U2 3D: The Next DimensionAn Interview with Producer Pete Shapiro
“I’m never going to a regular concert again.” These are the words overheard by a jubilant audience member just moments after watching an advance screening of the transcendent new concert film, U2 3D. The movie documents performances by the world’s biggest band arguably at the apex of its career. It is the first live action film shot entirely in breathtaking digital 3-D and it is, quite simply, mesmerizing.
The thing about going to a screening of an unreleased film is that there are mostly industry types in attendance, which generally means it’s a tough crowd to impress. These are professionals who have been there and done that. These are the people who generally stand at shows with their arms folded and try not to look like they’re having any fun. Not the case here. Fists were pumped. Neck hairs stood on end. Eyes watered (not me, I had something in my eye). There was an overwhelming sense of awe in the room. When Bono’s outstretched hand appeared to extend right through the screen and into the theater, many were stunned. Some laughed. Some reached up in an effort to touch the Irish rocker. Some simply shook their heads in disbelief. It was sensory overload.
Visually, there is no point of reference. It makes high definition look like Monet. It’s vividly holographic. The 3-D cameras hover over the crowd and stage in a way that would be impossible for any human being to otherwise experience. Sonically, U2 3D is absolutely pristine: loud, crisp, enveloping and generally perfect. The bass rumbles and the high end sparkles (mixing was done by Carl Glanville, who worked on U2’s album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). The monstrous roars of the stadium crowd are brought to the forefront at just the right times. You have never heard 90,000 strong singing in Dolby Digital Surround Sound. It has the raw strength of a jet engine. Like any good motion picture, the sound matches the images, but doesn’t overpower them, ebbing and flowing appropriately. At one point, two images of a singing Bono are superimposed and for just that moment, a second vocal track is added to the mix demonstrating a precise attention to detail, however surrealistic it may be. A friend forgot he wasn’t wearing headphones because the mix was so clear, and reached up only to discover his naked ear. At other points, audience members in the theater raised their arms in triumph and it was difficult to distinguish the silhouetted appendages in front of me from the three-dimensional audience members in the film. The depth of field was seamless.
Musically, U2 is at the top of their game. There is no bigger band on the planet, and for good reason. Their songs are mythical beasts larger than the individuals who contribute their respective simplistic parts. Bono’s controlled charisma. The Edge’s haunting cyclonic delay loops. Adam Clayton’s steady bottom end. Larry Mullen Jr.’s hypnotic pulse. Every nuance shimmers.
I was completely blown away by the experience and, sadly, this doesn’t happen very often anymore. When I was younger and more impressionable, it was somewhat of a normal occurrence, but these days, it takes a lot more to shock the system. It’s relevant, I suppose, to give some personal background. I am the lighting designer for a band called moe., which means that for nearly 100 nights out of the year I not only have the best seat in the house, but I’m actively participating in the concert presentation. To be involved in a creative process on such a grand scale can be quite exhilarating, but it inevitably diminishes almost all other concert experiences in comparison. How can it not? This is the tradeoff for many who decide to work in a field they love. It is one of life’s great ironies, really.
After the screening, there was a palpable post-show glow among the audience, that elated feeling that is the aftermath of a mass endorphin release. It was as if we were all ten years younger and had just danced for hours among thousands of sweaty bodies in an arena and then fought through post-show traffic. Except we never set foot in a concert venue.
A full 48 hours after watching the film, a few jaded industry types sat on a couch for the express purpose of watching playoff football. And still, for the first several minutes of seeing one another, U2 3D dominated the conversation. The consensus seemed to be that after seeing live music for so many years and working in the field, this was a superior experience. “Better than being there,” is what kept being repeated.
In many ways, it is better than being there. I saw a show from the same Vertigo Tour, back in December of 2005. For the most part it was the same set list and same stage production. But, of course, my vantage point never changed and the sound was plagued by the inevitable problems caused by the acoustics of an arena designed for hockey and basketball. Don’t get me wrong, U2 played their asses off that night and I loved every minute of it. But, it was one in a series of great concerts I’ve seen in my life. Digital 3-D with Surround Sound simply stimulates my senses more. Perhaps if I had worn state of the art headphones with a wireless soundboard feed and flown around the arena with a hydrogen-powered jetpack while on LSD, the experience would have approached U2 3D. But, then again, how much would that ticket cost?
