3net to Air First 3D War Documentary

A new Civil War documentary from 3net that will premiere Dec. 3 breaks new ground in 3D stereoscopic production and at the same time offers a fascinating reminder that stereoscopic technologies date back well into the 19th century.

The four-part Fields of Valor: The Civil War, which is being billed by 3net as the first major documentary about a war in 3D, also features a number of innovative 3D production techniques, such as the use of green screens for graphical recreations of battles and a pioneering use of stereographic photos taken during the Civil War.

After its 3D premiere on Dec. 3 on 3net, which is a joint venture between Discovery, Sony and IMAX, the show will also air as a 2D/3D simulcast on Dec. 4, with a 2D airing on Discovery's Velocity and Military Channel and native 3D version on 3net.

Very few historical documentaries have been made in 3D, and deciding to do a 3D program tied to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War posed a number of problems.

"The nature of the project and doing something about the Civil War brought up all sorts of challenges in how to tell a historical story in 3D when you can't rely on archival footage," Tim Pastore, VP of development and production at 3net, who also served as executive producer on Fields of Valor.

To overcome that problem, the documentary relies heavily on live action recreations, filming up to 8,000 people reenacting some battle scenes, graphics and old stereoscopic photographs taken from the era.

Those photographs also highlight the fact that stereoscopic technologies are over 170 years old.

In 1838, Professor Charles Wheatstone explained some of the principles of depth perception and to demonstrate his theory created a stereoscope that allowed users to view two images in 3D.

These stereoscopes became increasingly popular in the 1850s and in 1860 Oliver Wendell Holmes invented an inexpensive one that was widely sold, with most American homes owning one by the 1890s.

Many stereographs were shot in during the Civil War, with Lincoln becoming the first president to have his image taken in 3D, and thousands of them still survive in the Library of Congress.

"In a way these stereoscopic photos are the star of the show," notes Jonathan Towers, founder of Towers Productions and executive producer and writer on Fields of Valor. "I don't know of another program that has ever done what we've done in terms of using these 19th century stereoscopic photos and turning them into 21st century 3D TV imagery."

In shooting the stereoscopes, Towers, notes that they used some motion but much less than they would with normal 2D photos in a documentary.

To handle the 3D live action footage, the stereoscopic photos and the graphic elements of the program, Towers adds that they underwent a major equipment upgrade of their Chicago facility that included new editing suites and much more storage capacity.

The staff underwent a great deal with training as well. "We didn't outsource anything so we trained all the artists and editors in Chicago to learn all the 3D skills because we were so excited about the project," he notes.

The extensive live action footage used in Fields of Valor also posed major challenges. Stereoscopic 3D production still requires larger crews-as many as 60 people on the largest shoots-and extensive planning.

"There is much more pre-visualization and planning than a 2D project to map out depth budgets so the cuts between the shots are comfortable," notes Pastore. "Unlike 2D, there is no wiggle room. In 3D every shot has to analyzed and done in the appropriate depth for the sequence of the film," or the viewer will get headaches and eye strain.

To shoot the live action, they selected Red cameras, note Dave Less and Chris Staudt, the lead editors on the project because of their very high quality image and resolution.

"It offers a very high resolution far exceeding the normal resolution of even an HD TV screen, which enables you to push in on images without degrading the quality," Staudt notes.

Besides hiring actors for the main characters of the documentary, the crew also filmed some of the large reenactments of Civil War battles that were held this year as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. "With 3D you have to pay very close attention to what you are doing when you have 8,000 people reenacting a battle in Virginia," Tower notes.

All the editing for the project was done on Avid with Cineform's First Light.

In addition to the usual maps and graphics, the project also made innovative use of shooting actors in front of green screens and then compositing in graphics and imagery to advance the story.

"That is something I haven't seen anyone do in the 3D space" for TV, Pastore notes.

For the graphics, Tower used Nuke and Ocula from The Foundry along with Adobe After Effects.

Looking forward, Pastore notes that some of the innovations from the project will help them in future productions.

"Fields of Valor shows the very diverse array of elements that you can use to push the story and at the same time [shows] how you can take on certain genres such as history that were once thought to be difficult to tackle in 3D," he says.

While production costs for 3D remain higher than 2D, Pastore notes that 3D production costs continue to drop.

"When you start to look at the new Sony TD300 camera and other things, you are starting to technology that is allowing budgets come down to normal," he says. "You can really start to shot quicker and produce more material with fewer bodies. So we are getting closer and closer to closing that cost gap."