Director Jon Chu takes 'Step Up' to shoot in 3D

Production is first to employ 3D live feed monitor

Marvelous as technology is, every step forward brings new challenges for filmmakers to meet.

Consider: "Step Up 3D," the third episode in Touchstone Pictures and Summit Entertainment's dance drama franchise that opened Friday via Disney.

"We were held back a lot by the technology, itself, just because the cameras break down a lot," director Jon M. Chu said about shooting in digital 3D.

Nonetheless, 3D was the hook for making the movie and the reason Chu agreed to do it. He'd made his feature directing debut with 2008's "Step Up 2: The Streets," which cost $22 million and grossed nearly $150 million worldwide.

Just before "Step Up 2" opened, Disney, seeing how well it was previewing, asked Chu if he'd direct another episode.

"At first, I was like, 'Oh, my God, I'm exhausted. I'm not sure there's anything more you can do. I mean, it's a dance movie. We've done a lot of dancing in this one. We've tripled the amount of any dance movie.' "

After he hung up the phone, an intern who'd heard him talking joked, "What are they going to do -- 'Step Up 3D?'"

That got everyone in the office laughing, Chu recalled, but "then we kind of just sat there and looked at each other like, 'That would actually kind of be cool. A 3D dance.' It started me thinking.

3D felt emotionally right for a dance movie. Of course, at that point Chu didn't know how hard it would be to shoot live action 3D.

"It's definitely a whole new experience. You get on the set with these gigantic 3D cameras and you realize we're still in the very beginning stages of the capabilities of 3D and the potential of 3D as art."

With 3D cameras, he explained, "You never know when or how, but it will break down and you just have to adjust. But it was actually really exciting. It made us feel like film school again, a little bit, where people are inventing things as we go."

One of those inventions was a steadicam rig that Chu immediately put to work when it was created midway through the shoot.

Another invention finally let Chu see what they were shooting.

"Before us there was no live feed monitor to see 3D in real time while you were shooting. We were one of the first productions to get 42 inch LCD screens. I could put my head in the lens and with my glasses on I could see my head come out of the screen."

Having monitors helped Chu work with his dancers, who could now see themselves in action.

"What I did was turn the monitors around back into the cameras and gave them 3D glasses while they were dancing and suddenly it all clicked. You could see them slow down their movements just a pitch. You could see them work the depth a little bit."

What did 3D do to the budget?
"We had $21 or $22 million for "Step Up 2." We added $10 million to that so it was like $32 million."

3D also added about 10 days to bring the shooting schedule to 52 days in New York.

"It takes a lot of time to shoot because of the lenses. Every time you change a lens it's like a 45 minute turnaround. So we were always running and gunning that way."

And 3D also meant extra time in post-production.

"Post is a whole other monster that I never actually expected."

But post is critically important to making 3D work right.

"There are a lot of things you can do in post to help the 3D. When you have effects, the eyes can get switched and you get inverted images because everyone's learning this 3D stuff for the first time, including the designers of the effects. Sometimes one or two layers will be inverted, but all the other layers of effects won't be inverted, so you'll feel something is wrong but you can't quite figure out what it is."

There are, he adds, synch issues when shooting 3D. If things are off even a half-frame with your left and right eye, a shot's not going to work.

"In 3D when there's something wrong your audience is getting dizzy and they could throw up! So we have to take a lot more time technically to figure it out."

When Chu grew up watching 3D he thought uncomfortable eyes were just part of the experience.

"But what we've learned is your eyes don't ever have to be uncomfortable if you're doing it completely right. You can actually fix it if you can figure out what's bothering you." 

Besides the dance world of "Step Up 3D," Chu's also been busy creating an original dance series of online videos called "The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers," which launched on in July via Paramount Digital Entertainment.

"It's a superhero dance series for the web. They're fun and crazy and something I could never probably pitch to a studio"

He likens "The LXD" to doing "what Michael Jackson started in his music videos and expanding on it because each short film that we have connects to the next one."

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