U2 3D is the brainchild of producer Peter Shapiro, a man well known for his contributions to the live music scene. He was owner of the famed Wetlands Preserve in New York City and now, in addition to filmmaking, is a producer of The Jammys, and founder and executive producer of the Green Apple Festival. Following completion of his 2001 IMAX release, All Access, Pete along with his brother and co-producer Jon Shapiro, wanted to go even bigger. IMAX is already a larger than life format, so the only way to bring the viewer closer to the action was to go 3-D. But the technology wasn’t quite ready. Sure there was the 3-D of old, but it was highly flawed technology and often times caused headaches. The Brothers Shapiro joined forces with a team of technology experts, producers and investors to create 3ality Digital, a new company specializing in live action digital 3-D.
To say that digital 3-D is the next step in entertainment technology is an understatement. A step implies that previous increments were consistent measurements. This is one giant leap right off of the screen. This is quite literally a whole new dimension. Buckle up.
Jambands.com spoke with Pete just a few days before the Sundance Film Festival to discuss how the idea to shoot U2 in 3D became a reality.
JW: When did you first have the idea to shoot a U2 concert film in digital 3D?
PS: At a Zen Tricksters show in 1997 at Wetlands.
PS: No, I’m kidding laughs. We made that film All Access in 2001 and in the aftermath of that, we loved the IMAX format and mixing music and film, but we thought that 3D film would outperform 2D film. We thought that our multi-act film with Sting and Santana, Sheryl Crow, Dave [Matthews] and Trey [Anastasio] was great, but that from a marketing level it probably made sense to just focus on one band and go 3D. We also shot it in digital image acquisition so we didn’t need the giant IMAX film cameras. We could now go digital. So we thought that why not go fully digital 3D and shoot U2? So it’s literally been five or six years in the making.
JW: Take us through the process of getting something of this magnitude accomplished.
PS: The first step was developing the camera technology.
JW: Because it didn’t exist at the time.
PS: Right. It’s brand new. In fact, we helped found a new company called 3ality Digital, which developed the camera technology, and this was the first film to utilize this new technology. So we all produced the movie together and created a company together.
JW: When you first had the idea to shoot in digital 3D, were you aware of the challenges that the medium would present?
PS: It was a little bit of a leap of faith and a credit to the band really. We shot some tests with them in March of 2005 – and also some tests with the NFL – and we were able to show the footage to the band. The tests were done right at the beginning of the Vertigo tour with a one-camera system in Anaheim. We then showed them the results of the test as a five-minute teaser in IMAX. The film was then shot in March of 2006 in South America. The original plan was to shoot the film for IMAX release. We were going to shoot digitally, and it’s such high resolution that you can up-convert it to IMAX. What’s happened since then, is that the digital 3D format has grown and in fact it’s probably where the majority of people will wind up seeing the movie. The movie will be released in two formats: in IMAX 3D in America on January 23 in about 60 theaters. Then on February 15, it will be released in about 500 digital 3D theaters in North America. Then on February 22, it goes to Europe. So you’ll actually be able to see it two very different ways. IMAX is peripheral-less. It’s giant. It envelops you. And digital enables you to sort of look into the image a little more and control what you’re looking at.
JW: Talk a little bit more about the difference between the two formats. You said digital allows you to look into it. Can you elaborate?
PS: The resolution of digital is extremely high and it’s a smaller image. That’s what you saw the other night. You can look into it. It’s almost like looking into a window. There’s a frame to it. The IMAX is so big that it’s frameless. It envelops you.
JW: Three-dimensionally, is IMAX still as eye-popping on a large screen in a non-digital format?
PS: Yes, but it’s a different kind of experience because it’s more in your face, right in front of you. With the digital you can look out at it.
JW: Which do you prefer?
PS: Well, it’s a unique thing to release a movie two different ways. They each have their own characteristics. They’re really very different. I love them both obviously laughs.
JW: How involved were you in the technical process?
PS: I wasn’t involved in the developmental side of the camera systems. But I was obviously very involved with the concept of the film and building the company from the very beginning. It started with an idea between my brother [producer Jon Shapiro] and I to make the movie and then the team grew out from there. We met two other brothers named John and David Modell, whose father, Art Modell, is a well-known owner of NFL teams. Then we brought in our technology partner, Steve Schklair and the five of us got together to make the movie and start the company.
JW: Talk about the differences between traditional 3D, which gave a lot of people headaches, and the new digital format that 3ality developed with the real-time digital image processing.
