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Imageworks pros talk 3-D
Go deep with the team behind 'Beowulf'


At Sony Imageworks, 3-D isn't just a part-time interest but a dedicated production pipeline. In 2005, the company helped convert Robert Zemeckis' "The Polar Express" to 3-D, creating a special stereoscopic version of the toon for Imax theaters. A year later, the effects house gave "Open Season" the 3-D treatment, and now it's wrapping work on Zemeckis' motion-capture follow-up, "Beowulf," due to open on nearly 1,000 digital 3-D screens this fall.
Variety sat down with three of Imageworks' 3-D pros -- exec VP Debbie Denise (who oversees the 3-D pipeline), digital effects supervisor Rob Engle (stereo lead on "Beowulf") and senior producer Buzz Hays -- for a roundtable discussion about the past, present and future of the format.

Variety: 3-D has gone through cycles of popularity before, flaring up in the '50s and again in the '80s. With all these new 3-D movies being produced, the real question is whether this is another fad, or is 3-D finally here to stay?

Debbie Denise: New technology has made stereo 3-D a more viable option for filmmakers and theater owners because it's comfortable -- you're not looking through red-and-blue glasses that give you a headache unless you're 7 years old. And with CG technology getting robust enough to create these virtual worlds, it's a perfect scenario for 3-D.

Variety: On computer-animated movies, you can actually create a second virtual eye to render the 3-D movie, but live-action requires a special two-camera system. Has Imageworks considered crossing over to live-action 3-D?

Buzz Hays: You can already read the press asking how many animated films we need in a year -- we're already getting backlash about that -- and 3-D shouldn't be limited to that. So certainly, live action's an option. One of the problems is that everyone's waiting to see how Jim Cameron's going (on "Avatar"), but that's two years away.

Variety: With a heavy-hitter like Cameron onboard, theaters are now compelled to make the transition to digital. Considering that polarized 3-D technology has been around for decades, why would anyone have gone with the inferior experience of red-blue glasses?

Hays: It's all about cost distribution. With a red-blue (anaglyph) movie, you can literally make a 35mm print and take it to any theater, give out a bunch of red-blue glasses, and anybody can watch it in 3-D. (Before digital, polarization typically required two projectors and a special silver screen.) There is an infrastructure that is needed to do good-quality 3-D, and the way Imax does it is literally with two strips of 70mm film. 3-D technology in theaters has evolved over the years. For example, back when "Dial M for Murder" came out in 1955, they were using two-projector systems for that, and they were actually polarizing them, but because most theaters only had two projectors, they had to put intermissions in these very short movies.

Rob Engle: It really comes down to the availability of the theaters. Had the Real D system (which adapts digital projectors to support polarized 3-D releases) had as much penetration as it does now when "Spy Kids" came out, they certainly would have released it in Real D.

Variety: On "Polar Express," Warner Bros. grossed $65 million from Imax 3-D screens alone -- that's a pretty compelling statistic. Now they've got competition from digital megaplexes, and people believe 3-D could be the "killer app" to drive even more conversions.

Hays: On "Monster House," the 3-D screens were grossing two to three times (more than the standard version), and that's proved itself on every feature since: "Open Season," "Meet the Robinsons." Basically, what it comes down to is exhibitors still need assurances that they're going to have product. Most of them have gone digital -- that's the expensive hurdle -- and then the 3-D upgrade is an incremental cost. That's why DreamWorks has already made a pronouncement that starting in 2009, all their animated features will be in 3-D. Cameron's still a few years out, but it's setting the tone that this is going to be around for a while.

Engle: The other question is, will the public want to see every movie in 3-D or not? When you go back to why people stopped going to see 3-D movies in the past, I think it's because 3-D movies became all gags and no content, it was all "House of Wax" stuff being jabbed in your face. "Polar Express" was not specifically designed to be a 3-D film, but the reason it succeeded was because (Zemeckis') sense of composition lends itself perfectly to 3-D. As soon as you start making a movie that is nothing but 3-D gags, then you start to turn off the public.

Variety: It's an enhancement, just like sound, and some filmmakers know how to use it, while others make your eardrums bleed. I have a hard time believing that we'll reach a point anywhere in my lifetime when we see every movie in 3-D, but I think it can be one of those value-adds for the more spectacular films in the same way that THX was used on selective event movies early on.

Engle: When people watch a 3-D movie, we're asking them to do something they don't actually do in the normal world, which is to disconnect where they're focusing -- because they're always looking at the screen -- from where their eyes are converging. For a lot of people that causes discomfort, and if we start to make every film in 3-D, you're actually going to turn off a reasonable percentage of your viewing population.

Hayes: The biggest thing about 3-D is education. Very few directors have any experience with it whatsoever, but if you get them to step away from the video monitor for a few seconds, the whole world is 3-D. They're so used to this little rectangular box that they've disconnected themselves from it. It seems like a bit of a hurdle having two cameras on set, but it's all fear of the unknown.

