2D to 3D Conversion Technology and Chinese Films Industry
- Interview with Lumiere Winner Keith Collea

Keith Collea came to China in 2010 to bring America’s knowledge of filmmaking to China to help the growing industry here. He trained crews and brought technology to several China productions. He taught classes at Beijing Film Academy and seminars at the China Society of Cinematographers and China Film Group. He sat on panels at the 2013, 2016 and 2017 Beijing International Film Festival and was keynote speaker at 2012 3D China Expo. While in China he helped produce THE MONKEY KING 2010-2014, FOX LOVER 2013,LEGENDARY: The SHOCATE 2012, 2012,Jiang Wen’s GONE WITH THE BULLETS and Wanda’s Mojin – The Lost Legend, for which he received the 2017 AIS Lumiere award for his 3D Stereo VFX work.

From 1994 through 2005, before coming to China, Collea worked for all the Los Angeles studios; Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal and Sony as a supervisor on the biggest blockbusters of that era including INDEPENDENCE DAY, TITANIC, PEARL HARBOR, THREE KINGS. Collea worked with many famous directors including Rob MInkoff, Roland Emmerich, James Cameron, Michael Bay and Michael Mann.

Collea co-founded visual effects and production company Particle 81 in 2016 and become the COO and Producer of the company. By working closely with Hollywood award-winning visual effects masters, Particle 81 is dedicated to produce the best visual effects and scenes for projects, including film, television, advertisement, brand marketing, game and immersive experience.

The development of 3D technology

CFM: As a 3D conversion expert, could you give us a brief introduction of the development of 2D to 3D conversion technology?

KC: After AVATAR, there was a huge interest in making 3D movies, because AVATAR broke every record, and was very economically a good idea. A lot of people feel that its success was because it was a 3D movie. So the next big movie from Hollywood that was coming out was called CLASH OF THE TITANS in March 2010. The producers saw that the ticket prices for AVATAR cost so much more per ticket because it was 3D that they thought how to make this movie a 3D moviee because they felt that the same number of people would go to see the movie, and this way they would get more ticket price. So there was a visual effects company in India who spent a couple million dollars to do a really fast cheap 2D-3D conversion on the CLASH OF THE TITANS. All they wanted was to increase the ticket price because they felt that the same number of people would go to see the movie, and this way they would get more ticket price.

The very first conversion was rushed, and was done by a company that had never done it before, so it was done in a really bad way. After that everybody went crazy, and said this is the worst thing they’ve ever seen in their lives, and everybody hated 3D. Then for 3 or 4 years in Hollywood, it became cool to say I hate 3D and 3D started to struggle. People started to say how much better it was to shoot in 3D as compared to conversion.

It took several years for people who were in visual effect community to learn how to make a better conversion so that they could make a 2D movie into a 3D movie look really good. Then everybody thought that 3D movies were going to take over the television companies who were selling 3D TVs, and everybody started doing 3D conversion because they wanted to be able to buy libraries of Hollywood old movies and do a 3D conversion on them so that they can get a re-release on the televisions and gain extra money on the re-release. So everything was driven by economics rather than as the form of making a better movie and being expressive.

Now the conversion has matured to a point where the people that are making the 2D to 3D conversions are really good. There are only three companies left worldwide. And they get all of the big movies, but they are very expensive. Now, in China, there are a lot of companies that are doing what was done in America several years ago, and there are a lot of real cheap conversions because the Chinese producers want to do the same thing— charging more money in box office. JASON BOURNE was a 2D to 3D conversion, and everybody got sick, and on all media platforms people talked about how they were sick of 2d to 3D conversion companies doing a real cheap conversion just so that producers can charge more money.


Storytelling and technology application

CFM: How do you think of the relation between storytelling and 2D to 3D conversion application in a film?

KC: The history of the conversion was mainly motivated by economics. It wasn’t done as artistic, and that killed 3D because 3D could have blossomed and the technology could have advanced to where you don’t need the glasses. It could have got to point where 3D is a lot like how we see the world. The more realistic we see in the media, the more we are able to have emotional exchange with the characters and the story, because that’s how we see the world.

