Tara DiLullo sets out on an adventure to discover the details of director Robert Rodriquezs return to 3D and family fare with The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D.
Youd think after the critical and box office success of adapting Sin City for the screen, filmmaker Robert Rodriquez would have taken a break before his next project that is, unless youre familiar with Rodriquezs manic work ethic. If you are, then it wont come as a shock to find out that his latest film, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D is appearing a mere two months after Sin City hit theaters in April. The family friendly flick, written by Rodriguez and his kids, charts the adventures of a 10-year-old outcast (Cayden Boyd) that prefers spending time with his two imaginary friends Shark Boy (Taylor Lautner) and Lava Girl (Taylor Dooley). His life takes an amazing turn when hes swept into their outlandish world for a real adventure.
Both Sin and Shark Boy were actually in production at the same time last year and both were created using Rodriquezs trademark elements of almost exclusive greenscreen shooting, intense CGI and visual effects work, and in the case of Shark Boy, improved anaglyph-based 3D technology. The films also shared many of the same visual effect houses, which created the unique and awe-inspiring environments showcased in both films. Eleven vfx houses were commissioned for Shark Boy and Lava Girl to create more than 1,000 effects shots seen in the film. Industry leaders and frequent Rodriguez collaborators Hybride, CafeFX, The Orphanage and Post Logic worked with Rodriguez project newbies Hydraulx, Industrial Light & Magic, R!ot Pictures, Tippett Studios, Amalgamated Pixels and Intelligent Creatures to make all the sequences come together as one film. At the center of that effort was Rodriquezs own Austin, Texas-based company, Troublemaker Digital. Comprised of a small yet prolific team of artists, they collaborate closely with Rodriquez in all stages of production on his films, helping to blueprint and expedite his increasingly complex visions for the screen.
Shark Boy and Lava Girl marks Rodriguezs first foray back into 3D filmmaking since Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over in 2003. In that time, 3D film technology has changed a bit, with new HD cameras and improved CGI platforms, but the lack of digital projection in movie theaters means the 3D finished product is still grounded in the old school anaglyph method, where the red and blue (or cyan) channels are split and then re-assembled, so the image appears three-dimensional when viewed through 3D glasses with red and blue or red and green lenses. The Troublemaker Digital team learned a lot from their previous work on Spy Kids 3-D and applied those lessons to Shark Boy and Lava Girl, according to Alex Toader, 3D visual artist at Troublemaker. Spy Kids 3-D was very successful and Robert is a big fan of 3D, so we always knew a project like this would come down again. We were mentally prepared, he adds.
We actually felt much more comfortable with the 3D anaglyph process and making a 3D movie, Toader continues We changed from Maya to XSI right before Sin City. When we came into Shark Boy and Lava Girl, we were still learning the package, so that was the biggest challenge. Chris Olivia, previs supervisor at Troublemaker, adds, The experience on Spy Kids 3-D was brand new for most of us who had never worked on stereoscopic imagery before. It was a great learning experience finding out what works better in 3D and what doesnt. The philosophy is basically two images. You dont really change the artistic approach too much. You figure out what is going to be split apart and the limitations of the anaglyph system, where you use the red and cyan filters. Its just not as clean as a polarized 3D, like they use with IMAX. It really prepared us for Shark Boy.
On Shark Boy/Lava Girl, we had time for pre-production, Toader adds. We had to create the world and the look for things. Some things we hit right off the bat and some things we had to go into deeper discussions and go more in-depth on what worked for the particular scene. Some things work naturally in the greenscreen and 3D process and some environments or characters or visual effects, sometimes you have to work with them more. Roberts also more aware of some of the issues and decisions that he has to make immediately. The more he knows about the process, about a program or the visual effects, it opens up his eyes for tying in other things and that opens the door, even more, for creativity.
Toader admits that working on a 3D film has its own set of particular challenges. On a regular feature, you can do all kinds of things, but when you design for a 3D picture, you have to keep a lot of things in mind, like if it makes sense to design a prop that might not be seen or even if a part of the environment may hurt your eyes looking at it in 3D. Its an ongoing process that is easier in some aspects and more complicated in others. For example, in this film, there is the complexity of characters and their interactions in completely CG environments. There are complicated camera moves and added particle effects, and everything happens twice for both eyes and everything has to look 3D. Its not as simple as it looks on paper.
