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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
Immersed in Van Helsing's World

by Douglas Bankston

You may catch glimpses of the inner workings of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory while watching Van Helsing in a darkened movie house, but why not tour the massive and intricately detailed lair at your leisure? New Wave Entertainment located in Burbank, California, in partnership with the Tennessee duo of iPIX in Oak Ridge and Samstag Productions in Knoxville, is bringing virtual set tours of the maniacal doctor's lab and other Van Helsing sets to your home as part of the "added value content" for the film's DVD release, as commissioned by Universal Home Video.

The three companies have been working together since 2001 to bring motion to iPIX's immersive technology solutions, which are found in the increasingly common 360-degree still-photo online house tours designed for realtors and prospective home buyers.

"What's on Dr. Frankenstein's lab table?" asks Jeffrey Lerner, senior producer at New Wave. "The filmmakers have worked so hard on the sets, and the detail is amazing, but it goes by so quickly when you're watching it in a theater. Now you can take your time, walk around and see things that are in the periphery. This [DVD feature] gives you the opportunity to explore that world yourself."

Director of photography Michael Samstag has been working with iPIX to integrate motion photography into the company's process. "With these types of tours for Van Helsing," he adds, "you show off the production designer's work, and you get to see parts of the set that you will never see in the movie."

The virtual-set tour technology was first applied on the 2002 DVD for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Samstag shot the simplistic tour on high definition using a Sony HDW-F900 CineAlta with a dual 185-degree fisheye lens setup. The camera was mounted onto a Radcam remote control car that allowed full motion and a 360-degree field of view. The lens' fisheye perspectives were de-warped in post.

For the subsequent DVD of the first Potter sequel, the production changed their setup to increase resolution. Explains Samstag, "We decided to go to a single hemisphere system and to shoot on film, shooting one hemisphere at a time by rotating the camera and lens perfectly on its axis. We're creating a world in two passes instead of one."

The team's camera was an Arri 435 with a 25-pound 6mm Nikkor still-photography lens (which has a 210 field of view) that was adapted for cine use. The same two-pass technique was applied to the Van Helsing sets - even using the same film stock, Kodak Vision2 500T 5218, that Allen Daviau, ASC had utilized. "Allen introduced us to it with much enthusiasm," recalls Samstag with a smile. "It was perfect for our application - a little more latitude and less grain. When you are zooming in on the film frame, that makes a big difference."

"Zooming in" means that only about a third of the image frame is visible at any time. After the film was telecined and transferred to data via DataCine at Crawford Communications in Atlanta, Georgia, the sequences were given to iPIX, where the two hemispheres were stitched together and perspectively corrected and 90-degree fields of view were rendered out. The 90-degree field of view, which mimics a person's viewpoint, is about 700 pixels of the full 2K x 1.5K frame that is blown up to fill the feature film's original aspect. The excess still exists just off screen in case the framing needs to be adjusted to better fit New Wave's assemblage and navigation of the set tour. "If there is an obvious movie reference to the right," the cinematographer explains, "we might pan a little to the right on set, but if we then decide in post that we didn't move over enough, we can use [Inferno] to pan further to the right."

Says senior Inferno artist Toby Wilkins, "Technically, the center of the lens is where you want to be looking. If you get too far away from the center, the distortion magnifies. On set, Michael and Jeffrey will predict where the user will want to look and rotate a little bit, at least so the center of the lens is predominantly where we're going to end up."

He jokingly points out one drawback to 360-degree imagery: "Because the iPIX technology allows you to look in any direction at any moment, things like reflections of the cameraman in a mirror or a picture frame occasionally appear and have to be retouched. There's no way to avoid that."

Samstag and Lerner shot on the pre-lit Van Helsing sets after the show's second unit had wrapped. "We tried to preserve the lighting that Allen Daviau had established for the set," notes Lerner.

"Typically," Samstag adds, "any floor lights were taken out and then we hid as many lights as we could. We had to introduce more lights onto the set because we were showing so much more of the area. We used the same gaffer [Larry Wallace] who worked on the feature. When you make your first attempt at lighting for 360 degrees, it has a tendency to be very flat. Maintaining the look of the sets was a challenge he and his crew immediately rose to."

Van Helsing Steadicam operator Craig Fikse and his assistant, Al Cohen, also lent their skills to the set-tour production. A Steadicam Ultra Cine was commandeered, and iPIX, under the direction of Jonas Tankersley, worked with Steadicam to fabricate the accessories necessary for the unique style of shooting. For example, at the base of the Steadicam, a rotator is added where the battery would normally be. At the end of a camera move, the Steadicam is gently set down on the floor, and the first hemisphere shot is completed. That position is known as a nodal point. The rotator is then screwed to the floor, allowing the camera to be turned precisely on axis to film the second hemisphere.

"You give the user a set number of choices at a nodal point," explains Wilkins. Essentially, this means that New Wave, via DVD navigation, has given the user options to move from that point to, say, another part of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, or to take a closer look at a bubbling beaker by using the DVD remote. Adds Samstag, "When we go to the detail shots on set, we have another camera standing by with a traditional lens, typically a 14mm or 18mm."

Color correction is done as late as possible in order to accurately match the final timing of the feature film. The sequences are then handed to the DVD authoring facility - in duplicate, because they are needed in multiple standards. "Because of the way DVDs are built," notes Wilkins, "there are hundreds and hundreds of clips."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.