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Catherine Owens, U2 3D

BONO AND THE EDGE IN CATHERINE OWENS AND MARK PELLINGTON’S U2 3D. COURTESY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENTERTAINMENT.

Though her body of work is famous, Catherine Owens — the woman behind the visual design of U2’s legendary stadium tours of the past 15 years — until now has maintained a much lower profile. Beginning with the band’s revolutionary ZooTV tour in 1992, Irish artist Owens used her expertise in many media (sculpture, video art, sound design, photography, etc.) as inspiration for their subsequent PopMart, Elevation and Vertigo tours, helping the band gain a reputation as the best live act in the world. She has also recently worked on conceptual art for the Chinese musician Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet, as well as directing the award-winning video for U2’s single Original of the Species in 2005.

Owens’ longstanding ties with the band and intimate knowledge of their artistic sensibilities made her a natural choice to direct a 3D concert movie about the band, the first ever film in digital 3D. Though U2 3D eschews the use of backstage footage and over-elaborate camera moves for a much purer, more traditional conception of the concert movie, it uniquely succeeds in conveying the experience of seeing a band live, in most part because of the incredible, eye-popping 3D. The film, co-directed with another former U2 collaborator, Mark Pellington (also known for his fiction films, such as Arlington Road), captures the band at its very best, playing to a crowded soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and is a truly compelling cinematic experience.

Filmmaker spoke to Owens on the phone from Sundance about working in 3D, future possibilities for the new technology and making a romantic comedy with Emily Brontë.

DIRECTOR CATHERINE OWENS WITH THE MEMBERS U2 AT THE CANNES UNVEILING OF U2 3D. COURTESY NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ENTERTAINMENT.

Filmmaker: Are you in Sundance at the moment?

Owens: In Sundance, looking out over the snowy mountain. It’s really quite beautiful because there’s a lot of snow on the ground. It’s my first time ever in this world, so it’s very exciting. We’re having a wonderful time.

Filmmaker: I’m sure you’re looking forward to screening the film there. I saw it recently, and the impact it had on the audience was incredible.

Owens: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think it’s new and definitely breaks away from the formula, and that’s something that’s really exciting for us.

Filmmaker: How did you first get involved with this project?

Owens: I’ve worked with U2 for the best part of 15 years providing visual content for their shows. John Modell and his brother David Modell, who were starting up a company with [fellow producers] Pete Shapiro and Jon Shapiro, really are U2 fans and they were developing this technology for the sports world but they offered us the technology, [saying] “Well, we were planning to do [sports], but if you guys wanna have a go with it first…?” We were like, “OK, great. New technology, no one has a clue how it works — that’ll suit us fine! We’ll see if we can make something out of it.” In true U2 fashion, anything that nobody’s done before is a good road to go down.

Filmmaker: And did you have a chance to get comfortable with the 3D technology in the build-up to shooting this film?

Owens: [It was] on-the-job training! [laughs] We did one small test on one camera a couple of months before we signed off on doing it, but it didn’t give us any indication of what we were really in for. That only started once we were working in post-production with the 3D special effects department. It’s been a very interesting conversation between the band and the special effects world, because the aim is to keep all the emotion of the performance intact, but then you also have to keep your eye on how 3D behaves with the mind and the eye. We developed new software to make it easier to view a lot of the changes we were making. It was very interesting.

Filmmaker: How much concert footage had you shot prior to this film?

Owens: Nothing… [laughs] I did make a video with U2 in 2005 that was nominated for two video awards. We had worked together on motion capture [for that], so we had already done an interesting venture into technology and music and emotion. A lot of my personal drive is to give technology emotion, because I think there are a lot of technical people who build this technology and then feel that they are the only people who know who to use it. Very often, they’re not really artists or they don’t necessarily have great ideas or aren’t inspired, so it’s trying to crossover those two worlds.

Filmmaker: Did you go out and rent concert movies like Don’t Look Back or The Last Waltz as preparation for making this film?

Owens: No, I don’t really do my research in that way. [laughs] But I can still remember the first time I saw Stop Making Sense, which I thought was very beautiful. I’m very much an in-the-moment type of person and I’m an artist, so my inspiration lies in the art world, and performance art and the theater and the exhibition space. I’m very well-versed in performance art and video, so that’s my world of inspiration. I’ve always been a big fan of Bill Viola and Laurie Anderson and people who use space in an interesting way.

Filmmaker: Did you ever consider having backstage footage in the film?

Owens: I made a decision that that really wasn’t the kind of film we were going to make. I wanted to document the pure performance. It’s tempting to do a lot of B-roll, because a lot of people do, but I think there’s too many films about how many trucks it takes to load in the gear. And even though I know the fans really want to know that, I just wanted to give the band what it is that they had invested in. The band were very happy just to focus on that.