In the beginning, there were cave paintings, the cave man used a rock and scratched an image on the cave wall. That was the beginning of media, and that was the beginning of storytelling. Then that led itself to painting, the painting evolves to give us the photograph, and all of these are the advancements of storytelling, to the point where then we added movement to the pictures. And that looked like motion because that’s how we see the world. And then we added sound because we hear the world, and then we added color because we see the world in color, and then we added 3D, because we see the world in 3D. But there was such a rush to add 3D that they ruined it by making bad 3D. So what we are trying do is we have tried to make really good 3D for artist purposes. We feel that by more realistically expressing your story much how we see the world that there is a better connection with the audience when they are watching their story, so that we can help people tell a better story by making it more realistic.

If you do 2D to 3D conversion, and you don’t get your conversion correctly, then I know something is wrong. So you can’t make a bad 3D conversion, and expect the audience to have a better experience, but you can charge them more money. So there was a backlash, and that’s what destroyed the advancement of 3D, which was because everybody just start to say I don’t like 3D and I don’t want to pay more money to see a 2D movie that had a terrible conversion now. So it’s up to people and companies like our company to try to make the best 3D. For example, in a 2D movie, when it’s 20 feet away, it’s like you’re in the other room, and then if I see you pinch yourself over there, I don’t feel as much pain. But if in 3D, I can take you out of the screen and bring you closer to the audience and you resemble a real human with the same roundness in your head, body, and in the space. Then I will feel the emotion that you were feeling. So what we are trying to do is trying to make the story better through 3D, not just charge more money.


Compared with shooting directly with 3D 

CFM: what about the advantages and disadvantages of 2D to 3D conversion compared with shooting directly with 3D ?

KC: By shooting directly you can make good 3D actually cheaper. But that means you have extra people on the movie set, bigger cameras, and more tracks. So even though you might be able to make a better picture and it could be cheaper compared to a conversion, people went there shooting a movie already is a very difficult thing to do, you have sometimes 60~70 people helping you on the movie set all over the place. We’ve been making 2D movies for a long time. The experienced directors and cinema photographers know how to make a 2D movie and they don’t want to learn how to make a 3D movie, especially when they have to shoot a movie that is difficult in the first place anyway. So in many cases, the director doesn’t want to complicate the actual shooting and rather than learning something new, and embrace the filmmaking process of the new art form, they just want to make 2D movies. If the producers want a 3D movie, you do it in post.

Only some filmmakers who are brave would choose to shoot in 3D, like Ang Lee who shot LIFE OF PI in 3D, and did the same thing with BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, and used high frame rate, high dynamic range in 3D. This is another step forward in the evolution of the movie-making process that will eventually closely resemble how we see the world, and it’s not so that we can simulate the world, it’s just that you as a viewer will feel more comfortable watching the image and can become more involved, related to, immersed and feel like being actually there, so that then we can manipulate the world in such a way to express emotional feeling into the audience, and they go on the emotional journey.


Particle 81 and its pipeline system

CFM: What is Particle 81’s strength and contribution to Chinese film industry?

KC: There are different levels of 3D conversion. You can get a C grade, a B grade, or an A grade. Obviously Avatar would be an A grade. But in China, a lot of the movies can’t afford an A grade. What we do is instead of having a China 3D company do the conversion, we have our partners all over the world. Some of them are the best, for example, they do BAT MAN and SPIDER MAN. We have the important shots of the movie done with the big companies. We have the basic 3D for some of the scenes that aren’t so important. We will have that done in China. And then there are other places in Eastern Europe, India, where we have the fast motion stuff, the more shallow 3D that moves quickly that you can’t appreciate the 3D, we can have those done in some of the cheaper places, so by working with us, you can have what seems to be the same quality as a big Hollywood movie, but paying more like the Chinese prices. Because what we built here in our company is a pipeline that allows us to have access to all of these venders through our computer systems, and it’s almost like our servers are right here in China.

So our contribution to the new technology is our pipeline system. The pipeline is allowing Chinese movies to have access to all of the best visual effects companies in the world. We have special deals with all these companies that we can get a better price, we have the pipeline right into their workers and their spaces, so we have enough vendors and we have some better deals. We also work with companies and countries that have tax incentives, so part of the 3D conversion you do with us, you’ll even get some money back.

