Shortly after “Step Up 3D” director Jon M. Chu gave an eloquent answer about growing up in Silicon Valley where he learned that “technology was there to bridge human relationships” and extolled the potential of technology in transforming the arts, his cheek hit the left side of his new iPhone and dropped our call. Seconds later, he chuckled as he got back on the horn, “Technology’s not quite there yet…almost.”
In fact, technology may not have completely caught up yet with the state-of-the-art krumping on display in “Step Up 3D,” but that didn’t stop Chu from putting stereoscopy towards its natural end — the first 3D dance movie. Ridiculous in both the absurd and incredible senses of the word — dance battles start in bathrooms and Slurpee residue floats into the sky — the film is bound to entertain tween fans, dance fanatics and guilty pleasure seekers alike.
It’s just the latest way the 30-year-old director has renewed one of the world’s oldest forms of entertainment with a hi-fi delivery system. (His other recent project, The League of Extraordinary Dancers, a dance troupe made famous by their performances at this year’s Oscars, and a TED Talk last year, recently launched their serial “dance adventure” series on Hulu.)
In a summer where thrills have been limited and a backlash has started against the format, I felt compelled to ask the man who brought popping and locking into the third dimension about what goes into utilizing 3D for a different kind of action film, how Michael Jackson saved “Step Up 3D” and how one goes about preparing a dance for “The Hurt Locker.”
Overall, this is a noticeably brighter film than “Step Up 2: The Streets,” one of the many ways 3D probably changed your approach. Were there other things to take into account?
I had been to all the lectures and read all the books, but you really don’t know 3D until you’re actually there. We basically threw out all the rules and said, let’s just play and find out what we can and can’t do. So we did a lot of tests and our actors are not just actors, they’re amazing dancers and their speed is incredible, so we’re doing a lot of tests with how fast they can spin, how slow they can go and how close to the lens they can come before we have stereo issues.
Dancers are really good with space and their body weight and muscle memory, [but] it was hard for them to understand when we’d say, “no, no, you’ve got to go slower.” Like what do you mean slower? Eventually what we did, we had these 42″ monitors in real time in 3D and gave all the dancers glasses and we turned the monitors around at them while they’re shooting and we said, okay, watch this and you guys can play. That alone changed everything for us because the dancers suddenly understood — I didn’t have to say one thing. They understood what works, what didn’t, when their body cut off the frame, their angles with the camera itself and suddenly, they could be the dancers they wouldn’t in a regular [film] because they understood the language of what the cameras would bring to their dance.
The 3D influenced every part of this movie, including the tone of the movie. I knew if we wanted them to dance at the camera and literally look at the audience as if the audience was in the battle, our tone had to change from “Step Up” and even more so from “Step Up 2.” “Step Up 2” was a little more fantasy than “Step Up,” but this one we had to go even further, so the 3D definitely influenced that.
You mentioned the lectures, which always sound like meetings of a secret society where James Cameron shows 20 minutes of “Avatar.” What actually happens at one?
It was crazy. I went to one at the DGA — this was maybe two years ago — only 40 people in the room and Spielberg, [Jeffrey] Katzenberg and Cameron were the guys talking about what they were doing with 3D and trying to convince different directors. I was next to [Steven] Soderbergh and I wasn’t even thinking about 3D at first. I was like oh my God, I’m sitting by all these awesome directors — I made it!
It was literally like film school where everyone just didn’t know a lot of the answers or even the questions to ask. They brought in some footage like how “Kung Fu Panda” was done in 2D, but then [DreamWorks] had their animators go back and reinterpret some scenes as if they were doing it in 3D, and how much it enhanced that sequence. That was a real eye-opener for me — if you just say, we’re doing everything in 3D straight up and you put that to the choreographers, to your stunt people, to anybody in the process, they will present it differently and that creates a different feel in a movie.
There was no question that 3D and dance was something that should be together, even from “Captain EO.” When I watched that as a kid, it just opened up my brain so much, so to be there amongst those people talking about it, it made me excited more than anything and confident we could actually push the boundaries. All the rules [are] actually not the rules at all. We’re just getting into it. We’re going to start defining those rules in the next five to ten years.