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

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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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20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers Movies
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Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. John Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’s 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS' WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating, “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen at the Oscars
Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, and Joel Coen celebrate their Oscar wins in 1997.
KIM KULISH/AFP/Getty Images

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001)
© 2001 - USA Films

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that features a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

A still from the Coen Brothers' 'The Ladykillers.'
Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP - © 2004 - Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination).

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

A photo of Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013).
© 2013 - CBS Films

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. “The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, ‘Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that.”

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen brothers are plenty fond of The Dude; after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

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Brush Up on Your Film Trivia With This Website Dedicated to First and Last Lines From Popular Movies
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Castle Rock Entertainment

Few elements of a film are more important than its opening and closing lines. In some cases, they divulge pivotal truths or serve as bookends to establish the movie’s overall tone. In others, they provide important context or reveal key information about the lead characters.

No matter which purpose these snippets of dialogue serve, the most iconic establishing or concluding film lines are perhaps the most quotable ones. (After all, how many Citizen Kane fans can hear the phrase “Rosebud” without being reminded of Kane’s favorite childhood sleigh?) But if you can’t remember the openers and closers from your own favorite flicks, a new website is here to help you brush up on your pop culture knowledge.

Made by the team over at AT&T Internet, the fun reference site takes iconic blockbusters and presents their first and last lines of dialogue using typography and the occasional illustration. The site “is a way to recap the last 50 years of movies into a slideshow,” communications manager Alex Thomas tells Mental Floss.

You can check out AT&T Internet’s online slideshow of first and last lines—featuring bits from 1972’s The Godfather, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, and more—here.

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