Creating Cinema in the Round.

All special venue films have their own challenges, requiring filmmakers to not only be technically inventive but often at times reinvent their very language of film for a new storytelling environment. While one can research such projects extensively, these one off specialist theatres pose a real challenge and a need to remain focused on providing an engaging story in the midst of complex one off technology. One such highly successful project just opened in Sydney.

Taronga Zoo in Sydney, as part of its 100 year anniversary, decided to install a special venue theatre showing a film that would highlight the conservation role the zoo takes in Australia and educate kids about animal welfare, hopefully inspiring them into action. Unlike some Zoo’s, Sydney’s Taronga Zoo is a leading animal welfare advocate and, situated on the harbour in Sydney, is one of the city’s great tourist attractions. In addition to caring for animals locally, the Zoo has a huge array of conservation projects around the country and overseas. For example, the crew flew to the Southern Mountains of NSW to highlight the work the Zoo does with rare frog colonies. This vital ‘behind the scenes’ work was one of the main focuses of the project.

In order to communicate the conservation message, Taronga Zoo’s vision was for emotional storytelling against an epic visual backdrop that felt like a blockbuster film. Rather than just produce a film, the team decided to build a unique, permanent, special purpose theatre that would provide an immersive experience, without the use of glasses or special viewing aids. The Zoo is incredibly popular with some 1.7 million annual visitors, a significant proportion of whom the Taronga Conservation Society of Australia hoped will visit the purpose-built, world-first cinema. “The only key problem with ‘world firsts’ is that no one has ever done it before,” commented the film’s DOP Ben Allan.

Matt Carroll, Industry advisor and senior industry producer.

The zoo’s steering committee, none of whom are film makers, sort advice from similar international best use case studies and local industry veterans such as Matthew Carroll, an Australian film and TV producer. He is best known for producing films a long line of Australian classic features including Breaker MorantStorm Boy and Sunday Too Far Away. Later, he went into television and was a principal in the production house Roadshow, Coote and Carroll which produced television shows for Australian and international audiences. Matt had experience from early in his career with a cinemascope surround style special installation and advocated for a 270 degree immersive experience.

The team searched internationally for a director who could both deliver an engaging story to children and handle an as yet undefined set of technical challenges. After an extensive search overseas, they settled on local talent at Main Course Films, and director Clara Chong.

Clara Chong Director (right) on set with the cast

The story Clara Chong conceived for Wild Squad Adventures was a family film where a trip to Taronga Zoo turns into an exciting action adventure when they discover a secret world hidden beneath the Zoo. Special agents for the wild take the family around the world in their mission to protect and care for all the animals. The live action short drama was filmed in real locations without green screen and minimal CGI set-extension. The film however still involved complex compositing and learning an entire new language of cinema.

On location

The Writer-Director Clara Chong is known for her ability to use visuals to surprise and inspire, as well as her skills in directing performance with emotion.  As a writer, she was excited with unexpected structure and rhythm and created memorable characters that were at once real and relatable. She was aided by her partner in Main Course Films, the internationally recognised DOP Ben Allan ACS. Allan has been at the forefront of the digital revolution in cinematography and digital post production including colour grading and sound mixing.  As Cinematographer, Allan is highly sought after for both his technical expertise and creative eye.  Allan’s work has garnered numerous awards and he has produce both specialist grading software plugins and developed new complex pipelines. He both shot the special venue film and produced the film.

Allan’s strong technical background was required to invent the various solutions to filming 270 degree cinema and projecting it. When the Main Course team started, nothing was locked in, from the number of cameras required to the number of projectors that would need to be built into the theatre. Allan quickly discovered that when filming 270 degrees, the solutions are neither found in traditional cinema nor modern VR or 360 cinema.

DOP Ben Allan during testing his custom “Trident” rig

270 rules of Cinema

In Taronga’s new theatre, the screen curves 270° around the audience, which means it curves past all peripheral vision. The screen is 25m (82ft) wide, which is as large as an IMAX screen.  The theatre screen uses 3 projectors on a curved screen like the famous Cinerama widescreen system from the 1960s except that the Taronga Zoo screen is dramatically wider and more curved. The massive screen was specially manufactured in Europe and then shipped to Australia. The theatre uses three new next generation laser phosphor projectors with a small seamless overlap and compensating filters and warping to produce a seamless, continuously illuminated giant wrap around experience, which is electronically calibrated everyday.

Chong was keen to not only film emotional closeups with both kids and animals but include complex drone shots, underwater and helicopter photography. In so doing, the team had to develop not only their own custom tools but their own version of cinema language. The simplest everyday conventions failed, for example:

Traditional Two shot: FAIL – in a 270 degree curved space a standard two shot of your actors talking – while they are facing each other – end up with one actor on the right wall ‘facing away almost from the audience” (due to the curved U shape) and the other Actor on the left wall “facing away also” (on the opposite side of the U).. and a vast sweet spot in the middle of the audience’s field of view which is blank.

Traditional Pan: FAIL – the team tried their first tracking shot in the 270 degree theatre during testing and half the crew fell over. The mind tries to compensate and “people lose their balance – even if they are just standing still,” explains Allan.

