Stay Safe, But Don’t Stay Out of Trouble

Greg Singer takes a look at how director Robert Rodriguez pulls off the fancy fun of his latest family film, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.

All photos courtesy of the aptly named Dimension Films.

All photos courtesy of the aptly named Dimension Films.

Even though every studio is scrambling these days to create 3D-animated cinema, dont believe the hype. For all of the deliciously palpable visual gluttony awaiting our voracious eyes, when everything is said, done, rendered and projected, 3D animation still conforms to the flat canvas of the silver screen. Wheres the depth?

Enter, stage right, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.

Situated unassumingly within the risk-averse, entertainment savvy of Hollywood, there lies a beating heart of truth. With a tip of its hat, what bigger biz is there than movies? Thats right games!

Spy Kids 3-D is a simple, straightforward amusement park thrill ride. It is cotton candy for the inner city child in all of us. The premise of its story is the attraction, the fantasy, of being fully immersed in a gaming environment. Though Jeff Bridges, as a curious aside, opened with his own biscuit of a movie the same weekend (July 25, 2003), Spy Kids 3-D is no gimmicky throwback to Tron. Delving into the theme really, the mire of virtual reality, the thread/threat of the story hinges on whether a sinister toymaker will take over the minds of the worlds youth. For he who controls the youth, controls the future, mwahahaha!

Piggybacking on the franchises earlier successes, Spy Kids 3-D is a parade of celebrity cameos* and three-dimensional gags, sprinkled with enough moral morsels to make the whole adventure somehow seem worthwhile. Amidst the car racing, lava surfing, mech-warrior arena battles, platformer collecting and stylized cartoony architecture there are lessons of revenge and forgiveness, love and sacrifice, honoring our elders, respecting persons for their inner qualities and valuing each other as family.

* While Daryl Sabara (Juni Cortez) and Alexa Vega (Carmen Cortez) reprise their roles as the titular spy kids, performances from other well-known personas are peppered throughout the pelicula, including: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Alan Cumming, George Clooney, Bill Paxton, Steve Buscemi, Mike Judge (the King of the Hill creator has starred in all three Spy Kids movies as Donnagon), Elijah Wood, Cheech Marin, Ricardo Montalban and (the not-so-much-evil-as-misunderstood) Sylvester Stallone.

Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega as the titular (and soon to be glandular) Spy Kids.

Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega as the titular (and soon to be glandular) Spy Kids.

More Than Meets the Eye

The trilogy of Spy Kids films comes to us via Austin, Texas. In particular, the films seem to have sprung perfectly formed from the Zeusian head of Robert Rodriguez the 35-year-old creator, writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, production designer, music composer, all-around good guy and chief bigwig of Troublemaker Studios. Yes, hes even a father.

For the record, Rodriguez does eat, sleep, bathe and dress one pant leg at a time, like the rest of us. However, unlike the rest of us, he has directed El Mariachi (1992), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), The Faculty (1998) and the forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003).

Naturally, making a stereoscopic family film seemed the next logical step.

Back in the heyday of the 1950s, 3D movies were comparatively simple, with only a dozen or so staged, black-and-white, three-dimensional gags. For Spy Kids 3-D, there are hundreds of polychromatic 3D effects, and they lift the action off-the-screen with unprecedented fluidity and flourish.

When he first began thinking about making Spy Kids 3-D, Rodriguez knew he would abandon the cyclopic eye of his trademark digital video camera, but he wanted to retain the creative freedom of its technology. He thought he would have to invent an entirely new camera to keep pace with his ambitious vision. Rodriguez learned that James Cameron was keeping Vince Pace with his own innovative and pioneering spirit, having commissioned the creation of a high-definition, digital video 3D camera for his documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (2003). Christened the Reality Camera System, the camera essentially fused two high-definition video lenses together as one unit separated by the interocular distance of 2.5 inches (the standard distance apart of human eyes). Not only can the new systems lenses cross when shooting, in order to reduce eyestrain for the audience, but the resulting film can be released in IMAX, theme parks, movie theaters (with anaglyphic glasses) or even on television without the 3D effect. Cha-CHING.

