In the crowded summer movie marketplace, a great gimmick can make a film stand out, provided it's done well and fits the story. As the first live-action flick shot in digital 3-D, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" scores big on both counts. This latest adaptation of Jules Verne's 1864 novel is an eye-popping thrill ride thanks to the illusion of depth created by the 3-D process.
Under the direction of first-time feature director Eric Brevig, who served as visual effects supervisor on such films as "Pearl Harbor," "Men in Black," and "Total Recall" -- for which he won an Oscar -- "Journey" significantly improves on the old-style 3-D experience that required paper glasses with blue and red colored lenses. Here, you quite realistically get flying piranhas and a T-Rex snapping at -- and drooling on -- you as the underground adventure unfolds.
In this re-imagination of the tale first adapted as a Pat Boone feature in 1959 and subsequently in several made-for-TV versions, Brendan Fraser plays Trevor, a seismologist and professor whose scientist brother Max disappeared on an expedition years before. When Max's visiting teenage son (Josh Hutcherson) shows him an annotated copy of the Verne novel bearing directions to an underground portal in Iceland, uncle and nephew jet off to investigate, with the aid of a local guide (Anita Briem).
The Verne novel serves as a jumping off point rather than a template for the screenplay by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, because as visionary as the tale was in the 19th century, "it's way out of date for today's audiences," Brevig explains. "Half the journey was just getting to Iceland, and they walk for months to the center of the earth. The fantastic part is when they're down there. So we kept the spirit of it but modernized it."
According to Brevig, who'd replaced another director on the project when it went 3-D, the story and characters evolved significantly before filming began in Montreal in June 2006. Post-production took more than a year due to pervasive CG elements, around 750 shots split between four visual effects houses. Those posed their own set of challenges, but with a shooting schedule of a mere 48 days, getting the complicated movie completed was equally difficult. Brevig explains why in the following sections, with additional input from actor Hutcherson and visual effects editor Ed Marsh.
"The idea was to present the audience with things that they've never seen before. Using modern visual effects tools and computer graphics, I can create an environment that's pretty much seamless," begins Brevig. "As the adventure progresses, things get more and more fantastic-a much heightened reality-- and that's echoed in the photography, the lighting and the color palette of the movie" he outlines.
That intensity is heightened in 3-D; a process that involves filming images with two cameras simultaneously at a 90-degree angle using mirrors so that the viewer, wearing special glasses, sees a single three-dimensional image.
He assembled a team well versed in 3-D and digital HD filmmaking and tested all available systems before choosing the one pioneered by James Cameron and Vince Mason. " For 90 percent of the movie, we used a beam splitter camera. A beam splitter is a mirror that you can both see through and see reflections off of," he explains. "By mounting two cameras, or at least the lenses and the optical sensors from two cameras, onto this rig, you can adjust the lenses so they're different distances apart. For the big close-ups in the movie, I wanted the lenses to be very close together -- closer than the two lenses can fit. So by using this mirror rig, the lenses can appear to be 3/4 of an inch apart. This allows me to get big close-ups that don't hurt your eyes when you see the movie."
Brevig commissioned a compact version of the camera that mounted on a crane or a Steadicam, or used as a hand-held camera. "To my amazement, it worked from the first day through the end of photography. We had one hour of down time the entire production," he notes. But the 3-D format nevertheless presented other challenges after filming wrapped.
"Shots went through at least five or six iterations more than they would have for a regular film just to handle 3-D issues," comments Ed Marsh. "If you spend all day slaving over a tiny 24-inch monitor making the 3-D look perfect, don't be surprised when the image is projected onto a 40-foot theater screen and things aren't in the right place. You have actors embedding in the wall or you have those ducking objects that are way in front of them, or behind them. So you have to work big, early and often," by viewing footage on a large screen.
Because of limitations to the distance the eye can register 3-D, it's difficult to create an illusion of depth for objects more than 100 feet away. The filmmakers solved this by creating depth references, such as a rope in the climbing sequences, particles and bubbles in the water, and the flock of flying glow birds in the underground cavern that establish size and depth of the space. We'll give you the 411 on these and "Journey's" other CG creations in the next section.
"The idea for a glowing bird had come up in one of the scripts prior to me coming on, and my idea was having these things swarm, to make it a magical moment," relates Eric Brevig. "There are shots where it looks like they're flying in the movie theater. Everybody reaches out and tries to grab one."
Computer-generated sequences like this were shot against a green screen, so the actors had to react to invisible objects that would be added later. "For the swarm shots I would just give them a place on the stage ceiling to look at, and for the close-up where the bird casts a glow onto Josh, we had a guy with a stick and a light bulb," says Brevig.
