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

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

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. And there’s a very good reason why: most of the popular comedies today by Judd Apatow and his colleagues are verbally funny but not physically conducive to stereoscopic shenanigans.

Which is why I found “MIB 3” such a 3-D revelation. The eye-popping footage I saw of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones blowing up a Chinese restaurant or Smith leaping off the Chrysler Building or Smith squirming while being interrogated by Josh Brolin (playing a spot-on younger version of Jones circa 1969) or Smith sweating inside a giant neutralizer was not only funny but also spatially interesting in 3-D. The 3-D actually enhanced the physicality of the performances and the interaction between the characters. It was intimate as well as in your face. In fact, I was fixated on their faces in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been if this were flat. By god, what great faces they have for comedy. Sonnenfeld even admitted that Brolin’s got the biggest face he’s ever worked with.

But then Sonnenfeld has always had a “Looney Tunes” visual quality to his work, even going back to his cinematography days with the Coen brothers. Just think of the squash-and-stretchy “Raising Arizona.” He’s been primed for comedic 3-D. “I’ve always seen in 3-D and have always shot as if I was shooting in 3-D,” he boasts. “There are certain things that 3-D really likes: on-axis and straight-ahead moves, which is all I’ve ever done as a director and cinematographer. And 3-D hates over-the-shoulder shots and panning and I hate panning. I never let the Coen brothers pan in their first three movies: I was all about the tableaux.”

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.

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