Yet, apart from vertical integration, more importantly for 3D filmmaking is the concept of convergence. In a nutshell: your eyeballs focus on the real world, and your brain interprets the two images together as something having spatiality and texture. The same illusion is created with a stereoscopic camera. The two lenses of the camera are angled together, and if imaginary lines are drawn outwards from the lenses, their intersection marks a point of convergence. Any elements filmed standing along the convergence plane will appear on the same plane as the movie screen; anything behind the plane will appear pushed back; and anything in front of the plane will look like its coming off the screen.

Until recently, not only has reality been a collective hunch, but so has the process of shooting three-dimensional films.

Director Robert Rodriguez and actor Antonio Banderas, making a point on the green screen shooting stage.

Director Robert Rodriguez and actor Antonio Banderas, making a point on the green screen shooting stage.

Rodriguez says, The first concern on any 3D project is the fact that youre flying blind. As a filmmaker, you are unable to see what you are capturing on the set, which is crucial to capturing great 3D. Thats why other 3D movies are so static. They had to lock down the cameras, choose a convergence point, and let it ride.

With the new Reality Camera System, the filmmakers were able to change the convergence point as they pleased, focusing and refocusing to follow the action. The crew installed a four-foot by three-foot, high-definition 3D projection screen that allowed everyone to see what was being captured on camera. Sporting their 3D glasses, they could see what the finished image would look like.

This allowed Rodriguez to concentrate on the essential variables of 3D filmmaking the speed of elements in the shot, where the elements break frame, their color, shape and depth of staging.

In particular, Rodriguez wanted to bring out richer layers of texture in the final film. The idea was to highlight the visual assault factor of a video game. I had a requirement that in every shot, we had to read several planes of distance: a foreground, a middle ground and a background. For the most part, I found that a clean look to every frame was the best approach for the design. This works best for 3D, and the simplicity of the design only serves to further remind the audience that the kids are trapped inside a world that is animated, not real.

Rodriguez and his team had to reconsider everything about how they would shoot and light the film from its production design, even to the way the actors move and talk in order to expand upon the 3D effect. Rodriguez used realtime color correction, for example, to adjust each frames colors to his satisfaction. He had to eschew the use of his favorite primary red in the color design, because red light does not pass through the corresponding lens of the anaglyphic glasses. I learned to like purples, he says.

Giving Props to the Actors

When shooting Spy Kids 3-D, there were no walls, no sets, no props. The actors had to perform just about everything in front of a green screen. As with animation voice recording, a lot of times the actors were filmed separately, even if they would be together in the final shot.

It was sort of like being submerged in endless photosynthesis, says Sylvester Stallone, or in my grandmothers old shag carpet. But it was all so high-tech and imaginative, I sometimes felt I was in the middle of a dream.

Since everything had to look like it was in a video game, the environments, cyberspace vehicles and espionage gadgets were all computer-generated. If the actors were lucky, they might have a thumbnail sketch of the scene to work with, but a lot of it was done out of sheer imagination and improvisation. Rodriguez says, You realize how important a costume is in a movie like this, because its the one thing the actor has to latch on to for his or her character.

The competing comic-tragic personalities of Sylvester Stallone as the Toymaker.

The competing comic-tragic personalities of Sylvester Stallone as the Toymaker.

Rodriguez adds, Knowing a lot about effects, and what was possible, we were able to really fly free every day. Literally. With all of the harnessed flips and jumps, Cheech Marin says, Its enough to put your back out with all this flying!

Ricardo Montalban, who plays Grandpa Cortez, actually has back problems in real life that confine him to a wheelchair. In the movie, his character is freed from his wheelchair using CG technology; however, working in front of a green screen, pretending to be surrounded by all sorts of computerized creations, was physically demanding. Montalban would be in great pain on set, but he concentrated for the role, saying he welcomes a new challenge at his age. Rodriguez says, People were in awe. I see his finished performance as a jewel. He is a remarkable man.

From Greenery to Scenery

From start to finish, Spy Kids 3-D took about a year to complete. Not bad, considering the technological hurdles it had to clear, and the fact that its 3D requirements effectively doubled the workload. The live-action filming lasted about two months, and the remaining time was devoted to the movies visual effects.