Traditional composition: FAIL – the giant 270 degree curved screen means that all the film is effectively in 5:1 aspect ratio. A cinematographer’s normal sense of composition needs to be adjusted when the image is twice as wide as traditional 2.35:1  or Cinemascope. “What feels right on screen is completely at odds with how it has to be filmed” comments Allan. The entire 12-minute film uses the whole 5:1 screen and the drama plays out a single ultra high resolution image.

DOP Ben Allan on location in Sydney with the Trident rig

The film, much like IMAX, is driven  by horizon lines rather than being driven by eye lines. “We needed to think about not only what’s front and centre, but what’s happening all around us – and, rather than storyboarding by frames, we had to build the film with scenes” explains Chong.  For example, a Close Up (CU) usually means one character is featured, but with 5:1, even a big CU almost always includes all other people in frame. This required careful blocking of the action so that the shots allowed for the key characters to be featured AND cut together.

Even monitoring posed problems.

Every shot in the film was carefully storyboarded in the 5:1 frame.   Every shot in the film was pre visualised in Animatic form to determine the creative direction for the film including music & sound design. For Allan there were unexpected aspects such as the lighting. While a CU could normally be lit with a small light just out of shot, the 5:1 format required the use of much bigger lights and much greater distances away from the action to create the same effect. For example, “it often required using a 6000W light where an 800W would suffice under normal filmmaking conditions,” he comments.

The camera solution the team invented to allow for the flexibility and mobility the director wanted was nicknamed the ‘Trident’. Rigorous testing was undertaken with cameras, lenses, lighting and workflow process to ensure data management protocols and delivery could be carried through for projection on the unique Taronga theatre screen. To create this single ultra high resolution image, “we used a combination of both triple camera (‘The Trident’) and single camera coverage – all the cameras were made by the Australian company Blackmagic Design,” explained Allan. ‘The Trident’, unlike other immersive cameras, used non-fisheye 10mm lenses with minimal distortion made by SLR Magic in Hong Kong. The team were incredibly impressed with the output of the Blackmagic cameras and how small of a Trident rig they could build with them – without compromising the vast final projected image quality.

Above testing the Trident rig (note there is no audio on this BTS footage).

Australian company XM2 custom built the first of its kind 3 camera Trident rig which was used for normal filming and flown on a specially modified Octocopter large drone to capture never before seen immersive aerial views of Sydney Harbour and the zoo. To put this in perspective, only 2 cameras are normally used on even such major films as “Pirates Of The Caribbean” & “Thor” when filming with drones. Conventional drone gimbal mounts are not capable of shooting an unobstructed 270° view and XM2 had the facilities and experience to manufacture the required equipment in-house.

Different looks were created for different parts of the film by using French-made Angenieux cinema lenses or German-made Carl Zeiss cinema lenses. The single camera footage which makes up the majority of the film was captured at 4.6k Lossless RAW on the Blackmagic URSA Mini which allowed for using these lenses and capturing the resolution and dynamic range required. Data management required some serious full time data wrangling. During the main shoot, the production generated around 1.5 TB of data per day which had to be backed up and duplicated.

Taronga’s theatre also features a newly designed custom surround sound system using nine individual speakers designed to match the unique screen. The sound design for the film is built with a vast proportion of original sound effects to create a unique Taronga soundscape. A side effect of this was the team ended up having to move into the actual theatre for both final mixing and final grading. Normal sound mixing studios could not easily match the sound of the venue and the grading of the film was particularly complex for surprising reasons. In theatre sound mixing was done with Ben Allan and Composer Carlo Giacco.

In a normal theatre, a post team can take the screen being flat for granted, but in the custom built 270 U shape design, bright objects such as the sun on the screen act as a light washing out darker sections of the film on the opposite side. Literally, the screen itself is bouncing light onto itself all the time. While the theatre is vast, the lumens of the new projectors are so strong that vast amounts of special windowing was required to balance areas of the film back on itself. “If you see a flat projection of the 5:1 finished film, not projected on the special 270 degree screens then it looks completely wrong.. the grade makes no sense, which is why we did the final grade on daVinci in here,” explained Allan at a recent industry launch of the film inside the new custom built theatre.

Light on one side of the image on the giant screen acts like a point source light onto the other side of the screen.

Main Course Films moved post-production grading and mixing equipment into the theatre, and so while the vfx and other alignment and tracking work was done in a traditional post house, all the final finishing was done on site in the middle of a zoo.

Phil Stuart-Jones was the VFX supervisor at Vandal, who handled the majority of the visual effects work and all simulated holograms etc. While Graham Davidson with some 40 years experience in production and post did all the camera stitching and much of the fix up work, such as removing a large number of yachts from the opening Drone sequence, to give the harbour a more timeless quality. Quentin Peel handled co-ordinating the complex drone shots flying with the Trident rig over the harbour, but it is impossible to film Sydney harbour on a beautiful day and not have yachts in shot.

Clara Chong (right) focused on the story and working with the actors, some of whom worked at the actual zoo.

Chong used actual zoo staff where possible, not only for their animal handling skills, but to connect the film with the reality of the work the staff does nationally.  In the end the film provides a brilliant new way for the Zoo to engage with kids in a unique and inspiring manner, allowing both entertainment and education about the Zoo’s conservation message.


(Photos by John Slaytor)