Q & A with Director Jon M. Chu

“Step Up 3D” BTS: Jon Chu Ph: K.C. Bailey ©2010 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

“Step Up 3D” BTS: Jon Chu Ph: K.C. Bailey ©2010 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Jon M. Chu, director of Touchstone Pictures and Summit Entertainment’s dance drama “Step Up 3D,” opening Aug. 6.

The hip–hop fairy tale that first captivated audiences in the summer of 2006 continues in “Step Up 3D,” the third installment of the hit film franchise, the first dance drama ever to be shot and released in digital 3D.

Jon M. Chu, who made his feature directorial debut with “Step Up 2: The Streets,” returns to direct a cast in which Adam G. Sevani and Alyson Stoner reprise their roles from the last episode and are joined by newcomers Rick Malambri and Sharni Vinson. Also on board are dancers Stephen “tWitch” Boss, Keith Stallworth, Kendra Andrews, Martin Lombard, Facundo Lombard and Oren “Flearock” Michaeli.

The Story (no spoilers): New York’s intense street–dancing underground comes alive in digital 3D as the raw, passion–fueled culture goes global. A tight–knit group of street dancers team up and find themselves pitted against the world’s best hip–hop dancers in a high stakes showdown that will change their lives forever.

“The message is consistent in all three films — believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, you can overcome any obstacle that you are faced with in life and achieve your dreams,” observes producer Jennifer Gibgot.

“Step Up 3D” was produced by Adam Shankman and Jennifer Gibgot (“Step Up” film franchise, “Hairspray”) of Offspring Entertainment produce and by Patrick Wachsberger and Erik Feig of Summit Entertainment (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Twilight Saga” franchise). It was executive produced by David Nicksay (“Step Up 2: The Streets”), Bob Hayward and Meredith Milton. The film’s screenplay by Amy Andelson & Emily Meyer is based on characters created by Duane Adler.

Jon M. Chu established himself as a versatile and original director with the success of his feature directorial debut “Step Up 2: The Streets.” He directed the franchise’s second installment after having just graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2004. The film earned him a 2008 Teen Choice Award.

Chu developed his love of music and dance at an early age. He began by making his own Super 8 films of family vacations and later started shooting short subjects with his brothers and sisters. By the time he was in high school in Los Altos Hills, California, he was videotaping weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, memory videos for school and video yearbooks — and knew he was going to be a filmmaker.

While a sophomore at USC, Chu made the innovative short “Silent Beats,” whose story unfolds to a tap–dance rhythm soundtrack. The film went on to win numerous awards, including the Jack Nicholson Directing Award, the Princess Grace Foundation’s Cary Grant Award and a scholarship that enabled Chu to continue his studies at USC. While there, Chu made the acclaimed 20–minute film “When the Kids Are Away,” a musical exploration of motherhood utilizing salsa, swing and hip–hop as well as a 50–piece orchestra and 20–voice student choir. The short film received widespread interest in Hollywood, bringing Chu to the attention of the producers of “Step Up 2: The Streets.”

More recently, Chu established a significant online presence with the success of “The Biggest Online Dance Battle in History,” featuring the Adam/Chu Dance Crew of top dancers and celebrities. The brainchild of Chu and “Step Up 3D” actor Adam Sevani, it’s grown into a worldwide phenomenon with 45 million views online and appearances on the 2008 Teen Choice Awards and YouTube Live.

In addition, Chu recently ventured into new territory with the release of The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD), an online episodic dance opera chronicling the formation of the world’s most elite dance crew.

Q: How did “Step Up 3D” come about?
A: We were in the process of finishing up (the second film). We’d done our previews for “Step Up 2” and they went very well. And that’s when they called me (from Disney) and said, “Hey, we think this movie's going to do well. We want to do a third one. What do you think? Do you have any ideas?” At first, I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m exhausted. I’m not sure there’s anything more you can do. I mean, it’s a dance movie. We’ve done a lot of dancing in this one. We’ve tripled the amount of any dance movie.” There was an intern who walked by after I’d hung up the phone and he said, “What are they going to do — ‘Step Up 3D?’ Ha–ha–ha!” And everybody in the office started laughing.

Then we kind of just sat there and we looked at each other like, “That would actually kind of be cool. A 3D dance.” It started me thinking. I forget what New York movie I’d seen right at that moment. It’s sort of a filmmaker’s dream to shoot in New York and I’m a California boy so the next time I talked to the studio I was like, “Well, I’ll do it if I could shoot in 3D, which would be really fun. I could actually play with the frame, itself, and shoot an environment that I've never shot in like New York.”