Olivia concurs: First and foremost, we create these really cool worlds and try to come up with the most interesting visual environments we can with cool effects. On top of that, Robert was always saying, Make sure it looks cool in 3D! So we always made sure scenes had a lot of depth and there arent a lot of big flat areas with the same color. Texture helps the 3D effect. Wed have a background and it was a matter of figuring out what we want to come out at the camera. Most of it is driven by the story, but a lot of times wed add something in there, maybe like an ice crystal poking out in the foreground, to give that extra sense of 3D.
The Troublemaker team works with Rodriguez in the initial script development stages, which helps make a more collaborative and creative environment. Olivia details: One of our big roles is being the idea team and extrapolating on his ideas and come up with our own things. A lot of times, he may have a couple guys working on the same thing at once because he wants to really explore what he might like. When I started working on the first Spy Kids, it was pretty much all laid out in script form, but as we go along, it seems like as hes writing the script, we are coming up with ideas and we are working in conjunction with him.
Toader continues: Even when there is a shot you think is locked in, Robert might say, I thought of an even cooler shot and it makes sense and is much cooler, so you move the production in a new direction. The virtual environments can go away and you can plug a new one in. Its much more creative and free flowing. With creative decisions you have to be open minded and be willing to change when you know it will make a better product.
On a film such as Shark Boy, where there are so many vendors contributing, Troublemaker also served to help clarify the overall look and concepts to make the production more cohesive. To a certain extent, the Troublemaker guys kind of lay it all out with Robert beforehand, so the overall direction and look is clear for the vendors, Olivia explains. We are familiar with the other vendors and the systems they use. Each company has their own technical people to handle the translation and our guy here, Shawn Dunn, helps to make sure the vendors gets all the assets we created and they can use them on their end. Its never completely smooth because a lot of companies like to do things their own way. For the most part, we try to make it as efficient as possible to save money by following the blueprints and the overall design plan. Its kind of why we exist.
But Olivia says that doesnt mean the vendors werent allowed to contribute creatively to the film too. Each one of the vendors add their own creative juices at some point and the reason the chaos and the little bit of discontinuity works for this picture is because it takes place in a dream world. The fact that a character looks a bit different from one scene to another is because thats what happens in dreams. Its all about the imagination and the cool imagery.
Detailing the dynamics of the Troublemaker team, Toader adds, There are just about 10 of us. I believe Robert picked us guys because of our individual talents, but also because together as a team we are jacks-of-all-trades. I worked in pre-production doing the conceptual work and a lot of the vehicle models and some of the original environment concepts that were ultimately distributed to vendors to build on. During post-production, I worked on the modeling and the animation and the composting of my own shots. All of us work on pre-production, production and post. We cant say we are the best at everything, but as a whole, we can do pretty great things. Together we did over 120 shots for Shark Boy/Lava Girl. Thats a pretty small team when you consider there are only four 3D artists and one tools programmer. The rest of the guys are in the 2D department and compositing. Olivia agrees: We all wear different hats and overlap. I worked on the title animation for the last couple movies, but my specialty is animatics and previs. We had an ungodly amount of shots [on Shark Boy] for the team we have. Everything has to be done twice because there are two eyes in 3D, a left and a right image, so its about one and half times the normal work. We really arent set up like the traditional vfx house, with a supervisor or producer here. Its really a bunch of artists and a coordinator, so its tough.
With such a small team, Toader says the workload fell on all of their shoulders. One scene we worked on is down in The Lair. We broke it apart among the five guys and each one of us did anywhere from four to seven shots each. Before on Spy Kids 3-D, each one of us was responsible for a small sequence. This time because of the sheer amount of shots that we had to do, we had to keep track of a lot of elements and make sure everyone knew whats happening. In that particular shot, even the color and lighting scheme changes from the beginning to the end for a specific reason and we had to make sure that the guys at the darker end actually gradually got it there.
Olivia continues: I worked on a sequence called The Passage of Time. Alex designed and built these cool clocks that are scattered throughout this environment. I took his models and set up this scene where the kids are going down this track and I built the environment and lit it with a warm tone that was kind of glowing. It was challenging, because the kids were moving along and when they shot it, the kids were actually standing still. They were on a turntable so I not only had to match the camera moves, but I had to extrapolate what the track was doing based on how fast they were turning the turntable.
The accelerated production timeline of Shark Boy meant the Troublemaker team didnt get to do as much as they wanted. We started with pre-production on Shark Boy during Sin City. From the beginning to the end, we had less than nine months to completion, Toader says. Olivia laughs, adding, We had all these grand ideas for what we wanted to do with Shark Boy and certain pipeline changes we wanted to make to accommodate the 3D part of it, but it moved so fast we just had to wing it!