Filmmaker: I think concert films that are purely performance generally fail to put across the feeling of watching a band play live, but this film succeeds in conveying the live experience.

Owens: A lot of that has to do with the 3D. In one shot, we have Larry in the background and the Edge layered over Larry, and Adam’s to the right and Bono’s in front. Two of those layers can come from a completely different image, and the image behind and in front can stay in the same space. And then you can move the front image out and bring a new image in. And then keep the two images in the middle space the same. And that’s made up from two or three different shows, just that one little moment, and that’s what people see when they’re there.

Filmmaker: The moments where band members lean towards the camera bring out the 3D aspects a lot more for the audience, so did you encourage them to do things like that?

Owens: We started off [having] a conversation of “Let’s not do all those tricks that everybody does in 3D, let’s not go there. Let’s really try and capture the performance as we know it and then if there are moments when you feel you want to contribute, fire away and contribute.” That worked out well because I think it took everybody away from feeling like they had to perform, so in those one or two moments where the band break through, it’s enough. We built an arc from the beginning of the show to the end and within there we were able to give each song it’s own look for 3D, so I felt we were able to keep reintroducing 3D without using those tricks.

Filmmaker: How different was the shooting experience given that you were shooting 3D rather than 2D?

Owens: It wasn’t that different for us because we had these technical people operating the cameras and a 3D team who make 3D films, so from our point of view all we were looking at was cameras with two heads instead of one. Two cameras are recording, but you’re still back calling your shots for one camera, one view. As long as your technical people are very good, there’s no difference.

Filmmaker: So were you and Mark Pellington just sitting in front of banks of monitors, telling the camera operators what to do?

Owens: Yes. Myself and Mark and Tom Krueger, our DP, divided the cameras into three on the shoots that Mark co-directed, and then when we went back into the 3D world, my team in New York and the team in L.A. built the 3D and I worked with the editors. For rather a long time. But, you know, it takes that amount of time.

Filmmaker: So how long were you in post-production?

Owens: We shot in February ’06, so literally two years. We started editing in May, and we finished a couple of weeks ago. [laughs] But, you know, part of that is that in my particular way of working I’m very dedicated to what I want. There are probably many directors who would have stopped short a couple of months ago, but I really needed to go to a certain place — the place it is at right now — and that took an awful lot of time revising the 3D edit. There was a lot of [time spent] making every single shot work in 3D.

Filmmaker: Did you edit in 3D?

Owens: Well, we edited first in 2D and did a rough cut per song, because I had to get a sign-off from the band (in all sorts of places, like kitchens, cars and bus stops). [laughs] We would sign off in 2D and then once we’d got a basic look for the film then we started editing that in 3D, where we learnt a lot of tricks.

Filmmaker: You said before that in the editing you took shots from different shows and layered those shots together.

Owens: Yes, comped them into the same moment. You film what you film and then you take it into the post-production world and then you take out the shots that you want and let them speak to you as to how they want to be made. That’s certainly how we worked. There’s a point where you let the film tell you what it wants to be, especially in the 3D space, because 3D is a bit funny. You can’t just plug a script into 3D, it’s very malleable and it has its own way of moving, so you just have to go with it.

Filmmaker: How keen are you to work in 3D again?

Owens: I’m very keen, very keen. I think it’s an incredible, incredible medium and I’m just dying to see what other directors are going to do with it. I’m keen, but only if it’s continually challenging the space and the experience of the film. I wouldn’t be running off to do a whole load of films in 3D just because you could. I’m interested in the crossover between theater, performance, art and music, so I’d like to see how you could craft a narrative into that space, but keep it very conceptual.

Filmmaker: What potential do you see for 3D in the future, particularly in fiction films?

Owens: Any director with a vision is going to be able to make 3D do something really interesting. If you take somebody like Paul Thomas Anderson, Peter Greenaway or Julie Taymor, or anyone with an understanding of the sculptural aspects of space, I think 3D is going to delight them.

Filmmaker: How much of a new dawn do you think this is in terms of the impact this new technology will have on cinema?

Owens: We’re just a bunch of Irish people, but I do think that we’ve created an avenue for people to pick up and go on down. I’d be really disappointed if people didn’t think, “Oh God, let’s do it!” because even though 3D is difficult, I am not a traditional film director so I’m pretty good proof that it can be done based on a vision. I’m hoping that’s going to encourage a whole load of up-and-coming NYU film students. You know, 3D is a lot of fun, a lot of fun!

Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?

Owens: If you’re a guy, yah! [laughs] If you’re a man, it certainly is; if you’re a woman, hmm, I’m not so sure…

Filmmaker: So what would you change?

Owens: I’d make it less of an old boys’ network. I would just put more women in powerful positions.

Filmmaker: Finally, if you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?

Owens: In Victorian England, and I’d probably make a romantic comedy. Maybe I would work with Emily Brontë or something, or work with some female writer and make their stories into some fantastic thing.

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