But 3D to me just fit so right. It felt emotionally right for a dance movie. Also, we always talk about choreography is not just what’s within the frame, but of the frame, itself. We always try to have the audience participate almost within the dance, itself, and with 3D that frame becomes literally a part in the dance. When we swing around a pole, in 2D the pole is just a piece of foreground, but in 3D you give a little lean to the camera and all of a sudden you can feel the audience lean a little bit with it. It's a really interesting change up from the way you shoot dance and that got me excited.
Q: We hear so much about 3D today. Lately, people are converting films into 3D. Why is it better when you actually shoot in 3D?
A: It’s definitely a whole new experience. When I came in to 3D this was a year and a half ago. You first go in and meet with all the big 3D companies and they’ll tell you they know what they’re doing and they show you all their big guns. And then you get on the set with these gigantic 3D cameras and you realize we’re still in the very beginning stages of the capabilities of 3D and the potential of 3D as art. We were held back a lot by the technology, itself, just because the cameras break down a lot. Everyone hasn’t figured everything out yet. For steadicam, for instance, (when we started shooting) there is no steadicam for F23 3D rigs because they’re too heavy so they’re designing it while we’re going.

And the camera literally breaks down every day we’re shooting. You never know when or how, but it will break down and you just kind of have to adjust. But that being said, it was actually really exciting. It made us feel like film school again, a little bit, where people are inventing things as we go — like we got the steadicam rig in the middle of the shoot. Before us there was no live feed monitor to see 3D in real time while you were shooting. But we were one of the first productions to get 42 inch LCD screens. When we shot, I could put my head in the lens and with my glasses on I could see my head come out of the screen.

I’ve been to all the lectures and I’ve read all the articles, but until you experience actually making a movie with 3D and you’re there on set and you have an actor and dancers and you have a camera there (that’s when) it all starts to make sense much more than any lecture. I kept telling the dancers when they’re going too fast it’s great in 2D but in 3D my eyes are taking a half a second to register what was happening and by that time they’d already past the move. Dancers are really good at spacing and timing. That’s like their specialty. That’s why I let them watch themselves in playback some times because they can change everything and I don’t have to say one word.

So what I did was turn the monitors around back into the cameras and gave them 3D glasses while they were dancing and suddenly it all clicked with their brains. You could see them slow down their movements just a pitch. You could see them work the depth a little bit. It was a really interesting change that happened right there and I didn’t have to say one word. They understood the spacing and what the audience was experiencing because they had never really tested that themselves.

As we evolved during the weeks we were shooting in 3D our ideas of what we could do in 3D changed. There was a scene when the couple first meet. Originally, in the script they meet in a club and they attract each other and they go upstairs. While we were shooting we realized that 3D does a really good job of making you feel claustrophobic if you’re in a small space and it has intimacy about it. We wanted to play with that so we changed the scene to have him grab her into a photo booth and that’s where they have their first discussion where they meet each other. And suddenly with the camera going into the photo booth you can feel the vibe and you can see the audience lean in just a pitch.

So there was an actual emotional effect to a change just of a setting. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what 3D can do. I’ve seen tests where they’re shooting a couple having an argument in the rain in a car and the rain is really heavy. In 2D you cannot see them in the seat when you’re on the outside so you would just scrap that shot. But in 3D because we’re getting two angles, we can actually make them out through the rain. It makes the scene way more interesting. That’s how as we were shooting we discovered the nuances that 3D can really bring emotionally. Especially in dance you felt you were part of a duet instead of just watching it on stage and we felt that was really exciting.

There’s a lot of discussion on line and in print about the 3D experience, but until you actually have it in your hands and you’re painting with this different color paint you really don’t know. I think the discussion puts a lot of pressure on the filmmaker to take responsibility to make 3D worth the extra $5 that the audience is paying to see it. We understand that our audience (of young people for “Step Up 3D”) for $5 more has to work an extra hour at their day jobs at the hot dog stand or the video store and so we want to give them that value.
“Step Up 3D” (L–R) Rick Malambri, Sharni Vinson Ph: Andrew Eccles ©2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

“Step Up 3D” (L–R) Rick Malambri, Sharni Vinson Ph: Andrew Eccles ©2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

Q: Does shooting in 3D add a lot of days to the schedule?
A: Compared to our “Step Up 2” schedule, we added about 10 days. I didn’t think it would make that big a difference. I just thought we got 10 extra days. But the fact is, the camera breaks down every day so you just have to be really flexible. Also, there’s a lot of synch issues when you’re shooting. If it’s a half a frame off with your left and your right eye the shot’s not (going to work). If your convergence is a little bit off or you have something in the foreground that’s bothering you with focus (in 2D) you can change it in post. But in 3D when there’s something wrong your audience is getting dizzy and they could throw up! So we have to take a lot more time technically to figure it out.

I also didn’t understand what exactly was wrong when we’d shoot for the first three weeks. And even in post I learned a lot about what was actually wrong on those days. It took me that process to see all the things that can go wrong. Also, it takes a lot of time to shoot because of the lenses. Every time you change a lens it’s like a 45 minute turnaround. So we were always running and gunning that way.
Q: How many days did you wind up shooting?
A: We shot 52 days all over New York. We built one set — a bathroom. Everything else is on location. These cameras have never been used more in a movie like out in the open. We didn’t have the money to build a bunch of sets so we were (shooting) in a dorm room at NYU and in Grand Central Station and in Times Square and in Washington Square Park and we were beating these cameras up. We were throwing dust at it and water at it.

