'Journey' at Center of Visual F/X Race

In an upset, modestly budgeted 3-D kidpic Journey to the Center of the Earth has advanced to the Oscar visual effects bakeoff -- and created a logistics headache for the Academy in the process. Journey, one of the last hits from New Line, will compete for an Oscar nomination with six other films: Fox's Australia, Paramount's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Warner's The Dark Knight, Universal's Hellboy II, Par's Iron Man and U's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

Journey beat out several costly vfx tentpoles, including Par's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which featured effects from Industrial Light and Magic; Sony's hit Hancock; and Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

The inclusion of Journey, the first all-digital 3-D live-action feature, is a problem for the Acad because it has not yet installed a digital projector in its Goldwyn Theater, where the competish will be held. A digital projector is required for modern-day 3-D. While the Academy will install some sort of temporary 3-D system for the bakeoff, there already has been one high-profile failure of such a digital setup this season: The abortive debut screening of Benjamin Button at the DGA. Acad executive director Bruce Davis told Daily Variety in November that the org hoped to have a digital projector installed at the Goldwyn by the end of 2008, but that did not happen.

Journey helmer Eric Brevig expressed concern that an improvised digital setup that shows the footage "too dark or too small" would put his picture at a disadvantage.

David Gray, chairman of the Academy's Theater Standards Committee, said it would take two stacked digital projectors to get a 3-D image on the Goldwyn's 65-foot-wide screen at proper brightness, and the port in the theater's projection booth isn't big enough for two projectors. Renovations to accommodate a second projector will be done later this year, he said.

In the meantime, the Journey reel will be shown with a single projector, with only a 28-foot-wide image on the Goldwyn's 65-foot-wide screen. It will be as bright as the other reels but significantly smaller.

"It doesn't seem like they're not trying, they're just not able to have the highest quality system in place (for the bakeoff)," Brevig said.

Journey isn't the only competitor with a format issue. The Dark Knight features several major vfx sequences that were shot and finished in Imax. The supersized format is much higher resolution than normal movies and demands much more fine detail in the vfx. The difficulty of those sequences is a big part of the film's vfx pitch. However the Goldwyn Theater doesn't have an Imax projector and Gray said installing one would be "not particularly practical."

"In the future, it might be something that needs to be potentially dealt with, especially if in visual effects they feel it makes a different presentation," he said. In any event, he added, "It would be very difficult to turn the Goldwyn into an Imax theater."

Among visual effects shops, the list was especially good news for Digital Domain, which is represented on Benjamin Button and Mummy, and London's Double Negative, which worked on The Dark Knight and Hellboy II. Rhythm & Hues, which took an Oscar last year for The Golden Compass, is also in the running for Mummy. ILM is competing with Iron Man.

The list shows the growing decentralization and globalization of digital production. Two vfx giants are unrepresented: Weta Digital and Sony Pictures Imageworks. But several smaller shops in Australia and Canada have work in the competish.

The seven semifinalists will present their 15-minute highlight reels to the Acad's vfx branch at the Jan. 15 bakeoff. The members will vote immediately after for the three Oscar nominees. The visual effects bakeoff, which is open to the public, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Goldwyn.

By David S. Cohen, Variety