Figuring Out Live-action 3-D a 'Journey' for All Involved

"On Wednesday at ShoWest, Walden Media and New Line presented an advance screening of "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D," which looks poised to be the first live-action narrative feature to be lensed and released in digital stereoscopic 3-D. It's slated for a July 11 release, though that could change as Warner Bros. takes over at New Line.

A fair number of animated films already have entered or gone through a 3-D stereoscopic pipeline. But the challenges of 3-D production in live-action filmmaking are still quite new and have been a frequent topic of discussion in the community.

"Journey" is the directorial debut of VFX veteran Eric Brevig, who shared a special achievement Academy Award for the visual effects on "Total Recall" and was Oscar-nominated for "Pearl Harbor" and "Hook."

"(3-D) is no more challenging that any other new technology," he says. "Whether it's visual effects, motion capture -- all of those things require the use of specialized equipment."

Brevig says "Journey" was planned as a 3-D feature from the start, and the action was designed to take advantage of the format. There were two clear messages: Filmmakers need to do their homework before starting production, and viewing work as the audience will see it is critical.

The adventure was shot on location and on stages in Montreal and Iceland. Brevig turned to Burbank-based Pace to use its stereoscopic HD digital studio camera system, developed by Vince Pace -- a veteran underwater and special effects cinematographer who founded the company -- and partner James Cameron. Brevig says that after a lot of early testing, "we knew the smartest ways to work with the cameras on set."

He says it is important for filmmakers to view dailies in the theatrical environment. For "Journey," a 30-foot screen and two projectors for right eye/left eye were installed on set.

"We had to pioneer a path for our image data so we could view it in 3-D when needed," Brevig says, moving to the subject of postproduction. "We cut in 2-D, then conformed in 3-D and (checked the shots), then we made adjustments. ... What we did, which we think is going to prove desirable, is color grading and adjustments of depth in real time in a theater environment."

He adds: "Part of the editing is just to make sure (3-D) is a comfortable experience for the viewer. You can have a wonderful off-the-screen 3-D moment, but you also want to allow the viewer to enjoy the movie without having to do eye calisthenics. That's something you can't judge on a small screen."

Visual effects, meanwhile, posed some unique challenges.

One was in the area of compositing, which is the process of combining separate visual elements (i.e., live action with animation) into a single image.

"You have to do two composites, a right eye and a left eye," Brevig says. "And, when viewed together in stereo, the layers of the composites (need to be) in the proper Z space (a term used to describe distance from the viewer). ... Cheats that you can do in 2-D you can't in 3-D."

Therefore, he says, everything has to be rendered twice, taking twice as long.

For visual effects, the work was handled at facilities including Weta Workshop ("The Lord of the Rings" trilogy), Rhythm and Hues ("The Golden Compass") and Sony Pictures Imageworks (the "Spider-Man" films)."

By Carolyn Giardina, The Hollywood Reporter