Behind the Scenes of a Next-Gen 3D Film

The name Eric Brevig might not immediately ring a bell, but anyone with a DVD player or a multiplex nearby has no doubt seen his work. Brevig is the special-effects wizard behind Men In Black, Total Recall, The Seventh Sign, Pearl Harbor, The Abyss, and a score of other big-budget blockbusters. This time around, Brevig makes his debut in the director's chair for a 3D reinvention of Jules Verne's classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. But this is not the 3D you remember as a kid watching Creature from the Black Lagoon or Jaws 3-D. Brevig has plunged into the world of next-generation 3D with the pioneering Real D, made famous by James Cameron's forays into the technology. In our Q&A, Brevig talks about the struggle to get the project off the ground, the joys and challenges of working with a technology in its infancy, and why Real D could bring about a theater-going revival.

Eric Brevig

What was the genesis of this project?
It was in development for a few years before I got on board and never really got any traction. I think that the original director's idea for it was a little more in the vein of a theme-park attraction, with extended sequences that were all point-of-view. After a while, they just sort of realized it wasn't working. Then Charlotte Huggins [one of the film's producers] gave me a call and said, "Hey, we need a director. You know all about 3D and visual effects. Will you read the script?" I thought the script itself didn't work at all, but the concept was brilliant. Eventually we brought in a writer, and the script basically changed from a period story based on the original book to what you see now. I thought it was important to make it modern-day because it's hard to relate to a period film, especially one in which the science is so out of date. We used the book as a touchstone, but didn't try to do a true remake.

Did the fact that Journey not only would be in 3D but would be making use of Real D for the first time in a live-action film increase the pressure on you as a first-time director?
I realize in hindsight that I picked probably the world's hardest project for my directorial debut. But based on my experience, I knew I was one of very few people who could pull this off with the amount of time and money we had. Aside from the normal problems one has to deal with on a set, there was the fact that we were using cameras that literally left the machine shop a week before we started shooting.

So how do these cameras and 3D technique compare with what's been used before?
The only precedent for this shooting in this way was the underwater documentary that Jim Cameron did [Ghosts of the Abyss], which was actually shown in IMAX theaters because there was no digital projection at the time. So I used the same cameras that he used. I asked for some changes, and he and his engineering partner accommodated me. [The reworked cameras] take advantage of the fact that with the Sony 950 high-definition cameras, you can remove the lenses and the optical block where the sensor is. You basically have something the size of a softball with a lens attached to it. And that is all you need to capture the image on your set. Everything else—all the electronics and recording devices and so forth—was off-set, connected via fiber optics. So you have two of these lenses and optical block systems in a little rig that holds them the right distance apart. So it's capturing the scene as your two eyes would, on two separate image streams. What we created digitally was two movies about two inches apart in terms of the point of view.

Was Journey shot completely on green screen or were there sound stages involved?
Before I came on, the movie was intended to be actors just on green screen. But based on my experiences of shooting actors in that environment, I really felt that to get convincing performances and that sense of realism, the actors would need to have a set with anything that they could physically touch. So everything that they walk on or touch is real, and the rest is computer graphics.

How did shooting in 3D affect the editing process?
Well, the one aspect of it that diverged from any 2D movie was the dailies. We wanted to run a cut of the film on a full-size screen, because for your eyes to see it the way the audience will, it has to be full size. So at the studio where we were shooting, I had a 30-foot screen set up with dual projectors, and I could literally take the scenes that I had just cut and walk across the parking lot to our theater and watch them—in full color with 3D and sound, just as the audience would see it. If I saw that all the shots were good, I could tell [the crew] they could tear the set apart before we even got back from lunch. It was definitely filmmaking of the future. We also had a 10-foot screen in a little tent over in the corner of the sound stage. You could go in and put on glasses and watch live in 3D what I was shooting.

With the success of Beowulf, James Cameron's upcoming 3D film Avata, and DreamWorks' proclamation that it will make all of its animated films in 3D, do you think the technique will really take off? And can it bring about a theater-going revival?
Yes, because you can't get the same experience on a smaller screen, literally because your eyes are at a certain fixed distance apart. It's definitely something that you can't re-create at home unless you have a 30-foot-wide home-theater screen. When it comes to the question of, "Well, should I see this in the theater or wait until it comes out on DVD?" then 3D is one tool the filmmaker has that absolutely brings an audience to the theater.

How do you describe the Real D experience versus people's notion of traditional 3D?
Most people, when they think of 3D, they think of [characters] just throwing things at the camera. What I wanted to do is let 3D be part of the movie and not just a gimmick. You can design the photography where the whole scene is imaged so audiences really have a sense of it being as much behind the screen, going back into infinity. I think it gives you the sense that this stuff is really there in a way that 2D visual effects don't—they can't quite get to that part of your brain. I've seen the [Journey] footage projected in 2D also, and it's still a fun movie, but there's something for me that's fascinating about the stereo aspect of it.

Can this movie be released on DVD in 3D? Will it come with 3D glasses?
We're a year and a half ahead of the curve in terms of the technology, and there still aren't as many 3D theaters as I would like. So of course the majority of the people that will see the movie will see it in 2D. On DVD, we're just on the cusp of having a standard in place for digital 3D, for formats like Blu-ray. It doesn't exist yet and I'm hoping to get involved in helping push that forward because there's enough content being generated, and past 3D films. But I'd hate for it to go into another Blu-ray–HD DVD format battle. The way you can watch full-color digital stereo movies at home now is to wear glasses. But Thompson Digital has made a monitor that can display specially formatted material, the same way that 3D postcards work. If you put your eyes in the right place, you see the image—though the benefit of not having the glasses, in my opinion, is really outweighed by the fact that you have to hold your head still in exactly the right position.

So you think you might want to do more 3D films in the future as a director?
Yes, I would love to. I really like 3D. For me it's not a burden because I'm used to it and learned what works in 3D and what doesn't. So now I don't have to think about it. And I think it's really fun to watch. But once again, until every theater is in 3D, it's important that the movies stand on their own. My main goal is to make a great movie and if it happens to be in 3D, that's a real plus.

By Cohan Andersen, PC Mag