Similar methodology was utilized for the giant albino Tyrannosaurus Rex, carnivorous plant and razor-toothed flying fish that menaced the characters. For the latter, the actors "were responding to blue Nerf footballs," notes Ed Marsh.
Brevig provided artwork and animatics -- cartoon versions -- of all the action scenes to show the actors how the scene would play. Nevertheless, 15-year-old Josh Hutcherson, who had helpful experience working with green screen on "Bridge to Terabithia" and "Zathura," found it difficult to react to "a big, terrifying dinosaur when in reality it's a little pink dot. But Eric did a really good job of drawing it out for us and giving us an idea of what it was going to look like in the end."
The dinosaur posed different problems for the designers. "By choosing to have a bright white albino dinosaur they were making the 3-D harder for themselves. They had to play with skin tones and textures to make it believable because it could look like it's not finished yet," explains Marsh. "So they spent a lot of time adding dirt and scarring to make it look more real. Then there was the drool issue -- how far could we push it," he says of the T-Rex saliva, noting that Brevig didn't want to go too far over the top, but "the studio wanted a big 3-D moment" -- and it got it.
As for the giant Venus flytrap that terrorizes Trevor, approval for the sequence was granted at the last minute, "So planning fell by the wayside," reveals Marsh. "We didn't have time to check the shots. It was literally two camera teams working for 18 hours with Brendan Fraser pantomiming the whole thing, with the grand hopes that we'd be able to clean it up in post. We spent a very long time figuring out how the plant should look and move, and changing that motion.
To Brevig, the most technically complex sequence was the raft getaway, "because water is very complex and challenging to simulate. There's ocean and fish and sea serpents, all CG, all interacting with each other and the actors." And, adds Marsh, "in 3-D, you can't cheat. The foam coming off the top of waves had to be rendered like foam coming off the top of waves. It required a much tighter tracking of every element and its position."
We'll discuss other tricky action sequences in the next section.
Locations and Logistics
A couple of days in Iceland notwithstanding, "Journey" was mainly shot indoors on soundstages in Montreal, "so we were spared the weather issues," notes Brevig, who still had to work out how to build 40 sets on four stages, "knowing that we can't film and build on the same set at the same time. How do you change the lighting from an orange-lit desert to the blues and greens of the waterfall set without holding up the set builders below?" The solution? A pre-set lighting grid on a dimmer board that could be changed with the push of a button. "It probably saved us two weeks' production time."
Since big action set pieces are time-consuming to shoot, even with animatic blueprints as guidelines, Brevig "had two 3-D rigs so we would shoot two shots at a time, giving me more editorial coverage and a faster pace. I made a still frame grab of every shot and put them up on boards on the set in shooting order. We'd take them off one by one as we shot the sequences," he details.
His team had only one night to shoot an underwater sequence at the Olympic Stadium pool in Montreal, so "safety divers getting in the shot" were the least of his worries. But advance planning on the lighting end and not having to reload the digital camera allowed him to finish in seven hours.
Several physically demanding scenes involved suspending actors in midair in harnesses while they delivered dialogue. They were shot against a blue screen for part of the free-fall to the center of the earth, except for the portion where the camera is looking up at them. "We put the actors on their sides and we'd dolly past them with the camera on its side," Brevig explains.
He used a similar low-tech method for the waterfall scene, placing the stars on a 50-foot table covered in black plastic. "We went out in the parking lot at night, aimed fire hoses up the table and dragged the actors by wires on their feet. We put the camera on its side so it looks like it's vertical."
Josh Hutcherson enjoyed doing "as much as they'd let me do" stunt-wise, including rock climbing and the sequence where he shoots into the air on a giant kite. He was spared injuries, but Fraser incurred several, including a burned hand from getting too close to an exploding magnesium flare.
"That was day three of shooting and we had to shut down for two days. Not that I wished it on him, but it allowed me 36 hours to go to Iceland and scout locations," notes Brevig, adding that Fraser hurt his back later on. "He was on a big rig and a got smacked in the tailbone. He took the brunt of the injuries, but everyone got scrapes and bruises from brushing against concrete and plaster."
Such SNAFUs aside, "Journey" came in well under its $70 million budget, according to Brevig, who'd happily direct a sequel -- mention of the search for the lost city of Atlantis was included precisely for that reason, he says. "I'd do it in a heartbeat," Hutcherson concurs.
For more information on this movie, 3-D formats and related topics, journey over to the next page.
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- Eric Brevig and Josh Hutcherson interviewed June 20, 2008
- Ed Marsh interviewed June 23, 2008