I’m very fortune to welcome to the Stereoscopy Blog Berlin-born director, cinematographer, and photographer Sebastian Cramer. An acclaimed 3-D expert, he has received numerous awards for his artistic works and technical inventions. In 2013, Cramer began his Two Views project, a contemporary expression of traditional stereo photography, which was released as a book recently.
My tiny mind was blown when I read the draft for Sebastian’s blog post; it’s amazing to hear the inside perspective in the 3-D film industry leading up to Avatar and beyond, and the complications and innovations in filming in 3-D. It’s also interesting to read his motivations for his projects and passions in stereo. Thank you so much Sebastian!
My long and winding road to Stereo Photography
by Sebastian Cramer, 05.01.2023
BLACK I – Opuntia dillenii, Sweet Prickly Pear, 2019, from the TWO VIEWS on Plants project
I would like to say a few words about my stereoscopic photo work and my book TWO VIEWS on Plants which has been published recently. I have been thinking how to start and what I should or could say. As this is a stereo blog, I’d like to speak a bit about how it all began for me and about an aspect which hasn’t been covered here much so far: the film industry.
This is where I come from. I have been working as a director and/or director of photography since the early nineties mostly in commercials. The nineties were the golden age of advertising with good budgets and often interesting and innovative ideas. But the market changed a lot latest after 9/11 and we were facing much more control, less experimentation and hefty cuts in budgets.
I always felt film should be constant learning, it should push the limits and explore new territories, so I was really interested when a producer called me sometime in summer 2009 and said his client would like to shift more or less the entire production to 3D, which was supposed to be the new big thing. He asked me to find out how this all could be handled, technically and creatively. His client was Red Bull.
Back then, summer 2009, it was still about six month before the release of Avatar, which came out in December 2009, but you could sense there was something in the air and on big film trade shows like the NAB in Las Vegas or the IBC in Amsterdam, some manufacturers where already showing their first 3D rigs to the industry. It was obvious stereo could be the next major thing in film. How exciting! I saw a few of the early 3D-films in theaters back then and was completely fascinated with the possibilities of depth being introduced to the storytelling of film.
Those professional 3D-rigs were very expensive back then. With all the accessories you were easily looking at 50.000 Euros per unit, but of course this is without cameras and lenses, of which unfortunately two were needed for each setup as well.
At some point I had the stupid idea to setup my own company to design and built stereo rigs for the industry. Looking back, I must say, I probably was a bit naive, but I thought, I will never be able to buy multiple rigs from other manufactures, simply because they are too expensive, so better built them yourself. It’s still a lot of money involved, but finally it’s at least under your own control. A few weeks later I took all my savings and founded my company Screen Plane.
Screen Plane mirror rigs on the set of „Measuring the world“, 2011
I must say, I wasn’t a complete newbie in designing film gear, as I had invented and designed a small camera dolly for macro shots a few years before, the Skater-Dolly, which had gotten me a technical Academy Award® and an Emmy Award® a year earlier. I had the feeling I knew what I was doing, with the benefit that I was using the gear myself, making it as user friendly as possible.
When Avatar came out in December, the craze began… 3D was everywhere. And everything was needed immediately: 3D rigs, 3D Monitors, stereo multiplexers, to combine the streams from the two cameras, lens controllers and so much more. Production companies were pushing their projects from 2D to 3D, business advisers explained how much bigger the box office would be for a stereo film. But it was not only the hardware which was in high demand. There was an even bigger craze in regards of crews. The medium was so new, you couldn’t find a lot of experienced stereo crew members who had been doing this for many years.
New jobs, like a stereographer or a rig technician suddenly popped up out of nowhere. “A stereo… what? What is he supposed to do?” producers asked. It was pretty insane, most often those stereographers were quite young guys, who suddenly had to give advice to a Director of Photography who had been doing his job for decades, and who was not interested in getting any advice from a greenhorn at all. Stereographers were in such high demand in those early days, that they often earned as much as an experienced cinematographer.
Quite a lot had to be explored within almost no time, both on the technical and the creative side. The stereo rigs needed to meet the high expectations from production companies. In order to adjust the stereo from shot to shot the interaxial distance needed to be adjustable. Therefore there was no alternative to mirror rigs at all. One camera was filming into this semi-transparent mirror the other camera through it. The stereo base could be adjusted from zero to 10cm.
“Steady-Flex” 3D rig with Arri Alexa M cameras, I had designed for the film industry in 2010/2011
For a portrait a stereo base of only one or two centimeters is needed, while landscapes require a much bigger one. The demands on the quality of the mirrors were extremely high, as they sometimes had slight color shifts or differences in polarization. For a while some companies used mirrors with an „organic“ coating, which was the hottest thing back then. Unfortunately this coating was extremely fragile and degraded quickly, so sometimes those mirrors had to be replaced more then once a day, at an insane price of roughly 10.000 USD per unit.
Of course all lens motors had to do exactly the same movement, to make sure the focus was not different from one eye to the other, same for the iris, and of course for the zoom, with an even bigger complexity as the zooms could lose their centre, and drift to the side. The cameras had to be perfectly in sync to ensure both cameras were filming the image exactly in the same moment.
