Taking the 3D Journey with Eric Brevig

The name Eric Brevig might not mean much to those who don't read the full credits at the end of a movie but for over 20 years, he's been involved with the special FX and stunts from some of the biggest summer blockbusters from Men in Black to Pearl Harbor and The Day After Tomorrow. If you've been to a summer movie in the past ten years, chances are that you have likely seen some of Brevig's handiwork, although the cutting edge CG work from James Cameron's The Abyss will always stand out as a milestone.

After working on so many big movies, it was time for Brevig to finally take the reins and direct his first feature length film, and he had the unenviable task (or is it an honor?) of directing the first full 3D live action movie. New Line's Journey to the Center of the Earth is a modern day update of the Jules Verne classic from the 19th Century in which Brendan Fraser plays a geologist who travels to Iceland with his nephew Sean (Josh Hutchinson) and ends up in an amazing adventure in a fantastic world at the earth's core, along with a feisty Icelandic tour guide (newcomer Anita Brien). To recreate the amazing environments, Brevig and his team traveled to Iceland to shoot the exteriors on location and then combined sets with CG environments to create Pangea, the world beneath our own, all realized in full glorious 3D.

You've worked with 3D before, but when you were first approached to do this movie using this new technology, what was the learning curve like?
The 3D part of it was the same. I had a choice of shooting the movie on film or HD digital because if you capture on film, you can transfer to HD and then you can continue the process, in post the same way we did. I wanted to learn more about HD photography just to make sure that there wasn't anything too unpleasant that I was getting myself into if I decided to go that route. That's definitely the future of cinematography, and I wanted this to be like a cutting edge, never-before-done approach to filmmaking, but I had to make sure the image would be halfway decent when I was done. I talked to a lot of people who worked in HD including Fred Meyers, the person who is my video engineer. He was the person in charge of the image capture on Star Wars: Episode III, so he definitely was the top person in the world to talk to. He walked me through it: "This is how to record imagery that looks very good in HD, it looks as good as film if you follow these restrictions" and so forth. There's so many benefits to working in digital capture in that you can see your playback immediately and you can watch on the monitor in full resolution. You can go into a 3D tent. What we did is we had a full-size screen because I needed to see the imagery full size because our eyes don't scale down.

You mean like a full movie theater sized screen?
Thirty-five foot screen. Because we were studio based, we took over an abandoned section out of... it was probably the cafeteria or something at one point, but it had a high enough ceiling. We installed a thirty-foot screen and two projectors, and that was a standing dailies screening room the entire time we were there. Literally, I could shoot at lunch, walk over with the tape and see it the same way the audience sees it, full color, sound, 3D, full size screen, judge all the issues, looking for eye strain, any problems in focus or whatever might creep into it, and call them back on the phone across the lot and say, "Okay, you can tear down the set, I'm done with it," literally thirty minutes after walking off of it with the actors. That was definitely the filmmaking of the future, and if you visited our set, we had a ten-foot screen in a tented area on the soundstage that was getting a live feed from the cameras so that guests to the set could come and sit in there with 3D glasses on and watch live while I'm filming what I'm doing. If I ever needed to see something played back, instead of having to leave the soundstage, I would just run over there, grab the glasses, call Fred and say, "Play me back Take 2; I want to check something" because of a 3D moment or whatever--make sure I've done it correctly because I'm looking at it on a flat monitor and watching the actors.

I understand that 3D is not very forgiving and that something like a pimple can jump out. Were those things you had to deal with?
No, the convergence is completely adjustable in post-production. The depth that you build into the scene which is determined by how far apart the lenses are when you shoot, that's baked in, that's locked in, and it takes extraordinary measures to ever change that. You have to actually recreate one of the images to do that, so if I was doing a 3D gag--to use a low brow term--where I wanted Brendan to hold something out and I wanted to enjoy the 3D moment to see how it was playing, I would run over and check it in 3D and say, "Okay, we didn't get that" or "I think I could put more depth into the scene and it's not going to hurt my eyes."

