INTO THE WILD: Creating film for Sydney’s most incredible cinema screen

By - CTL
April 11, 2017
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By Jen Brewster.

Filmmakers these days can often be presented with some unique challenges when producing content for different mediums, whether that be for the small screen, big screen, online, virtual reality, or even social media. But what do you do when the format you’ve been presented with has never been done before?

Sydney-based bespoke production company Main Course Films has just completed a year long project for Taronga Zoo“Wild Squad Adventures”, the first film to screen in the Zoo’s brand new purpose built Taronga Centenary Theatre.  

Most Hollywood blockbusters are still delivered to cinemas in 2K resolution on flat screens and as both Producer and Cinematographer, Ben Allan ACS was responsible for making the project work on a technical level.  The film was finished at 5.4K and the cutting-edge theatre has an unprecedented 270° curved screen in an aspect ratio of 5:1 designed to project a single continuous image that wraps around the audience – more immersive than VR or IMAX – without the need for special glasses.

“Taronga Zoo’s vision was for emotional storytelling against an epic visual backdrop that felt like a blockbuster film,” Ben told Crossing The Line.

The story Writer/Director Clara Chong conceived was a family film where a trip to the Zoo becomes a magical adventure into the secret world hidden beneath the Zoo, where special agents for the wild take the family around the world in their mission to protect and care for all the animals.

“The technical challenges and the screening format were revolutionary,” commented Ben. “Even recent blockbuster films such as “The Maze Runner” or “Star Trek Beyond” using other wraparound projection systems had never attempted something so complex.  Creating a film in 5:1 meant re-writing many of the standard rules of filmmaking – from storyboards, cameras, lighting, directing talent, data management, editing and overall workflow. There was no existing workflow that could have delivered this film when we started.”

To meet these challenges, workflow was customised across all areas including scheduling, storyboarding, pre-viz, editing, previews, DCP files (Digital Cinema Package), digital stitching, LUTs (Look Up Tables), Colour Grade, Sound Design and Sound Mix.

The best films come down to details, as Ben testifies.  “The fact that Clara writes, directs, edits and does her own sound design and my role as producer/cinematographer who colour grades and sound mixes allowed us to maintain a critical level of efficiency, quality control and creative freedom. All of that meant we could layer in details from the beginning, and keep adjusting throughout the production process.”

Script Development & Preproduction

To begin, Clara pre-visualised the film in Animatic form to determine the creative direction for the film including music and sound design. The trickiness of working on a curved, ultra-wide screen meant reworking the traditional close-up and cross shooting dialogue in order to make sure that all characters appeared to be looking at each other across the screen even when they weren’t in real life.

She carefully storyboarded every shot in the 5:1 frame and simultaneously edited her Animatic of the film using placeholder generators while developing the script.  Clara’s Animatics also meant the same Final Cut library file evolved from the start of script development through the final edit – and around 40% of the sound design decisions she made before script lock off, flowed through to the final edit.

Shooting the impossible

To create the screen image, the team used a combination of triple camera array and single camera coverage, which meant looking at solutions that didn’t yet exist in the marketplace.

“Main Course Films joined forces with XM2 to build the first of its kind 3-camera system called The Trident,” Ben said. “This was custom mounted in an arc configuration to match the theatre screen and flown on a specially modified Octocopter large drone to capture unobstructed aerial views not able to captured on conventional drone gimbal mounts.”

The rig being built (above) and the rig being flown on a custom designed drone (below).

This live action drama was filmed in real locations with as much as possible captured in camera, with no green screen and only one CGI set-extension.  The 270° screen meant that all of the actors were on screen for longer than on conventional screens, so they couldn’t cut back and forth to the same extent as a normal film. This meant Clara had to keep rehearsing and blocking each scene, which was critical to keep performances solid.

Data management required full time data wrangling. 1.5 TB of data was generated on each day of the shoot, across almost 20 locations.  While big feature films shooting digitally today use DIT workstations with a large trolley and a complex array of equipment that can cost upwards of $5,000 per day (and one hour of overtime could have cost the project up to $18,000), they were able to safely manage the raw footage using just two MacBook Pros and off the shelf storage solutions that could be carried between locations in a backpack.

(The creative team, including Clara Chong and Ben Allen, at the industry launch of Taronga Zoo’sWild Squad Adventures)

Post Production

Such a huge undertaking meant there were more than half a million individual files in the raw footage which played back at over 20GB/minute. “There were also more VFX shots than Jurassic Park!” laughed Ben. Plus footage from “The Trident” camera rig had to be painstakingly stitched together digitally, requiring moment by moment adjustments in order to create a seamless image. Editing resolution was also critical because they were cutting a 5:1 slice out of the middle of the frame.  The “low resolution” files for editing the film were still higher resolution than most of the world’s cinemas.”

Since the theatre was still being built, there was no existing cinema in the world that could screen the film at full size and full resolution, so Main Course screened the first WIP edit at the biggest auditorium at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace.  Even so, the image is still less than half the size of the Taronga theatre and for playback it had to be down converted to a 4K scope DCP.

Colour grading & finishing work was completed on a custom-built Apple Mac Pro to handle the ultra-high resolution files.  Main Course Films also had to create a mobile sound mixing workstation to mix real time, on location, in 8 channel surround sound and synchronised to the theatre’s 3 projectors as the Taronga Centenary Theatres one of a kind surround sound system, designed to match the curved screen, meant mixing off site was not an option.  The final audio mix contains 234 audio tracks and 18 busses and auxiliaries.

Even the final credit roll was custom designed for the 5:1 aspect ratio at 5.4K. To put that in perspective, conventional credit roll templates only use up to 2.39:1 aspect ratios with a maximum resolution of 4K.

A unique project that presented a very unique set of challenges to overcome. The end result is a fun and dramatically immersive experience for visitors to the zoo which delivers a serious conservation message, as well as providing Taronga Zoo with a ‘world first’ visual experience to add to its repertoire.

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