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Adding 3-D Bite to 'Piranha'

Find out how Piranha 3D is a new twist on an old genre.

Neville Page designed a semi prehistoric-looking piranha and Flat Earth animated the hero fish. Images courtesy of Dimension Films.

Remaking Joe Dante's Piranha as a 3-D horror comedy was a natural: As VFX Supervisor Derek Wentworth proclaims: "It's 3-D gore, boobs, asses, blood and fish!"

Indeed, Wentworth adds that in making Piranha 3D, they had to navigate rough MPAA waters in steering clear of an NC-17 rating, especially with regard to a notorious penis shot, along with fixing and augmenting nudity.

In fact, Wentworth suggests that director Alexandre Aja (the upcoming Space Adventure Cobra and The Hills Have Eyes remake) always had something in mind along the lines of a horror version of Porky's.

"Alex had this idea of creating a cool 3-D horror film and thought it was something that hadn't been done before in a medium that's just starting to come into its own, so I was pretty excited about it and jumped on board," Wentworth explains. "It's the middle of spring break and an earthquake releases all these prehistoric piranha and they go on a feeding frenzy."

Stereoscopic 3-D was part conversion by inner-D and as vfx for big negative parallax moments.

And there were plenty of challenges, beginning with design of the deadly fish: "The design was the brainchild of both Alex and Neville Page, who was our creature designer," adds Wentworth. "They went back and forth a lot and then, obviously, Bob Weinstein had very specific ideas about what he liked and didn't like. Neville had various kinds of tails and mouth structures and fin structures and dorsal fins. Some of them screamed prehistoric and other are a little more what we would expect the shape of a piranha to be. It ended up going more toward the prehistoric extreme. Our design was from the nose to the middle of the body an old piranha and then from the middle of the body to the tail it was a prehistoric, eel-like shape. Most piranhas are very sporadic in their movement and we knew right away that the footage we had looked at was useful for schooling behavior but not for swimming behavior because ours was three times longer than it should be. So that took some animation noodling."

That noodling went back and forth between several vendors early on (including Intelligent Creatures), before a change of direction necessitated the creation of an in-house vfx unit through the Weinstein Co. called Flat Earth, under the animation supervision of Don Waller. In all, there were around 325 shots in the final film, with most of the CG concentration on the fish and rock formations and the aforementioned nudity and gore.

"Don took the reins of the hero animation," continues Wentworth, "and a lot of the schooling animation was done at Gradient, and some of it was also done at CIS Vancouver. I think they both used Massive. Maya was used for hero fish. Flat Earth used mental ray. Gradient and CIS are more RenderMan-based with 3Delight."

Meanwhile, 3-D proved to be the biggest challenge. Initially, the director and supervisor wanted to make it in 3-D, but budget and shooting conditions proved too daunting. So it was predominantly converted by a new company called inner-D.

"It was a little bit cheaper to convert it and it gave Alex the ability to use film and go anamorphic and have that dynamic range you get with film. And that was important because a lot of what we were filming was on water and you have a lot of reflections and highlights that cause problems with a lot of the stereo rigs through polarization. So the decision was made to post convert it.

Director Alexandre Aja paid homage to everything from

Jaws to Gremlins to Porky's.

"We wanted the 3-D moments to be big: There's a sequence in a cave where we have this fish embryo that comes right out into the audience like Captain EO with a lot of negative parallax. The pet emporium scene with Christopher Lloyd where you can see the expression in the fish; the end scene is great too where the fish are jumping up and taking bites out of people on the rope and dragging some of them into the water.

"We had a lot of problems early on. It's an incredibly complicated and time- consuming process. We weren't happy with the amount of depth we were getting in the images and some adjustments needed to be made by inner-D. But, I have to say, this is one of the best examples of the converted movie to date. Some shots look better than others and there are shots that can't be converted: they have to be done in visual effects.

"We took a few shots off the plate and gave to a visual effects vendor and vice versa. The ones with big negative parallax were done with vfx."

Wentworth definitely thinks the future of live-action 3-D will be a mixture of post conversion and full CG stereo delivery by vfx companies. "Generally speaking, it's about how much you want stuff to come out of the screen. With conversion, it will start to break after a certain point because you don't have the information you need between the left and the right eye for the audience to see one or the other side of an object. The worry is that you don't want these things to become too gimmicky. But this is stuff you [definitely] haven't seen before."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.