The man behind Pixar's 3D films

Bob Whitehill, the stereoscopic supervisor at Pixar, is the person in charge when it comes to decisions about how to get the studio's films ready for 3D screens.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
9 min read

EMERYVILLE, Calif.--In Hollywood these days, the push to put out movies in 3D is on. In part, it's a way to get some additional marketing buzz about a film, but it's also a source of additional revenue because theaters charge a premium for showings in that format.

At Pixar Animation Studios, those rationales are not lost on executives, and when "Toy Story 3" comes out on Friday it will be offered both in 3D and the traditional 2D format. Indeed, last year Pixar worked to build up interest in the new film by promoting a special double-feature of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," both in 3D.

By this fall, there are expected to be about 5,000 3D-compatible screens across the country, up from close to 4,000 in March. And while that's a far cry from the 10,000 screens that a wide-release 2D film may be show on, there's clearly growth in 3D.

Technology, of course, is a big deal at Pixar, and there are a lot of people devoted to helping the studio break new ground with its films. And "Toy Story 3" is no different. But when it comes to making decisions about its 3D films, Pixar leans heavily on Bob Whitehill, the studio's stereoscopic (3D) supervisor. Making a 3D version of an animated film like "Toy Story 3" is no easy task, Whitehill explained to CNET in an April interview at its headquarters here. In part, that's because putting the 3D version together means that practically speaking, he and his team have to use the company's impressive computing power to render two separate versions of the film--the "left eye" version and the "right eye" version. And that, as Whitehill explains, can lead to all kinds of problems with mismatched imagery.

Whitehill spoke with CNET about a wide range of topics, including the so-called "Stereographers Mafia," a group of 3D professionals from throughout Hollywood who meet from time to time and share their collective wisdom with each other. He also admitted that Pixar sometimes leaves some 3D depth "on the table" in its bid to be cautious about how it presents its films. But with "Toy Story 3" and the wonderful short that precedes it, "Day and Night" both about to hit theaters and showcase what the studio can do in 3D, there's a good chance Whitehill and his team will soon be getting a few well-deserved pats on the back.

Q: How would you describe the difference between 2D films and those in 3D? What's the difference?
Bob Whitehill: When I see a film in 2D now, it's almost like the sound is turned down. There's something about it that keeps you at arm's length, whereas when you see it in 3D, you feel more involved, you feel like you're there more. Imagine if you're seeing a movie where characters you care about are in real peril and it's just flat on the screen and think how frightening that will be to you. But imagine if it's dimensional, and you're seeing burning trash and heat ripples or the jagged edge of a railroad trestle over a canyon. It's almost like a premium experience, almost like seeing it on a big bright screen rather than a smaller screen.

Explain how you have to make the film for the left eye and then make it again for the right eye.
Whitehill: We have a rendering group and we have this huge render farm, and creating these huge images of over 2 million pixels each is really expensive. They're just crunching math and all this brilliant programming goes into creating these images, and then we have to do it for the other eye. We basically have to do the entire movie twice. We also have to worry about those two eye views matching exactly. And there's this thing we call bit rot, where when you render a frame for the 2D version and show it to the director, and then he approves, it, and then you render the version for the other eye four days later, it can look different than the first version. Like, someone might have changed a shade, or improved Lotso's fur, so the fur looks a little better, and he checked it in on Wednesday, and then they rendered the left on Tuesday, and you rendered the right on Thursday, and now Lotso's fur doesn't match. And you can get this odd shimmering effect because your left and right eye views aren't the same. So there's a lot of care and expertise and finessing that goes into creating both eye views as swiftly and accurately and expertly as possible.

So it's just about rendering. You're not having to re-animate?
Whitehill: No, it's the rendering creation of the second eye view that's a challenge. But speaking of that, we do sometimes discover eyeline problems in 3D that aren't evident in 2D. In 2D I might be able to cheat my eyeline [because I] don't have that depth perception issue. In 3D, all of a sudden you recognize that the character isn't talking directly to the person they're talking to. So we'll have to go and fix that.

Why does that happen?
Whitehill: They chose not to worry about it in 2D because there you see more of my face, you see my far eye, which is often important, so profile shots aren't like real life. If we took a camera over here, you wouldn't see our far eyes, it wouldn't be a very good shot. And so in 2D, it looks fine and you don't recognize that depth difference. But we find quite a few of those that we need to fix. A character might lean forward, and I'll be looking behind that character instead of forward.