Troublemaker Studios, headed by Rodriguez, consists of a core group of five people. They handled all of the pre-production for the film (designs, conceptual models, research and development), and then hired vendors to achieve most of the movies effects and environments. Hybride Technologies (Piedmont, Canada) produced the majority of visual effects, with other studios also contributing: Janimation (Dallas), ComputerCafé (Santa Monica, California), The Orphanage (Hollywood), and CIS Hollywood (Hollywood). Troublemaker Studios used Maya to produce some final shots of their own; other studios used packages such as Softimage|XSI.

Chris Olivia is the pre-visualization and visual effects supervisor at Troublemaker Studios. He provided 3D animatics for the movies sequences, as well as helped to integrate the visual effects with the 3D camera footage. Olivia says, We tried to mimic the information from the camera they used on set, as far as the width of the two lenses, and also the convergence point where the two lenses meet. Given each shots stereoscopic basis, the effects team rendered each shot twice, as seen by the left and right eyes.

Because most of the movie is staged on virtual sets, the bulk of the visual effects are 3D backgrounds. Initially, the filmmakers thought they would design the virtual environments, and then use a camera tracking system to allow the director to see an environment (and shift its perspective) while filming the live-action actors. There was no time to do this, so Olivia roughed out some environments and 3D props as stills or animations with simple camera moves. These roughs were then piped down onto the set to composite against the live-action actors.

Olivia says, It wasnt as elaborate as being able to track around the 3D environment. It was pretty basic. But it gave everyone on set an idea of where they were going to be the room theyll be standing in, or the vehicle theyll be riding on... From that, they could wing it, with their own camera moves. Once the shot was complete, we would use the animatics as a guide to finish the final shot, or sometimes wed create a different environment based on what Robert wanted for that particular shot.

Grandpa Cortez (Ricardo Montalban), et al., wear their magic eyes, before busting out some major mojo, on-the-screen and off-the-screen.

Grandpa Cortez (Ricardo Montalban), et al., wear their magic eyes, before busting out some major mojo, on-the-screen and off-the-screen.

Nonetheless, because ideas could be developed on the fly, rather than waiting months to try them, Rodriguez says, Ive realized in making the Spy Kids films that the more versed you are in the technical aspects of moviemaking, especially effects, the more it allows you, as a director, to push the envelope.

Double Trouble

Knowing how much innovation and hard work was put into the movie, maybe theaters should have provided the Gucci anaglyphic glasses, instead of the Kmart version because the clarity of the effects and the vibrancy of the color were somewhat dulled by the red-and-cyan shades. Olivia says, Thats the unfortunate by-product of having to release it in 3,000 theaters. The only way to have a 3D movie is to have the colored glasses. Otherwise, you need special projectors and special polarized glasses, like what they do at IMAX and theme parks.

Still, Spy Kids 3-D is uncomplicated fun, and gaggles of goggled youngsters easily understand the rules of the game, as well as appreciate its three-dimensionality. Though people may not get the full, intended effect at the local cineplex, the movie provides a stereoscopic experience unlike anything that has come before. Olivia says, Were also hoping to release it in some special venue theaters, like IMAX, with the polarized lenses. Then itll be crystal clear, the colors will be perfect and the 3D effect will be a lot better.

Antonio Banderas does some three-dimensional stage-diving into the unsuspecting audience.

Antonio Banderas does some three-dimensional stage-diving into the unsuspecting audience.

Robert Rodriguez is not too worried. He never intended for the Spy Kids films to be of the same nitpicking caliber as Star Wars. The financiers of the trilogy offered a larger budget on each film, but Rodriguez content to work from home, in balance with his family life crammed the technological production into a short timeframe and kept costs at a steady $35 million (give or take). Rodriguez says, Theres a creative bonus to moving fast. You tend not to over-think things, and you head straight towards the ideas that really work, and discard the rest. It's a very efficient way to work... Youre also controlling the budget by doing it that way. Lower budgets mean total creative freedom, which is ultimately what you want as an artist.

Rodriguez jokes that Spy Kids 3-D is the only home movie in theaters this summer.

During the credits for the movie, the audience is treated to a glimpse of the 1999 audition tapes for spy kids Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, when they were still pups. Now that the young actors are all growd up, the filmmakers seem to acknowledge that Spy Kids 3-D is the last arrow in the franchises quiver. Game Over indeed.

No doubt, there is more whim and vim where that came from. In the fertile filmic futurity of Austin, Texas, new seeds are taking root... and plenty of Trouble is brewing.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.

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