PS: It’s very sophisticated electronics and software. A lot of it is developed in Germany. Historically, 3D was two cameras fixed together and to make sure your eyes didn’t hurt, people would do math based on where the cameras were focused. Physically, they’d actually measure it. They’d take tape measures out. Now, with digital technology, a lot of that can be done through software and engineering, which enables zooming for the first time. We developed a post-production process through Steve Schklair and our company and that enables a lot of things such as layering. And it doesn’t make your eyes hurt, which is pretty amazing stuff. 3ality Digital developed the camera technology and the post-production infrastructure to produce the movie.
JW: It seems like such a huge project. What were some of the problems you encountered leading up to actually shooting the concerts?
PS: One challenge was just getting the okay to make the movie. The biggest challenge was going to South America to shoot it. It was enough to try to do something for the first time. The original idea was to maybe shoot the band in the States, in L.A., where all the equipment was. But, the band really drove the decision and it was smart in the end to shoot the film in South America. When we first heard that they wanted the shoot to be done there, we all took a deep swallow because this equipment is very sensitive, delicate and brand new. We brought a huge crew of more than a hundred people from L.A. to South America and brought just a huge amount of equipment. Then we went from Mexico to Chile to Brazil and then Argentina. It was pretty nuts. But it helped a lot that we were able to work with the band. The band really perceived it as a film that they were partners in. I think the band was aware of the significance of the film long term, in terms of capturing them at their peak. They helped us. The equipment traveled with the band’s planes to South America. They helped ease it, but it was still a very complicated process.
JW: Digital 3D is such a new medium. Were you literally using every digital 3D camera that existed in the world?
PS: At the time, yes. In fact, someone said that they thought we had the most technology on any film set ever. Remember, we had to have seven or eight systems down in South America; a huge amount of decks and cameras. We shot on something called HDSR, which is High Definition Super Resolution, which is higher definition than high def. We had all the HDSR decks in the world there. It was just a tremendous amount of technology on the set. A normal movie like Star Wars, which was shot digitally by [George] Lucas, had probably one or two of these cameras, but we had more than that.
JW: Not to mention all of U2’s gear.
PS: Yeah, that’s one of the things that makes the film. We’re filming a band that’s got the highest level of production in the world and the smartest, creative minds in the world, and a band that’s at a creative peak. The crowd was also at a peak level environment. South America, 80,000 people in a stadium watching U2, it’s not like seeing U2 at Giant Stadium.
JW: Philosophically, what type of a balance were you trying to strike between documenting a concert and actually creating a theatrical film?
PS: That’s a good point. The lead director is a woman named Catherine Owens and she has been the lead curator of the visual element to U2’s shows for the last 15 years. Normally, in a 2D shoot, just by nature of the format, you’re capturing something. In this film, [some added] visuals are brought into the 3D space and this has a lot to do with the fact that the woman making the film is the woman who created a lot of those visuals for the live show. Simply by that fact, we’re going to another place and that simply hasn’t been done before. During “The Fly,” by bringing the words into what we call the 3D space we’re doing something on a technical level that you just can’t do in 2D.
[note: during the band’s encore, “The Fly,” an animated sequence was added to the live footage in post-production, simulating a sea of rainbow-colored letters that appear to rain down upon the band].
JW: Were the film crews pretty courteous of the fans attending the concerts and aware of not obstructing people’s views?
PS: I’d say we were pretty aggressive actually in how we shot it. Obviously we didn’t want to completely screw anyone’s show, but we were all pretty aggressive in trying to make sure we got the right angles. I mean, the shot of Bono reaching out during “[Sunday Bloody] Sunday” was shot in front of 90,000 people in Mexico City.
JW: It was? You also shot a series of close-ups of the band performing strictly for the cameras in an empty stadium. I assumed that’s where that shot was from.
PS: No, not every close-up was shot with no crowd. We shot seven shows, plus the [private] show.
JW: How involved was the band in producing the film?
PS: The band was very active in the production of the film. It was a very integrated thing. The director has a long history with the band. The two co-directors have a long history with Catherine. The sound was done by [Carl Glanville] who mixed their last album. Willie Williams, who’s their lighting designer, was very involved working with Catherine. They were all very involved.
JW: It’s edited together pretty seamlessly and appears to be just one continuous concert, for the most part.
PS: It’s mostly Buenos Aires, but there’s additional stuff from other cities.