Is there anything different about the way Pixar does 3D than other studios?
Whitehill: I think we worry a little less about the 3D effect than about the story and emotion. And the downside of that is that I think we leave some depth on the table, so to speak. We don't go there to the nines when we could. It's kind of seasoned to taste how much 3D you like. And I think we would err on the side of caution and an easy viewing experience and fitting in with the narrative rather than trying to really accentuate the 3D. I think if you crystallize that, it's keeping stuff closer to screen, versus bringing it out into the audience space. People are going to feel more depth when something is floating out in front, but over the course of 90 to 100 minutes, we think about the kind of toll that is taking on the audience.

I've heard you say that the mindset about 3D is changing at the studios and with the directors. Do you foresee a time soon where the director will be really engaged with the process?
Whitehill: I don't know, and it's really up to individual directors. It's an odd bird because I do know that our films would be a better experience if the directors got more involved in the 3D process. But they're still a great experience in 3D anyway. We worked so hard and so many little details go into these films, and you hate to leave a stone unturned, like, what if we combined these two shots, we could make it longer, and easier to watch in 3D and it'll be super cool. You hate to see those moments and let them pass by, but the fact is, I may feel that's more important than the general audience, frankly. They're just concerned that Jessie's in danger. I do feel like the directors seem to be thinking a little more in 3D.

It's only been about two or three years that films have been produced using the new style of 3D. Are we pretty much at the state of the art, or will there be more innovation?
Whitehill: Well, I hope there's more creative innovative. Who knows what the next thing is. If we talked a decade ago, we wouldn't know about bullet-cam from "The Matrix" and stuff like that is coming and people are doing to do more in 3D than we can imagine right now. And technically, I hope that projection technology improves to get the brightest, clearest picture possible into more theaters. It's really painful to go out and see your work projected dimly, or projected into the masking. We work so hard on each pixel, and sometimes you go into a theater and you see a foot of it on the black curtains on each side and you just want to shoot yourself. I hope that we work our way into a consistent 3D space that's easy to watch and yet rewarding and don't have movies that are going hog-wild. Sky Broadcasting, the European satellite TV company, is going to do a 3D channel, and they released their parameter guidelines and said nothing should be more than 1 percent of screen width forward, or 2 percent of screen width back.

Did you agree with those parameters?
Whitehill: I did. I felt like it really backed up what we do. I said to some people who accused us of being too gentle in our parameters, Take a look at this, this is exactly what we do.

You said having characters coming out into the audience for the whole film would be exhausting?
Whitehill: Yeah, it's sort of a medical thing. Separating that point of convergence and focus for an extended period of time is draining on your eyes. There's some dispute about that, but few can question the studies that show that is hard to do, and it makes intuitive sense. You're separating your convergence distance from your focus distance and that's going to create eye strain. But you want some of those moments since those moments are important for 3D movies and that's why people paid extra money, to see depth and see something new. But it's all about tempering it and not overdoing it. I think some of my contemporaries think a close-up should be a close-up, like an emotional head and shoulder shot, should actually be closer in 3D space, and I can see the thinking behind that. But to me, having it forward actually creates eye fatigue and you're actually more removed from that moment because there's something physical going on. I'd rather have it back at screen, comfortable, so you're lost in the emotion, rather than lost in a little bit of a struggle to see it. But no one's right or wrong about it.

Are there standards developing on how to approach these things?
Whitehill: I think so. Everyone says focus on making it part of the story, make it comfortable, we don't want the gimmick of things coming into the audience, and then you go see the movies and they do exactly what they said they're not going to do. But because of the fact that everyone's talking that way, I think we're going to start seeing it reflected on the screen more and more. I think as there's more content, it would actually mellow out the 3D rather than the other way around, where people feel they have to be more aggressive and stand out.

Is there a community of people in your role? And how does it manifest?
Whitehill: There's a group of stereographers here and at Disney and Dreamworks and Blue Sky and Image Movers Digital, and we get together and have dinner at SIGGRAPH and talk about process. We call it the Stereographers Mafia, and people have been extremely generous about what they share. Pixar's been a little tiny bit late to the party. Other studios were doing it a little bit before us, and people were very generous in what they shared with us, and I'm really appreciative of that little mafia that we have.

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