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Immersed in Movies: Talking 3-D with 'Men in Black 3' Director Barry Sonnenfeld

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood April 21, 2012 at 12:19PM

I recently sat down for a private 3-D demo of "Men in Black 3" with director Barry Sonnenfeld, and the first thing that dawned on me was that there haven't been any noteworthy 3-D comedies during this current renaissance. It's all been shock and awe so far.
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But while the industry embraces shooting more and more natively in 3-D (including the upcoming "Prometheus," "The Hobbit," and "The Great Gatsby"), Sonnenfeld flatly rejected it in favor of post-conversion. The rigs were too heavy, the set-ups weren't fast enough, the technicians weren't adept enough, and the digital look not filmic enough. Mind you, Sony spent hundreds of thousands of dollars shooting 3-D tests, but that was two years ago and there have been many advancements since then.

"For a comedy director, it was a momentum killer," Sonnenfeld suggests. "They may have smaller rigs now but I don't know how they deal with interocular separation [the distance between eyes] and the size of the matte box. Often what happens is the converted shots look better because you can control the IO. I remember Bill Pope, the cinematographer, telling me that if we shot native in 3-D we'd be stuck with the current technology at the time but that if we converted we'd be able to take advantage of technology 17 months out."

Sonnenfeld also prefers coming out of the screen rather than moving inside it, which is the prevalent trend today. "It's not for a visual gag but to get the audience more involved," he contends. "Remember, the old dolly/zoom from Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'? We're doing things like that you wouldn't be able to do if you're shooting native 3-D unless you converted one eye. So I really embraced 3-D."

One of the director's favorite moments in this time travel farce is when Smith dives off the Chrysler Building to go back to the '60s to save the world. "It's a total ride in 3-D but I relied on stereographer Corey Turner. He's very much aware of not bouncing where you have to focus and eases you into foreground and background separation. And I asked Imageworks about having the Chrysler Building be shadowed by another building so that the background goes dark and the floating doesn't distract."

Sonnenfeld, whose two favorite movies are "Dr. Strangelove" and "The Conformist," obviously views comedy as a total physical experience. "I love straight on two-shots like Will and Tommy and Wu's. They're way in front of the screen. There's a total fear of coming outside the screen and at the audience."

Maybe that'll change after the 3-D release of "MIB 3" on May 25th.

MIB III

This article is related to: Franchises, Production, Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Coens


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.