That has to be done while you're shooting?
Right. Convergence is literally taking one of the two images and sliding it sideways, and you could do it in post easily, so that's in fact what I did to speed up my work on the set, I told the convergence pullers--just like a focus puller--"I want you to be very slow, very careful, and get there late on everything because I can tighten it on post, but if you jerk to a place, you're going to build in a bad, blurred frame which I can't get rid of later." So convergence was never my concern on set. It was something I easily fixed in post, but in ocular, the distance between the lenses, I wanted to see how it was working, so I would always make sure that I set that, or I would bracket it, I would actually shoot a couple of takes, "Give me the two inch ocular, now give me a one inch ocular," and I'd play those back and go, "I love the one inch, the two inch hurts people's eyes; we'll go with one inch and then we'll match the scene to it."

It's funny you should say that, because all the 3D I've seen, has given me a really bad headache--even the IMAX stuff I've seen--and this is one of the first movies I've seen twice now and it has not.
That was my goal. I know from working on Disney's short films for theme parks how easy it is to hurt audiences eyes because I'd spent years fixing problems that were built into the photography. I know what the parameters are, I know how much you can exercise the audience's eyes by putting some 3D gags in. It's sort of like sound, you can have some really loud gun shots that'll make you jump out of your chair, but you then have to keep the rest really quiet for a while so you react to it, so that it's a contrast, similarly in 3D, in a short film like a 3D film, they're just throwing everything in but the kitchen sink at you, you kind of can endure it because it's a short time, and you leave, and your eyes are really smarting, if you do that over a ninety minute movie and halfway through I'm just going to go, "It just hurts my eyes," and tear up the glasses, so what I did is I reduced the depth in the movie to a comfortable level that looked pleasing, but was always near the movie screen, and behind it in general because that's where our eyes are used to focusing, and then for the moments where I really wanted to take advantage and draw the attention to, layered depth, I would then bring things out on this side of the screen plane, where your eyes aren't used to converging, and that would be something that would look remarkably interesting or fresh because I hadn't been doing it already, and so you're seasoning just enough to make it exciting, but not overwhelming.

What was the learning curve of using the 3D cameras for your crew and DP (Director of Photography).
They caught on instantly. My DP studied 3D and studied HD; he hadn't worked in HD before. We've been buddies for twenty years and worked together on visual effects sequences, so we have good communication, and he came to the set an expert already, and he asked me questions along the way, so he was up to speed. The camera crew were local hires and literally, by Day 3, they would anticipate how I was going to set the stereo on the camera because they saw the pattern: if it's a close-up, we go to a 1-inch ocular; if it's wide shot, we go to a 1 3⁄4 inch. We're going to pull the convergence of the eyes of the character we are looking at. The rules were so simple for easy 3D, that it's kind of amazing that nobody else had successfully analyzed how to do it.

I've spoken to Dennis Murren and some of the ILM guys and Dennis was talking about this new computerized system that can create 3D out of older movies shot in 2D. Brendan mentioned that you showed him some "Star Wars" footage using this technique which helped convince him to do this.
The term is "dimensionalized" and a different company from The Island did the Star Wars thing, that company is called In-Three. They were the first to come up with a really viable, although very labor intensive, set of software so that you take a 2D image and literally--and I've gone to their studio and sat there and played with it myself, so I know exactly how it works--literally, you put on glasses and you push and pull various parts of the scene so that you make it in 3D, and then with a lot of hand rotoscoping, which is tracing around all the layers, the software that chugs along and builds a second synthetic eye for you to view. It costs about a hundred thousand dollars a minute, so if you have a feature, it's like a ten million dollar investment.