On the prep for a stereo production rental houses were asked to provide up to six or seven identical lenses of each focal length by the same manufacturer, sometimes even from the same batch, in order to pair the best matching lenses in a pretty time consuming process.
And of course all those 3D-rigs needed to be very lightweight and extremely sturdy at the same time. No one accepted a camera setup which would shift its alignment, when the cameras, for instance, looked down on a top shot, or were moving fast.
Screen Plane Production Rig on a Flight Head V on a shoot for a car commercial, 2012
But aside from all these technical aspects, I was more fascinated by the creative aspects of stereo in film. What can stereo imaging add to the story telling? How can you maintain a continuity in the depth from wide angles to close ups? A so called „natural roundness“ is achieved, if, for instance a face appears not stretched or condensed. How does the interaxial distance have to be modified, to keep the same roundness, when you cut to a different focal length? And how important is the size of the screen? It’s obvious that the stereo perception in the front row of a theatre is only half as strong than in the back rows with twice the distance to the screen. How should it be adjusted if the work is intended to be used in theatres and on TV Screens at the same time?
There had been discussions if the point of convergence (or so called screen plane) has to be identical with the point of focus and what should happen if the focus is shifted? Is the best stereo achieved if the cameras are setup in parallel or converged? These discussions sometimes almost felt like a religiously serious matter.
The creative aspects and questions of stereo in film were almost endless. Is it ok to have a shallow depth of field, or is it important to keep everything sharp in stereo? Can you dissolve from one scene to the other, or do fast cuts? How do you deal with foreground elements? Do they need to be repositioned in order to use the depth budget in a more efficient way? What about the edges of a frame? Is it ok if elements stick out of the frame on the sides? Are there ideal focal lengths for stereo photography, or, on the contrary, are there lenses that wouldn’t work at all?
Screen Plane Production Rig with zooms on a set on the top of a vulcano in Stromboli / Italy, 2012
To me this was an exciting time. It felt like after more than hundred years of film, a lot of rules needed to be readjusted or modified. It seemed this could be the time for exploration and experimentation, I had looked for a long while.
But in the long-run, only very few directors and cinematographers really embraced this opportunity and were willing to explore the new possibilities. To name two, Wim Wenders and Ang Lee are definitely among them. I had the chance to work on several projects with Wim Wenders and I remember almost a full week of test shoots prior to a feature film, just exploring new aspects of 3D. He did tests on things like this: how do falling snow flakes look in stereo? Should they be blocked away on close distances in front of the lens? What shutter angle is the best? Is it possible to do a travelling zoom in stereo, where you track in and zoom out at the same time, and how does this affect the space?
I felt overwhelmed with all these aspects, as all of them required quick answers, because they where often related to actual projects and most likely there wasn’t a budget nor the time to sort this out properly.
In the midst of all these creative questions, I started to look into the world of photography, curious how theses creative issues were addressed there. Coming from the craze of 3D in film, I was completely surprised that there were no answers at all, simply because those questions had never been raised in photography. It felt like a shock to me, because it used to be one of the most successful genres in photography in the 19th century. Actually there was almost no serious contemporary approach to stereo photography at all. What a surprise!
Clematis vitalba, Old Man’s Beard I, 2017 from the TWO VIEWS on Plants project
I finally started experimenting with stereo still photography, finding out, that the rules of cinema needed to be readjusted for this medium again. It was clear from very beginning, how much I liked large format photography and high resolution images. The only way to translate this to paper prints was to work in anaglyph. But anaglyph is not very pleasing to the eye at first sight and has a certain tendency for ghosting.
Therefore I started to research if and how these strange color fringes could be translated into something visually interesting and if and how ghosting could be minimized.
It is very easy to create an interesting stereo image. In most cases it’s just looking good, simply because it’s satisfying to the brain and eye to see something in 3D. But you wouldn’t want to ask your guests to put on some glasses on a dinner party to see prints in stereo. So, to me it was the most important part on this entire project, to create an equally interesting image when viewed in 2D. I consider those coloured edges as some sort of a secret, which is embedded into the image and contains underlying information, which actually is the coded depth, creating its own beauty.
WHITE VII – Ancistrocladus hamatus, Gona Wel, 2019
From the different series I have worked on, it seemed to me the flowers, plants and historical preparations were the most timeless, and I decided to group them together into my book TWO VIEWS on Plants, which was released a few weeks ago.
There is an article with some insides on this book a bit further down on this blog.
If you are curious how the film projects and my stereo company has turned out on the long run, here’s a little update: I still work on 3D film projects as a stereographer or cinematographer and have been lucky to be involved in creatively interesting projects.
Photography gives me a freedom, which is hard to achieve in world of film, due to it’s economic restraints. But all the complicated technical gimmicks of professional stereo rigs can be ignored when it comes to photography. If working sequentially, anyone can shoot and explore this amazing world with an iPhone or any single-lens camera. And I can only encourage everyone to do so, as it’s truly fascinating.
I love to continue my work as a photographer and will keep working in stills, not necessarily just in stereo, but who knows …
TWO VIEWS on Plants, both the white and black edition are combined in one turn-around-book.
Some additional information can be found here:
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