Posting Shark Boy and Lava Girl
The company charged with assembling the vast amount of shots produced by all the vendors was another Rodriguez favorite, Post Logic Studios in Hollywood, California. John Persichetti, colorist at Post Logic says their experience on Spy Kids 3-D also helped them tackle Shark Boy with confidence. When we last worked on Spy Kids 3-D it was new ground for him and us. Fortunately, we had a lot of time in the beginning of that project to do a lot of testing on how to present 3D on the big screen. We did a lot of testing to see what would look good in terms of building the anaglyphs and translating them from a computer monitor to the screen. We developed a formula that worked. When it was time to work on this project, we approached it the same way, but we didnt have as much time and certain technology had changed. Robert is using better cameras now and some different systems, but our basic goal was to improve the 3D as best as we could.
Detailing their assembly pipeline, Quantel iQ editor Matt Johnson explains, The first step in the process is the online, which is what I do. Im working on a Quantel iQ. I assemble the left eye and the right eye, as Robert wants them, keep them in synch, as well as the offline. The challenge is just the immense amount of data. I have the two eyes and 11 different vfx vendors delivering shots. We bring in all the footage using the EDLs and the offlines. The way Robert works is that he is constantly re-editing the movie, trimming and refining to the very last minute. I have found working with Robert, that the real challenge is the immense about of data and the small window of time to do it and make revisions. The more I work with him, the more Im able to figure out ways to handle the changes and recognize problems based on what we learned from Spy Kids 3-D. Wed start doing temp anaglyphs, so we can see whats going on and if the 3D is working. If it isnt, well go through four or five different iterations of a shot before the positive and 3D is correct, so we are constantly getting redelivery of shots weve already got, but theyve been re-adjusted. I made sure everything that was new got cut in on both the left and the right eye. I would then put it on our server and send it to John for coloring.
Persichetti says his challenge was doing his job despite very specific color restrictions. A lot of it was balancing between the shots within a sequence. Certain shots were more difficult and I had more trouble with those balancing them out and then enhancing the image wherever I could. In this case, its not a full-blown color correction because Im limited with what I can do because of the red and cyan. You cant mess with those colors too much because it will affect the outcome of the anaglyphs and the 3D and it can really mess it up. I couldnt play around with the subtleties of color as you would with a normal film, but there are certain colors like yellow and green that I can punch up more. Im also only working on a 2D left eye, or what they call a normal eye, doing the color to that and then applying the same exact color correction to the right eye. That came about from the first Spy Kids, where we determined any tweaks you do to one, I have to do to the other or it causes an imbalance in the 3D. In one sequence in particular, we saw the cyan was so strong in the left eye, it looked really dark so we had to adjust that. Robert is really concerned with the 3D image being comfortable for the eye and there isnt strain.
Asked their biggest challenge on Shark Boy and both readily offer, Time! We started online around April 24th and the final was done right before Memorial Day, Johnson offers. This had such a short turnaround because Sin City was still in the works. They hadnt planned on that, but there were changes made to Sin City that pushed it. When we initially talked to the guys at Troublemaker, everybody was really, really nervous about this one because the deadlines couldnt be moved and because of Sin City, it was starting late. Props to the vendors too. They did a great job, because they were under a lot of pressure too. Im proudest that we did it.
On the Cusp of 3Ds Full Potential
Back at Troublemaker, Toader and Olivia know the full potential of what they can do in 3D isnt going to be fully realized or appreciated by audiences until theaters upgrade to digital technology. Once theaters change to a digital format in order to project polarized versions of film, everything is going to be so much cleaner, Toader insists. You wont have to give up color for the 3D. When that happens, more and more filmmakers will embrace it, especially for fun films, like action films. Artists and filmmakers and moviegoers will embrace it more and more once the technology is in the theaters. The way the movie is presented is still not there. The anaglyph process is so archaic, while it still makes for a fun experience, but the digital projection process will really make it amazing. But Toader says they are still very happy with the final product. I think the complexity of the environments is a notch up from Spy Kids 3-D. Also, the complexity of the particle effects and overall the way the 3D looks, we have learned a lot. Olivia adds, Robert and Troublemaker Digital are doing these kinds of movies that arent being made elsewhere. Its really bringing back the idea of immersing the viewer into the world outside.
Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.