That's not too bad actually.
It's not that bad if it's a hundred minute feature. If it's Titanic and it's three hours, that's thirty million dollars, so you have to weigh the benefits. I talked to George's producer, Rick McCallum, about doing Star Wars because they did a ten-minute demo of the opening of the classical first Star Wars, and it was wonderful in 3D. That's what I showed to Brendan, and Rick said, "The problem is that you pay them ten million dollars to make the movie and then you have to make the prints, with the marketing ads and all that, you've got a sixty million dollar investment for a movie that people have already seen three hundred times. If you're lucky, you'll make a very small profit after all the returns have come in, and we just thought it isn't financially so beneficial for us to do it," so they haven't gone ahead with the whole movie.

Having experience with both techniques, I'm curious what you think about the differences of using dimensionalizing vs. shooting in 3D.
The difference is that I designed a sequence and placed the camera knowing that the depth will look wonderful in the sequence. In the dimensionalization of an old movie, the camera is just placed where it happened to be in the 2D movie and you're adding depth to it, so it's like colorizing a black and white movie versus selecting the colors of all the costumes and lighting them with color gels and all that stuff. They both look fine, one is just after the fact, retrofitting, and one is intentionally.

One of the problems is that there aren't nearly enough 3D theaters to show this everywhere in 3D, but is there any reason why people might want to see this in 2D?
I knew that the majority of people that will ever see this movie in it's lifetime will see it in 2D. That's airlines, that's DVDs, that's watches, that's iPhones, the first theatrical release... so I made a 2D movie that looks good in 3D as opposed to making something that only looks good in 3D. I want to be established as a movie director, not as a 3D movie director, so that as soon as they did a test screening of the 3D movie, they screened it in 2D for an audience, took the 3D off the title and showed them the same movie that we've been testing. It got the exactly the same scores, and they realized that, "Yeah, this thing just plays fine," I sort of shot myself in the foot because I wanted to go back and adjust some of the edits because I feel that things that I'm sitting on that are merely 3D delight moments I could trim, but because it got such good scores they wouldn't let me do the cut.

I've also been told that when you're editing footage in 3D, you have to sometimes change the convergence to make the edits work.
Well you do and you don't. You do because some things are wonderful to look at in 3D and you want to sit on it a little longer, so you have to screen your movie in 3D. If it plays in 3D, it'll work in 2D.

Has RealD been using you as part of their campaign to try to get other directors to use it? I know that so much of getting 3D into the mainstream is getting more people using it.
You know it hasn't been that blatant, but I'm going to do a panel discussion in a week for the Society of Cinematographers, the ASC, because I love 3D and the more people that get into it, the more theaters there will be, and the more I can do 3D movies in the future.

Was there anything in the original book that was too difficult to translate into the 3D environment?
The 3D wasn't a limit, because I knew how to photograph in 3D so I wasn't restricted. What was a limit was that some of the things in the book were amazing visionary ideas 120 years ago, like half of their journey is just getting to Iceland, and that's amazing in the book, but an audience is not going to be very impressed with that. What I did was I took the highlights, the things that I felt were the big, fantastic events... making a raft to go on the underground ocean, running from a dinosaur, that kind of thing. Those were the things we kept in the movie. By updating it to a modern story, I felt like we had the creative license to do that. Everything we set out to do, I did. It wasn't easy because we had to create the technology. It hadn't been done before and the cameras were finished literally the week before we started shooting. None of the visual FX places that did the FX for us had worked at this complexity level in 3D so I was constantly teaching or figuring out how to do it so they could do it. But we achieved everything we set out to do, but it wasn't easy.

Will you want to continue doing 3D movies after this?
I have an extensive background in 3D. I did 3D for Disneyland theme park films, one every five years for like 20 years, so that was already a skill set that I had. I didn't think I'd ever use it in a feature. When the technology in digital projection and 3D projection came about, it was great to be able to make this movie in 3D, but for me, it's more about the story. I would love to make another 3D movie, because I think they're so much fun to watch. It's a financial consideration and I'll always pitch anything I'm doing if it's appropriate to be made in 3D, but for me, it's a tool, like sound or color or anything else to use. It helps tell stories, there's a certain cost associated with it, so I think the project will determine that.

By Edward Douglas, ComingSoon