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.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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