterior shots and the claustrophobia, isolation, and loneliness of the interior shots. So the science is there, but it really becomes more than the science; it is how we experience that science according to the director’s vision.

Technical teams are a bit like film editors in that the better they are at their jobs, the less the audience notices their work (which is exactly what you want). In terms of the creative elements of a film, what are some of the aspects you guys are able to control and manipulate during conversion that the average viewer may not realize?
Our integration with Framestore really allowed for seamless transitions between the rendered stereo and converted live action sequences. Alfonso’s vision for the 3-D is for the audience to feel fully immersed, as if viewers are going into space with the characters, in the capsule. So the idea is to not think about the 3-D at all, but to feel like you are there.

You guys have been involved in some of the biggest 3-D films in recent years, including a little-known film called Avatar. How has Gravity outdone Avatar in terms of pushing moviemaking technology forward?
Like Avatar, a big part of the success with Gravity is due to the fact that 3-D was part of the director’s vision for the film from the beginning. It allowed stereo to help tell the story the director wanted to tell. That is really what all moviemaking technology is all about, and we will continue to push our technology forward to meet new visions and challenges that filmmakers can dream up.

Where do you see film technology going next?
Film technology is in a continual dance with the dreams and visions of what filmmakers want to create. In a way, it’s what filmmakers want to make that will determine how technology will evolve. Gravity is proof of that. We hope Gravity inspires filmmakers to pursue what they envision, even if they are not sure the technology is there.

Shout! Factory
15 Things You Might Not Know About Mystery Science Theater 3000
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

While the rest of America was slipping into a turkey coma on Thanksgiving Day in 1988, Minneapolis area residents lucky enough to get clear reception of local UHF channel KTMA were getting the first taste of what would soon become a Turkey Day tradition: Mystery Science Theater 3000, the classic cult television show which made a sport out of mocking schlocky movies of the past. The premise was simple: two mad scientists, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch a janitor (local comedian Joel Hodgson, as Joel Robinson) into space to study the effect bad movies have on the human mind in order to determine the single film that can help them in their efforts toward world domination.

But as it turns out, human beings can withstand a whole lot of bad acting, sloppy pacing, and ridiculous dialogue. Rather than drive them to the brink of insanity, Joel and the robot friends he built while orbiting Earth—Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Gypsy, and Cambot—found a certain amount of pleasure in having to endure these B-movies, spending the bulk of the show offering their own bitingly funny analyses of the on-screen happenings. It didn’t take long for audiences to catch on, or for MST3K to migrate to a national stage.


After trying his luck on the grander Hollywood stage for a few years, comedian Joel Hodgson moved back to Minneapolis with the idea of launching his own television show. There was just one problem: he had no budget. “Basically, Mystery Science Theater came from me saying, ‘What’s the cheapest possible show I could create that would still be novel and bring something new, [and] kind of have a new angle of doing something funny?’” Hodgson told Flavorwire of the show’s origins. “It all just came together, basically, at that point when I realized it could be like hosting a movie show, and if I utilized the silhouette thing, the characters will kind of run not only through the host segments, but through the entire movie, and they’ll be, like, companions.” 


“The 3000 was a joke on all the people that were attaching the year 2000 to various programs,” said Hodgson in a 2011 interview with Art of the Title. “In the late ’80s it was everywhere: ‘America 2000’ was something that George Bush Sr. was talking about a lot so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I name it 3000 just to confound people?’ But there was a lot of confusion about it. I never meant for the show to take place in the year 3000. That simply makes no sense! If it is the year 3000, then why are all the films and the references about the end of the 20th century? For the concept of the show, it’s just a series number like Galaxie 500 or HAL 9000. Fords aren’t from the year 500 and the HAL wasn’t from the year 9000. In hindsight, I think it’s likely that the Mads were trying to snazz up the name of the show by tacking on the 3000.” 


Even after its initial debut, the creators of MST3K had no idea whether the show had connected with audiences. So writer-producer Jim Mallon (who voiced Gypsy) suggested they set up a viewer hotline and run the number during the next airing. “When we checked the answering machine on Monday, it was full,” Hodgson told Flavorwire. “So people just reacted to it.” This led Hodgson and company to set up a local fan club for the show, which quickly acquired 1000 members.


As MST3K’s popularity was rising, the fortunes of its broadcaster—KTMA—were moving in the opposite direction, which led to the show’s (first) cancellation in May of 1989. As a thank you to the many local fans who had tuned in religiously, the cast put on a live version of the show at the Comedy Gallery, which attracted an audience of more than 600.

As MST3K neared the end of its run on KTMA, the producers put together a short “best of” reel in order to pitch it to other networks. The show caught the attention of executives at The Comedy Channel, a brand-new, 24-hour comedy network owned by HBO, which premiered on November 15, 1989. Three days later, Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its national debut as one of the channel’s anchor programs.


While the bulk of The Comedy Channel’s programming was produced on site in New York City, the channel agreed to let Hodgson and Mallon continue shooting in Minneapolis. They did, however, spruce up the look of the show with new sets, revamped robots, and a new opening title sequence. 


Shout! Factory

The early episodes of MST3K were ad-libbed, but in 1989, Hodgson decided that the show should take a turn for the scripted. As part of this change, Hodgson hired writer (and future host) Michael J. Nelson. “I hired Mike based on his act at an open mic and a recommendation from Josh [Weinstein],” Hodgson told Mental Floss. “Also writing the eps was my call.”