Variety: When it comes to visual effects, it's hard enough getting CG to blend with live action. How do you do it when you're working in 3-D, the way Cameron is approaching "Avatar"?

Hays: You pretty much have to use the same technique for all of the elements within a shot. If you don't, it becomes readily apparent.

Denise: Typically, in a CG feature or a live-action feature, you do lots of cheats just to make that final frame look good, and with 3-D, you have to go back to the rendering phase of the shot instead of doing a composite fix.

Engle: When you're doing a film like "Beowulf" where you're simulating humans, people have a really good idea of what looks right and what looks wrong. It's totally different if it's a CG bear or an ant, but people expect humans to look human and to have roundness and shape. We really want to be sure that feels natural.

Variety: A number of companies, from Imax to In-Three, are working to "dimensionalize" live-action movies that were shot in 2-D (for example, Imax converted the last 20 minutes of this summer's "Harry Potter" movie into 3-D). There's talk that George Lucas will try it with "Star Wars." How does that work?

Hays: It's a hard thing to do, as it turns out. It's not just a matter of slicing stuff out and moving them to various points in space. When you're pulling apart a 2-D movie, you have to understand that 3-D space and be faithful to it. If things are just slightly wrong in space, it becomes hard to watch.

Denise: And motion blur is not our friend.

Engle: I don't remember who thought of doing "My Dinner with Andre" in 3-D -- the first response is to laugh, but it's perfect, lots of nice long shots and you could sit there and just soak it in. Sure, it wouldn't be spears in your eyes, but it would definitely be an experience.

Variety: It would be interesting to see a non-spectacle movie in 3-D.

Hays: What really sells 3-D for all of us are the subtle aspects of it, not the stuff that beats you over the head. When you see "Beowulf," I think you'll be blown away by the subtle details that just go right by you in 2-D, while in 3-D, you're sort of entranced by it. Bob (Zemeckis) knows where your attention is going to be. He's put a lot of his efforts into making sure that "Beo" looks great in 3-D, and it's the little tiny details that sell it.

Denise: For instance, there's a shot where there's a foreground character speaking, there's a background character that he's address, but in between there's a character that has all this motivation, all this emotion and all these questions in his eyes and in the way he's moving, that I never noticed in the 2-D shot. I only saw it in 3-D.

Hays: The other shot is Beo talking, and the person he's talking to is a reflection in the mirror, and again, it gives you this whole sense now that you're here with these people and you know exactly where everything is in the room, just based on looking at one shot, which you can't do with 2-D.

Variety: Is there anything that frustrates you now or hasn't been solved in terms of this 3-D puzzle?

Engle: There are a couple technological issues. One is that the medium we're working in is really delivering two separate movies, one to the left eye and one to the right eye, and so far there is not a delivery means -- Real D, Imax, whatever -- that is perfect in (separating the two pictures), which creates "crosstalk" or "ghosting." "Beowulf" is a really good example of that. Because of the time frame it takes place in, you don't have electric light, so it's a high-contrast movie. Scenes with high contrast are more likely to be objectionable in 3-D. The other issue is that we need people to start thinking about the consequences of the choices they make in 2-D, how they're going to affect the 3-D.

Variety: When will we reach a point where the filmmakers and distributors say, "This is only going out in 3-D? I'm not creating a 2-D version for the other 90% of theaters that can't display 3-D."

Denise: When (producer) Steve Bing saw our 3-D "Beowulf" work, he said, "If I could, I would only release this in 3-D." But there's not enough theaters.

Hays: But the nice thing is that's a solvable problem. Again, it's hard to convince exhibitors to spend that kind of money when we're all excited about what happens this November, but what about next spring and next summer? We have to make sure we're giving them enough reasons to convert. Back in the days when all that revolutionary stuff was happening, like 3-D and Sensurround, studios still controlled the movie theaters, and they were giving their own reason to get people to come to their theater. They didn't care about the one down the street, so it was a very gimmick-driven thing.

Variety: By the time they convert the number of screens needed to support a tentpole opening only in 3-D, the homevideo side may have figured out 3-D as well. Will this be the cure for the wane of theatrical attendance? Cameron and others are positioning this as a reason to get people back into theaters for an experience they can't get at home, but I see a certain fallacy in that argument.

Engle: I agree. They're making an argument that 3-D is what's going to get people into the theaters, but at the same time, they're saying, the home theater is going to get that technology as well. The way to rectify that is to realize it's going to take a long time before we have 3-D in everybody's home, and yet we can build up an infrastructure of 3-D capable theaters right now.

