Director and nWave Pictures co-founder Ben Stassen talks about the creation of the first CG feature conceived exclusively for 3-D.
In a year filled with computer-animated blockbusters featuring elephants, pandas and robots, a low-budget CGI feature -- even one made in 3-D -- starring three adolescent houseflies runs the risk, just like its tiny protagonists, of being overlooked.
That prospect doesn't dampen Ben Stassen's enthusiasm. As co-founder of nWave Pictures, Stassen has directed eight of the 38 IMAX shorts screening in museums and science centers around the world, and served as producer on several others. Now nWave (together with production partner Illuminata Pictures) is out to crack the feature animation market with Fly Me to the Moon, its first full-length effort, which is also directed by Stassen.
"3-D is the second revolution in the history of cinema," claims Stassen, "the first one being the transition from silent films to sound." He distinguishes his movie from previous 3-D CGI efforts like Chicken Little and Monster House, which he says "were re-rendered [after the fact] to add another eye, but their script, pacing and direction were all done for 2D. Fly Me to the Moon is the first film created as a 3-D experience for 3-D release only."
It's a move that restricts the film's potential distribution to the still relatively small number of theaters equipped for 3-D projection, but Stassen isn't worried. According to the film's production notes, a quarter of a million people view nWave's IMAX films every day, even though they're only shown at museums and science centers. With its three young, winged protagonists, and its meticulously re-created dramatization of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Fly is guaranteed a long, long afterlife as an IMAX attraction in those non-theatrical venues.
Stassen takes pains to distinguish his use of 3-D to provide an "immersive experience" from the in-your-face seltzer bottle and paddleball gags that doomed the technique in the 1950s. "We get rid of the window around the story. Instead of bringing the story to the audience, we transport them into the middle of filmic space. When you watch a 2-D film, you react rationally with your brain and emotionally with your heart; with 3-D, you add the physical component -- that's truly the power of 3-D cinema.
"Let me tell you an anecdote. In my first 3-D movie Encounter in the Third Dimension, the main character is looking at the camera -- at the audience -- the entire film. I've seen the film many, many times, and I swear every time he asks for a volunteer, a kid in the audience raises his hand. They're physically present in the film."
The film's production notes explain that the "window" constraining the 3-D effect is eliminated by arranging the virtual lenses observing the scene parallel to each other, rather than angled to provide a converging view as is more commonly the case. "When the cameras converge, both eyes see the same image at the screen-plane level," Stassen says in the notes. "Whatever is behind the plane will be in perspective and whatever is in front will be coming off the screen. When you project this, the right eye and left eye have the same image of the screen plane [making whatever is in the foreground of the shot look like a flat cut-out floating in front of the background]." By comparison, Stassen's parallel cameras create the illusion of three-dimensional objects floating over the audience.
Stassen says that the arrival of digital projection systems that can be easily upgraded for 3-D is behind the technique's resurgence. He adds that his movie can be projected via any of the 3-D systems currently in use. After warning that how the various systems work can get "a little technical, so don't push me," he runs through their differences:
RealD requires what Stassen calls "a gizmo" known as a "Z screen" in front of the projector to create "circular polarization" -- and a silver screen in front of the audience to complete the 3-D effect;
Dolby 3D (using German technology called Infitec) is based on dividing light wavelengths into two parts to generate a separate image for each eye;
Nu Vision, also known as XpanD, uses glasses containing an electronic shutter in sync with the projector to alternate the frames reaching each eye;
- and IMAX's 3-D projection system makes use of "linear polarization" and, like the 3-D movies of the 1950s, requires two projectors working in tandem.
Fly Me to the Moon was animated at nWave's Belgium studio, using off-the-shelf Maya and RenderMan software with a few proprietary plug-ins, and Fusion for final compositing. Stassen estimates the movie's budget in the $25-30 million range, all self-financed -- "not a huge amount by Hollywood standards, but a huge stack of money for us."