MST3K became Comedy Central’s signature series, with executives nearly doubling its run from 13 to 24 episodes per year in 1991. On Thanksgiving of the same year it launched what would become an annual event: a 30-hour MST3K marathon that came to be known as “Turkey Day,” featuring back-to-back episodes plus behind-the-scenes spots and interviews. In the four years it ran, several of the stars of the films the series mocked—including Adam West (star of Zombie Nightmare), Robert Vaughn (of Teenage Cave Man), and Mamie van Doren (of Untamed Youth and Girls Town)—hosted “Turkey Day.” In honor of the show’s 25th anniversary, Hodgson brought back “Turkey Day” in 2013. For 2017, the marathon will stream via Shout! Factory, beginning at 12 p.m. ET.


After sitting through his final test of cinematic endurance (Mitchell, starring Joe Don Baker—a skewering that led Baker to claim that if he ever met anyone from the show he would “kick their asses”), Joel managed to escape the Satellite of Love with the help of an office temp, Mike Nelson, who the Mads then captured in place of Joel. In a 1999 interview with The A.V. Club, Hodgson admitted that his decision to leave the show was because of disagreements with Jim Mallon. “You can't really be fighting with someone and doing all the stuff you have to do,” said Hodgson. “I think what made the show work for me was that I really loved it. I really liked the audience, and the whole process was ... I was really happy doing it, and I realized that I'd turn into Jerry Lewis or something if I started to kind of hate it. And that was starting to happen, just because of these conflicts I was having internally with Jim … The thing would have blown up if we both would have stayed there. I like to look at it like the story of King Solomon, when the baby was brought before him.”


Viewers put pen to paper and began a massive letter-writing campaign to save the series. The fan outburst didn’t change Comedy Central’s mind, but executives at the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) understood their plight. And so on February 1, 1997, MST3K began its eighth season on its third network. The episode introduced audiences to Professor Bobo, an ape from the year 2525.

In 1999, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was cancelled again, and fans once again launched a campaign to see the show resurrected, with Entertainment Weekly reporting that “efforts to save the show include more than a dozen ‘Save MST3K’ websites, a letter-writing push, and a pledge drive for ‘Save MST3K’ print ads.” The campaign led to a full-page ad in Daily Variety, but Sci-Fi Channel decision-makers remained unmoved, with then-VP of programming Bonnie Hammer citing low ratings coupled with the rising costs of securing film rights (for movies to be ridiculed by the cast) as the problem. Sensing the end was truly near, Nelson admitted: “I'm hoping to find a rich guy to just keep me in his living room and heckle live.” 


In 1996, Jim Mallon and writers Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy released the ultimate fan guide, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. In it, Murphy shares the story about meeting his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and telling him about the show and its premise. Vonnegut was not impressed, telling Murphy that every artist deserves respect, even those who produce a bad movie. Still, Murphy couldn’t resist the opportunity to invite Vonnegut out to dinner, which the author politely declined, stating he had other plans. At dinner that night, Murphy and Vonnegut ended up dining at the same restaurant—except Vonnegut was alone, prompting Murphy to admit that he had been “faced ... but nicely faced.”


Frank Zappa was an admitted monster movie fanatic, and wasn’t shy about his love of Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its run. A 1997 article in Total TV Online noted: “MST3K … made the late Frank Zappa an instant convert when he channel surfed into ‘this guy wearing a clown nose and a beanie copter roasting a puppet over an open fire.’ The clown was now-departed (and much beloved) Founding Father Joel Hodgson; the roasted puppet was plucky Tom Servo; and Zappa was equally bemused by the cinematic turkeys being roasted for the main course. ‘He just loved crummy old science fiction movies,’ says writer and voice of Servo Kevin Murphy, who thought ‘Frank Zappa on line one’ was a joke until he picked up the phone.” The show’s producers and Zappa had even discussed plans to collaborate on a giant spider movie; episode 523 was dedicated to Zappa following his passing. 


On November 5, 2007, Mallon debuted an animated Web series, The Bots Are Back!, which followed Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy’s adventures in space. Fan response was not positive, and only four episodes were ever released.


While not every filmmaker whose worked featured on the series was happy about the development, Hobgoblins director Rick Sloane came to see the positive side of the skewering. "I met Mary Jo Pehl a number of years later and she said I was the only director who ever liked the MST3K treatment of their own film," Sloane told Esquire. "They improved the film dramatically. It was barely watchable in its original version. While I enjoyed every joke that was at an actor's expense, I was seriously horrified when they did the fake interview with me over the end credits. It's become a fan-favorite joke and is constantly quoted on the Internet." But there was an upside to the notoriety: Hobgoblins became so widely known, that it led to the opportunity for a sequel. "I admitted from day one that Hobgoblins 2 was only possible because of the success of MST3K's revival of the original," said Sloane. "I submitted Hobgoblins 2 to both Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, but they both thought it was too easy of a target."


MSTing” is a practice that exists in the fan fiction universe, typically written in a transcript format, in which the characters of one piece of fic (or MST3K’s own characters) commentate another piece of fic. The process is also referred to as sporking.


When new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 stopped being produced, the original cast kept riffing. In 2006, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett introduced a Web series called RiffTrax, which allows customers to download commentary tracks to sync with a movie. Throughout the year, the group also presents several RiffTrax Live performances at cinemas around the country. In 2007, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl launched Cinematic Titanic, offering a selection of riffed DVDs and a series of live events.

In 2017, a new generation of fans were introduced to Mystery Science Theater 3000 when—after a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring the series back—Netflix debuted Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, with Jonah Ray hosting.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2013.

TAKWest, Youtube
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]


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