Hays: The good thing for us is, because we've already done so many 3-D pictures and we have more in mind, it gives us a chance to keep refining all these ideas and making more and more comfortable experiences, hopefully to the point where you don't bring up the point that you're seeing a 3-D movie. Today, no one asks, "Are we going to see a color movie tonight?" You're just going to see a movie.

Stephen Lang ("A Few Good Men," "Defiance") and Michelle Rodriguez have joined the cast of James Cameron's "Avatar" scheduled to hit theatres Memorial Day 2009 reports Variety.

Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, CCH Pounder and Wes Studi have already been cast, and in most cases shot many of their scenes for the performance-capture feature currently in production in Los Angeles.

Lang plays a Marine Corps colonel and Rodriguez an ex-Marine pilot. Production on the $190 million 3D feature, which combines live-action with photorealistic virtual characters and environments, moves to Wellington in New Zealand this October for a month of shooting.

Quint: Speaking of being in a ridiculous situation, aren’t you working with James Cameron now?
Joel Moore: [Laughingly] That is a ridiculous situation, ridiculous in the fact that I could never ever dream that I would be working with the biggest director…
Quint: I got to meet Cameron at the Santa Barbara Film Festival a couple of years ago and that was just the coolest thing ever. I got to sit down and just talk and I totally just geeked out about ALIENS and I probably freaked him out, because there was a point were he was like “Well you know I’ve directed other movies besides ALIENS” and I was like “Dude, I have TERMINATOR posters and stuff, too. I love all of your movies, TRUE LIES… that’s great, but ALIENS is the tip of the top for me, so…
Joel Moore: (laughs) And I’m sure ALIENS is probably the one that he feels less… he created TERMINATOR… he created THE ABYSS… he created, like you said, TRUE LIES and all of these and the whole franchise of TERMINATOR is because of him. ALIENS is actually a sequel that he wrote to a movie that he really liked which shows how creative and passionate he is, but it’s probably the one that he has the least control over, I guess.

In conversation with him, he loves the movie and it’s a big part of his success was making that and because I’m working with Sigourney Weaver as well, they have some stories about that and…

Quint: That’d blow my mind man, that’s so cool.
Joel Moore: Yeah, I’m her right hand man in the movie, but yeah they talk about how… they give great stories about how they were on set together and the shit that happened and the fact that this was a sequel and Sigourney didn’t even know that there was going to be a sequel to ALIEN. She had no clue and Jim wrote this great treatment or script for it and ended up making it and then it sort of turned into a franchise because of him writing the sequel, which I thought was pretty cool.

I think he had already done TERMINATOR by the time he went and directed…

Quint: Yeah, I think he got the gig for ALIENS when he was wrapping up TERMINATOR, if I know my nerd history.
Joel Moore: You’re very right, but Sigourney… it’s such an honor to be in the position that I am in and coming from all of these comedies and movies that people don’t necessarily take seriously, which is fine because they are still entertaining, it’s such a blessing to be a part of something that is so big. It’s literally going to change the history of filmmaking, this movie. It’s crazy and the stuff that we are doing on set and the technology that is involved and the way that Jim’s concept of making this movie is A) completely different than any other movie that I’ve done or anybody has done, just because of the technology involved and B) the story that he is telling and the vision that he has created for it is captivating and not just because it’s 3D or because we are using this whole different motion capture type of thing, it’s because…

I read the script when we were meeting at first and they locked me in a room and made me sign my life away and said “We will start with your pinkies if you say anything,” but I literally was, and I knew that outside of his history and outside of TITANIC, there was a bunch of Sci-Fi stuff that he had done and that’s awesome, because I’m a fan and I had loved those movies, but I thought “OK cool, another huge 200 million dollar Sci-Fi movie… this is awesome and a great thing to be a part of,” but it’s actually this beautiful love story and it’s very politically relevant and it’s almost a coming of age for humanity story. It’s just so developed at all of these different levels and I literally teared up a couple of times just reading the script. It was such a great script. I was so surprised, not that he couldn’t make anything like this, but surprised that it was this. I didn’t think it was this kind of a movie. I thought Sci-Fi from the way that when I had met on the film originally on the phone that they had explained it and I’m sure everybody in the world right now thinks that it’s Sci-Fi, but it’s so much more than that.

Quint: Everybody assumes in Cameron’s Sci-Fi that there’s going to be good action, but at the same time you look at what he did in ALIENS and THE ABYSS, especially THE ABYSS. THE ABYSS is such a character movie all about relationships and all about the emotion.
Joel Moore: This does have a little bit of that in it, if you were to liken it to anything else that he has done. It’s just on such a bigger level, because you’ve got these crazy LORD OF THE RINGS size action sequences in it and it’s that kind of a movie as well.

