Step Up 3D Director Jon Chu on Breaking 3D's Rules (and Cameras): 'Screw It, We Have Insurance!'
What if I told you that the best 3D I've seen since Avatar -- as well as the most fun I've had in a theater this year -- came from an innocuous little dance flick called Step Up 3D? While other directors use 3D to enhance special effects, director Jon Chu shows how eye-popping it can be when those cutting-edge cameras are pointed at real people (albeit people with superhuman dance talents). I talked to Chu about how he pulled it off, how many cameras he broke, and the movie's terrific, one-take showstopper.
After watching Step Up 3D and your web series The LXD, it seems clear to me that you've very devoted to the idea that long shots and long takes are the best way to show off dance. Does it frustrate you when you see a modern musical and it's edited with a bunch of quick cuts?
Oh, so much! So much. Especially because I know how good the dancers are; our dancers are actually in a lot of commercials, but you don't get to really see what they do because they're so cut down that it's more like a highlight reel. It just becomes a headspin or a flip in the air, whereas when you get to see that dance start and see them get into it and transition between moves, that's what dance is. They're telling a story through the moves put together, not the move itself. In our movie, I'm blessed that we were able to work with some of the best dancers in the world, and we tried to play that to our advantage. It was the same with 3D -- one of the traits of 3D is that you can't cut around too much anyway, because it takes a half-second for your eyes to adjust. You want to stay a little bit longer, so we thought, "If that's the way we should play it, let's go all the way and show the dancers off to our advantage." Even compared to Step Up 2, we stick with the dance a lot more.
Does it worry you that we've had so much bad post-conversion 3D this year that it may have tainted the audience a little bit?
You know, I can't speak for everybody else, but for me going to a movie, I want the filmmaker's voice to come through. Some of the 3D conversions, I feel like it's sort of taken the filmmaker out of it, and since the movies weren't made for it, obviously some of the shots aren't going to be built for 3D. It's not part of the language. Alice in Wonderland was cool because they knew before they started shooting that 3D would happen, so they made dimensionalizing it part of the story and it was an OK thing. I think all the discussion about whether there's a future for 3D and is it a gimmick...I was asking those questions too, but we found these little things you can do with it that can really help a story emotionally in 3D.
Even something as simple as [when Step Up 3D's two romantic leads] meet in a club -- in the script, that was that. Because 3D makes you feel so claustrophobic in a small space, I had him grab her and pull her into a photobooth. As cheesy and random as that might seem, you can actually see the audience lean in a little bit, and it creates an intimacy about it. That was a total change because of 3D.
Do you think directors are really exploiting that?
I think there's a lot more to do. I saw a 3D test where it's raining outside and there's a couple breaking up inside a car. In 2D, it's raining so hard that you can't see the couple inside, so it's a shot that's no good. In 3D, because you're getting that depth, you can actually make them out in the rain and your eyes are trying to find them. As they're breaking up, there's an emotional shift in your brain, and I cannot wait for filmmakers to play with those ideas and try new things.
A week ago, I talked to Paul Anderson, who's making the new Resident Evil movie in 3D, and he told me that 3D cameras can be really temperamental when it comes to water and heat.
[Already laughing hard]
So then I go to see Step Up 3D, and you have a water dance sequence and hundreds of people in one location, so I can only imagine how hot and humid it was. Did you run into problems?
Oh, we ran into those problems all day long. It was a huge issue for us. For the first two weeks, we were like, "This is not possible. How do we make a movie like this where every day, a camera goes down?" Sometimes all the cameras would go down, and you couldn't shoot! It's not like film where you just slap something on it, screw it in, and as long as light hits the emulsion, you're good. These cameras had software issues. There'd be one guy on a computer talking to another guy in California who was programming something, and I'd have no control.
We just got used to it and decided we wouldn't be scared by it. We said, "All the rules that the adults said we can't do with this camera? We're gonna do it, because we want to discover those for ourselves." That meant beating up these cameras and throwing water at them. You know, the cameras themselves don't even have protection for the water because the lenses are too big, and they haven't invented it yet. So the camera guys are yelling at us to not get water on these lenses, and we're like, "Screw it! Get it wet, we have insurance!" [Laughs]
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