We are bringing the industry’s best people, like Oscar winner Ian Hunter, to this visual effects companies, and elevate the quality of visual effects in the China market, so we will come up with something more carefully crafted, but we are the new company, and we want people to know that we are trying to change the way in business model for the visual effects industry.


Thoughts on Chinese film industry

CFM: You’ve been working in China since 2010, so what is your thought on the Chinese film industry and the difference between working with Chinese film companies and working with Hollywood companies?    

KC: Chinese film market is growing, maturing and getting better and better every year. I did Love the movie that were made in the late 80s, 90s with Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang, and Chen Kaige. Then the movies started becoming more commercial and less emotional from the heart, which were really trashy, but now they are coming around again, like MOJIN, which I thought was a wonderful movie and could be a western blockbuster. Wu Ershan did a great job. Chen Kuofu is a brilliant filmmaker. I think he embodies the modern Chinese filmmakers now. He is a writer, a creative producer and a visionary. He teams up with directors, and makes directors better directors. Daniel Yu is another creative producer. And these are really smart producers that are able to see talent. On the other hand, I think the stories are starting to get better, and people are starting to make better stories. And I think it’s just a matter of time before China movies are able to start traveling abroad.

In Hollywood, we’ve been making movies for a hundred years, and we’ve developed a system that works really well that has evolved and changed in order to continuously make things better. China may be making movies in a modern way for 10 years, and yet the business model is starting to catch up. So you have early movies being made as art, now you have movies being made for business reasons and it’s sort of loss the art, but the art doesn’t have the business model to be able to support the making of artistic movies. So it is starting to come together, and the movies now are being made in such a way that they are supporting the filmmakers to make better art, but making them in a more economical and smart way, which is what we were doing in Hollywood.


3D technology in Chinese film industry 

CFM: How do you think of the 2D to 3D conversion technology application in Chinese film market now? What are the challenges?

KC: In China, the challenges of 3D technology are finding companies who can appreciate the value of how 3D can enhance the story, as opposed to producers who only think of 3D as money making machine. It is taking all of the art out of it. A lot of people just say many movies don’t need to be in 3D,but what I am saying is all movies can be better in 3D if they are done well. Because 3D can help express an emotional message to the audience more easily facilitating the audience to be able to feel that emotion that the actor is trying to express.

We have certain actors that we say are the better actors. The reason is because when they’re acting, we are more able to feel what they are feeling, because actors are feeling sad or happy, and they take us with them, and some actors are more charismatic. We believe them is because we know how to feel, but if you put a different actor in same role with same lines and situation, we may not because some people are able to express and have the audience share their feelings than others. 3D helps that. Then those actors can have an easier avenue into the hearts of the audience members. And they were more easily to be able to feel their pain, joy, and share their feelings.

Then it’s a challenge to find filmmakers who are willing to take on a new way of telling stories, like Ang Lee, Jean Jeunet, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron. These are brave filmmakers, and that’s a challenge to be able to find filmmakers who are comfortable enough with their talents to be able to tell stories in new and different ways, using new technologies like 3D.

Film industry is the kind of business where you can buy magic. You can buy all the technologies that you want. And like the last Zhang Yimou movie, THE GREAT WALL, they have 250 million US dollars to spend on all the best technology. The problem is all the other Chinese companies don’t have that kind of money, so the question is how can these smaller Chinese film companies be able to afford the same technology to take advantage of the technology.

That’s where you need to have experienced people like us, who can bring it down to the level of the smaller Chinese movies in such a way that can make it more affordable for them, instead of just snapping finger and throwing money. We need more people in China helping the Chinese filmmakers not get ripped off by the technology, but achieve better shots by giving suggestions on how they can achieve. That’s the key thing right now until China gets a little bit more experienced. Years ago, it was very difficult to find some visual effect companies. In 2010, when we worked on the MONKEY KING, we brought over Hollywood team, and the people that work for the Hollywood team, afterwards, started their own company from what they learned. And now they are as good as some of the people in Hollywood. So I think it’s just by bringing both the Hollywood people together with Chinese people that the Chinese people are very fast learners and within several years, I won’t have any work anymore, and it’ll all be done in China.

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