JW: So, you shot over 100 hours of footage. Talk about the process of beginning to edit that down, specifically the set list. How did you decide which songs to cut and which to songs to keep?
PS: That was really led by Catherine Owens and the band. They worked that and the film has a pacing and an arc of its own. Their live show is about two and a half hours and we knew that you couldn’t do that in 3D because your brain would explode. So, Catherine really worked with the band to come up with a more concise version, which is 14 songs.
JW: Is there actual research that says that your brain can only handle so much 3D before it begins to overload?
PS: Well, this is the first digital 3D film of live action, so not really. But yes, I think people would tell you that this is intense, new shit on your brain. You can’t just go and go and go. I think we were cognizant of that.
JW: Do you have a favorite moment of the film now that you’ve been able to see it multiple times?
PS: That’s a good question. I love it. My personal favorite shots I think are of Larry Mullen [Jr.] drumming.
JW: A lot of people have been saying that.
PS: When you go to a show, and I’ve been to a lot of shows, you don’t get to see the drummer like you do in this film. When you’re watching a DVD they never show the drummer. These shots of Larry Mullen are simply one step beyond. They’re just a new way to get to see a drummer perform. You just don’t get to experience that live or even on video. I’m really proud of those shots; and, the whole thing really. Whether people like the band or like the music or like the movie, that’s one thing. But you have to acknowledge that it’s a new format and it’s a new way of experiencing music. So, I’m excited to be a part of that.
JW: It’s almost better than being at a show. You don’t have to deal with traffic or crowds. The sound is absolutely amazing. The visuals are eye-popping. In a best-case scenario, how do you think this could impact the music business? If the profit margin gets to a reasonable point, do you think it could be a viable revenue stream for large touring acts?
PS: You make a good point. I think the costs will come down. I don’t want to sit here and say it’s going to change the world because it’s not appropriate for me to say that.
JW: Well other people in the industry have already said that.
PS: I know. I think that for bands that don’t want to do an 80-city tour, but maybe want to do a reunion or something specialThese theaters are being built and continue to be built globally, so I think it’s a really great option for some bands to A) capture themselves at a peak moment and B) for bands that may not want to do the full tour but can justify a film. You could probably think of a couple very large bands that could reunite and just do a film without having to do a whole tour.
JW: DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg (Shrek, Madagascar and Bee Movie) calls digital 3D the single greatest innovation in filmmaking in 70 years. He has announced that every release from his studio from next year will be in 3D. Is he talking about your technology?
PS: Well that’s a good question. He’s doing animated and we’re doing live action. He’s talking about digital 3D, which is the format. Beowulf was recently released in and that was in motion capture. But, it’s the same digital theater, the experience of watching that type of 3D.
JW: Do you think that this could potentially change Hollywood?
PS: Yeah. Black and white went to color. Silent went to sound. Stereo went to Surround Sound. It has the real potential to have that kind of impact. It’s a new format.
JW: So is Hollywood using 3ality’s post-production technology or are there other companies getting involved?
PS: We’re a leader in the live action space. DreamWorks is in the animation space. And, there’s Robert Zemeckis, who made Beowulf in motion capture. But, this is the first live action film in the format. We do have a competitor to be honest, who is James Cameron. So, there’re others doing it, but after this film, we’re clearly in a leadership position.
JW: So James Cameron is a competitor, but I noticed he was thanked in the credits.
PS: Yeah, he was helpful to the director. He’s a friend of Bono.
JW: What has the band’s reaction been to the film thus far?
PS: Well, they’re coming to our premiere at Sundance, so I think that’s a good sign.
JW: They were at Cannes too, right?
PS: Yeah, they came to Cannes, so I think that says a lot. I don’t think they’d be showing up if they didn’t feel good about the movie.
JW: So what’s the next project for 3ality?
PS: We’re looking at a couple of different things. We’re excited.
JW: Long term, what is your vision for the company?
PS: We want to be in live action: sports, music and feature films. Eventually you’ll be able to [broadcast] live to the home. There will be normal HD 3D televisions and you won’t need to wear glasses. It will be called auto-stereo and we hope to play a major role in that. Literally, one day we see this technology going into homes. We want to play an active role in the future of 3D, which we think is going to play a significant role in how people experience entertainment in the future.
_As a public service, Jefferson Waful urges all music fans to see this film. For a full list of theaters, visit www.U23Dmovie.com