We basically broke every rule that James Cameron said not to do. We were like the kids in the candy store. We said if we get this we get to play and we’re going to play. Some stuff really worked. A lot of stuff didn’t work and we figured it out as it went, but we got to really define our own rules and that was really fun. Our whole crew felt like everyone was doing it for the first time because everyone was discovering things as we’d go. The whole environment was like a big laboratory and what a fun way to play with that.
Q: What did 3D do to your budget?
A: I believe in the beginning they just said, “Okay, well you get your budget plus an extra $10 million.” I’m not exactly sure where they got that number. So that’s what they did and we kind of went from there. It was mostly about time — adding those extra days and post time, as well, because there are issues in post. I mean, shooting is one thing. Post is a whole other monster that I never actually expected. There are a lot of things you can do in post to help the 3D. Also, when you have effects, even with just simple titles, a lot of the time the eyes can get switched and you get inverted images because everyone’s learning this 3D stuff for the first time, including the designers of the effects. Sometimes one or two layers will be inverted, but all the other layers of effects won’t be inverted, so you’ll feel something is wrong but you can’t quite figure out what it is.

Half the issue for us was just learning to figure out what was wrong to address the problem. I grew up watching 3D stuff and thinking your eyes are always uncomfortable and it’s just part of the 3D experience. But what we’ve learned is that your eyes don’t have to be uncomfortable ever if you’re doing it completely right. If there’s a moment where your eyes feel uncomfortable, that is a real sign that isn’t just an effect of 3D and you can deal with it. You can actually fix it if you can figure out what’s bothering you.
Q: What was the budget?
A: We had $21 or $22 million for “Step Up 2.” We added $10 million to that so it was like $32 million.
“Step Up 3D” (L–R) Adam Sevani, Kendra Andrews, Sharni Vinson, Tamara Levinson, Ashlee Nino Ph: K.C. Bailey ©2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

“Step Up 3D” (L–R) Adam Sevani, Kendra Andrews, Sharni Vinson, Tamara Levinson, Ashlee Nino Ph: K.C. Bailey ©2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

Q: How do you feel about converting films to 3D?
A: For me as a filmmaker, every shot in our movie is intended to be in 3D so everything that we have in our movie is built for that medium and we adjust it to help tell the story in that. I don’t have anything against dimensionalizing. I just haven’t seen a really great dimensionalized movie yet, to be honest. I actually believe that there will be a world where it’s kind of hybrid. We always had a back–up 2D camera just in case we were shooting and we ran out of time and we couldn’t get that one shot we could pull out the 2D and just get it and dimensionalize it later. We actually never did that, but we always had it as a back–up.

I don’t think dimensionalization is a bad tool to use in 3D. I just think it’s how you use it. Just going through my own experience, I feel that if there was another filmmaker from a different perspective came into the same environment that I did they would have created something totally different and I think that’s really exciting. I think the idea that you give Steven Spielberg a whole new set of colors to paint with, I think that’s really cool to see what he’s going to do — or Martin Scorsese or any of those cats that are getting into the 3D game. Dimensionalizing to me feels — and I don’t want to speak for all those people who are doing it because I don’t know what their perspective is on it — but there’s a lot of errors that can happen in post.

Every step that’s touched by a human being in just the technical aspect of 3D can go wrong and will go wrong. I’ve seen it over and over again — as soon as a human being touches something in the picture of 3D and has to dimensionalize it there’s so many issues that arise and, I think, to do a whole movie like that and to do it right takes a lot more money and a lot more manpower. I don’t know if you have enough power and time on the schedule that movies are being released on to actually do it right.
Q: You also have a new project online called “The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers” — or “The LXD” for short — that launched on Hulu.com via Paramount Digital Entertainment in July.
A: It’s a superhero dance series for the web. We really wanted to bring my Hollywood pedigree but also my web side together to make super high quality web entertainment and especially because we have some of the best dancers in the world that I’ve been able to work with to give them a forum to show off their stuff. It’s a space that we think is underdeveloped and we have the ability to actually bring a lot of great talent both behind and in front of the camera to the table to help elevate the stories.

They’re literally dance operas. They’re fun and crazy and something I could never probably pitch to a studio before. They’re a laboratory that brings dance and storytelling together in a more unique way than has been done. It’s sort of taking what Michael Jackson started in his music videos and expanding on it because each short film that we have — they’re like 10 minutes each — connects to the next one. There’s a whole world of characters that will interact. It’s been really fun to make something strictly for the web at a quality of a feature film and we get to try something really, really different with dance.