Near the film's beginning, parents may think they've wandered into the wrong theater and are watching Space Chimps when the movie flashes back to a chimpanzee being prepared for one of the U.S.'s very first rocket tests. The flashback belongs to Christopher Lloyd's "Grandpa," recounting his failed attempt to stow aboard the primate's flight; his yarn inspires grandson Nat and the kid's buddies to stow away on the Apollo 11 mission. The film adds a few moments of minor jeopardy suitable for its 6- to 12-year-old target audience, well within the constraints of its G rating. Also worked into the plot are a band of Russian spy-flies out to sabotage the mission, incorporated in order to add "a little action" to the film, says Stassen. Even so, he sees the drama of the moon mission itself, and its depiction in 3-D --rather than any plot add-ons -- as the film's raison d'etre.
"The moon walk was one of those unifying moments in the history of mankind -- and yet it had never [appeared in a narrative film]. Every major event in history has been [seen in movies] many times -- but not this one.
"Why? The story is too predictable. The Achilles heel of any script is predictability. I thought 3-D would do the trick -- not by surprising the audience with story development, but by letting them participate, and using 3-D to bring them along for the ride. I would not have made this film in 2-D, absolutely not. I thought 3-D could bring magic into a story that's relatively predictable."
Indeed, Fly Me to the Moon shines when it puts aside plot machinations to revel in both its 3-D imagery and its re-creation of a now all but unbelievable historical event. In one extended, dialogue-free sequence, the three flies perform a delightful and realistic-looking (apart from its performers) zero-gravity ballet to the "Blue Danube" waltz, an obvious nod to Kubrick's 2001.
Likewise, the blastoff and moon touchdown are detailed and paced to give them a "You Are There" reality. (And if any shot maximizes 3-D's impact, it's the Apollo rocket shortly after takeoff, nose close to the camera, slowly gliding towards the viewer and seemingly into the theater.)
But it's Neil Armstrong's descent from the lunar module that the film lingers on most lovingly, from the inside-his-helmet (where young Nat happens to be stowing away) point-of-view shot of Armstrong exiting the airlock, to his climb down the ladder towards the moon's surface, culminating in humankind's first footfall beyond planet Earth.
"That sequence is four minutes long. It's slow, but little kids are mesmerized because they're coming down the ladder with Armstrong -- the emotion comes from the sense of being there with the astronauts," says Stassen.
For older viewers, the film's reality is enhanced by production design that niftily evokes New Frontier, 1960s-style décor and technology. The Apollo capsule and lunar lander are more than evoked -- they were re-created for the film from original blueprints and technical drawings provided by NASA. Stassen points out that "all the knobs, the wording of the inscriptions, everything in the capsule and module are completely accurate."
Speaking of accurate wording, a surprising typo made its way into the film, clearly visible as the camera follows one of the flies. It's a boo-boo that's already been pointed out to Stassen any number of times.
"Say no more, I know all about it. It's the kind of thing that happens when you produce something like this in a foreign territory." At this point it's too late to replace the shot, but Stassen muses, "Maybe we'll do a quiz: win a trip to Space Camp if you can find the error.
"We made two mistakes actually, and one was a big one we had to correct. When the astronauts are walking on the moon, we had Buzz Aldrin inside a spacesuit labeled 'Collins.'" Aldrin -- who makes a live-action cameo appearance at the end of the film -- was Armstrong's partner in the moon landing, while Mike Collins stayed in the Apollo capsule orbiting the moon. "I have no idea how it happened, but in one shot you could read the name on the suit. It was more a database issue than anything else, but that one we redid.
"Talking about typos, there's a deliberate one at the very beginning of Encounter in the Third Dimension. The opening title reads 'Thrid Dimension' until the professor tries to fix it with his 'letter cannon' and destroys the screen. A magazine -- it might have been Time -- listed it as one of the 10 biggest continuity errors ever; we were number three. I don't know how the journalist could've missed that it was intentional. He said they can't even spell the title right. That was intended, but the one you picked up on wasn't."
The step up from museum films was "good and nerve-wracking" at the same time, Stassen adds, but now that he's an experienced producer of animated features, he's already at work on his sophomore effort. "It's called Around the World in Fifty Years and it follows a sea turtle from a hatchling born in 1959 to maturity in 2009, when the film is completed.
"Space and underwater are the two best settings for a 3-D movie. We've done space, and now we'll do water."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.
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