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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
Pole Position

by Gary Jones

An extremely popular spectator sport throughout the United States, NASCAR racing is the subject of the latest Imax documentary, NASCAR 3D: The Imax Experience. The production puts you squarely in the driver's seat, offering a three-dimensional view of what a racecar driver sees while flying around the track at speeds of up to 165 mph. "Through Imax 3-D technology," says director of photography James Neihouse, "you are no longer a spectator."

The brainchild of Imax executives Greg Foster and Doug Hylton, NASCAR 3D covers a racing season and was shot at tracks around the country. Production began in February 2003 in Daytona, Florida, and wrapped the following August in Bristol, Tennessee. Neihouse, whose numerous large-format film credits include Space Station 3D (see AC May '02), Michael Jordan to the Max and Ocean Oasis, supervised a crew that exposed more than 380,000' of 65mm negative.

Except for an opening sequence that suggests car-racing's colorful roots - moonshiners being chased by the law through the mountains of North Carolina - the film was unscripted. However, director Simon Wincer (The Young Black Stallion) prepared a detailed treatment before filming began, and that became an accurate outline for the final film. "Our goal was to create a definitive NASCAR film that will be entertaining viewers for many years," says Wincer.

Imax has only manufactured six 3-D cameras: three two-strip cameras and three single-strip cameras. However, the latter are used exclusively on films shot in outer space. The team on NASCAR 3D used two-strip cameras with serial numbers 1 and 3, in addition to an Imax 2-D Mark II camera for time-lapse shots (filmed by Neihouse) and an Imax 2-D MSM 9801 for aerial shots (filmed with a Spacecam by Phil Pastuhov).

According to Neihouse, the most popular focal lengths for 3-D work are the 30mm "Fisheye," 40mm, 50mm, 60mm and 80mm, but 110mm and 250mm lens pairs are also available. "The 250mm was used more on this film than on all other Imax 3-D films combined," he notes. "It was great for getting up close to the action, especially in the pits."

The cameras' considerable size ("a small refrigerator," says Wincer) and weight (265 pounds) made placing them in the tight quarters of a racecar no small matter. "In order to put the audience inside NASCAR Winston Cup racecars, we had to put the Imax 3-D camera into a car," explains Neihouse. "Jack Roush of Roush Racing stepped up and gave us a race car to use for the in-car shots. First AC/3-D technician Doug Lavender and key grip Dennis Zoppe worked with the Roush fabrication team and did a great job of coming up with mounts to give us the different views that Simon wanted at speeds of up to 165 mph." Adds Wincer, "I found it more interesting to deal with the big picture rather than feature any particular individual. However, of 43 drivers on the circuit, I believe we managed to feature about 30 in the film - and, of course, every car is shown."

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.