To be able to put all of that together in one movie is fucking hard and that’s what I think was so impressive to me personally, because I read a lot of scripts and you never see people successfully put all of these things together, you kind of have to pick and choose. If you’re a big budget movie and you are wanting to be a love story, you be a love story. If you want it to be an action movie, you be TRANSFOMERS, you know? You can still have a love story, but it’s just… it’s really cool that all of it happens in the same movie. I’m sorry. I know that I’m being very vague, but…

Quint: No, I understand. I don’t want you to lose your pinkies.
Joel Moore: Exactly, but working alongside Sigourney is such a crazy honor and she couldn’t be nicer and Jim couldn’t be a better director. In as much as directing and filmmaking goes, I honestly can’t imagine ever working with a better director. He doesn’t take lunches. He’s editing on his lunch breaks. He is the hardest working person on set. When other people are on a tiny little break and the people are kind of… like if there’s a computer crash or a whatever is going on, there is people just waiting around to see what’s going to happen next and he’s up and going, sketching a new sketch, creating a new part of the land that we are on and just doing whatever there is to be done; he can’t sit down. They literally have to bring lunch in to him and put it in front of him so that for whatever he is doing he can just walk around and eat a sandwich as he’s going.
Quint: I’ve heard that, because there’s lots of horror stories about him being a really tough director, but each and everyone of them that I have ever heard has always had an epilogue to the story saying “but at the same time, he’s also not somebody who is doing this for any other reason and he’s doing so much work himself that he expects a level of quality from the people around him.”
Joel Moore: Yeah and it’s funny that there are all of these… because that’s what people say to me to and my only response is “If that’s the case, then why is every person that I’m working with, the whole crew, has been his crew for the last twenty years? If that’s the case, then why are all of these people back?”

They understand there is a very much militant attitude toward getting the job done, but I think that, just like I do, they appreciate that and that isn’t always roses and “Can you pleases.” That’s a little bit of “OK, let’s get this… Go do that and let’s get this done.” It’s just like that with us, he is never rude but always “here we are. This what we’re going to do. This is where we are… But he is always careful with his talent, because he knows that the talent are the people that are driving what’s going to happen for the day.

He takes a special reservation for the talent and I’m honored to be a part of that reservation, because it’s really a story about a few of us that are going to another planet and it’s me and Sam Worthington and Sigourney that are scientists and Sam’s a marine and we are going to this other planet to sort of assimilate into another society. Because of that, a lot of it happens around us… like I have a girlfriend in this and it’s not an ugly German with a unibrow, like DODGEBALL, it’s a different thing. It’s Michelle Rodriguez and she’s hot.
Quint: And she definitely does not have a unibrow.
Joel Moore: She doesn’t have a unibrow.
Quint: I spent a lot of time in New Zealand and on RINGS I got to watch Andy Serkis work a lot, but I’m hearing that, like you are saying, this is a different mo-cap thing. Is that…?
Joel Moore: Well, we are working with WETA, the famed company that did all of Andy’s stuff and all of Peter Jackson’s stuff of course, but the technology that is involved with what we are doing is on a different level and even WETA would say the same thing. They’re part of the reason that the technology is on a different level.

They have a daunting year ahead of them to make all of this happen, but I think that they’re excited to be able to put all of the pieces together as well, because it’s such a challenge. This is going to look like no other film has ever looked and there’s something that I’m sure is special to that, just like when they were making LORD OF THE RINGS, I’m sure they thought “This is going to go down in history as one of the best trilogies ever.” I think they can look at AVATAR after a ten year break of James Cameron making movies, he come to this one which he’s had in the works, you know he wrote this thing ten or twelve years ago or at least the treatment for it and he had to wait for technology to catch up to him to be able to make it, so I think that there’s also this great and captivating part of the project that is special to them as well.

Quint: I’ve heard that he has actually been shooting live action as well as doing mo-cap stuff?
Joel Moore: Yeah, there is definitely live-action stuff as well.
Quint: That’s awesome.
Joel Moore: Yeah its pretty cool. I’m excited, we are going to New Zealand for a couple months and the New Zealand side… it’ll just be fun to be over there because I am a geek as well and I want to see all of the Weta stuff…

DreamWorks Animation has moved up the 3D CG-animated feature "Monsters vs. Aliens" two months to March 27th 2009 reports the trades.

The date change avoids a head-to-head collision with James Cameron's "Avatar" which would have meant the films would be fighting over the growing number of digital 3-D screens.

"Monsters" will now look to take advantage of the Easter holiday, which falls on April 12th. It will also go head-to-head with Sony's animated feature "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Giovanni Ribisi has signed on to James Cameron's $190 million 3-D feature "Avatar," playing a passive-aggressive character named Selfridge in the Fox film says The Hollywood Reporter.

The story follows a band of humans pitted against a distant planet's indigenous inhabitants. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez also star.

The feature blends live-action photography and new virtual photorealistic production techniques invented by Cameron's team and features six computer-generated actors.

The film is currently in production in Los Angeles and next month starts production in New Zealand at Weta Digital.


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