Exclusive: Taking the 3D Journey with Eric Brevig

After working on so many big movies, it was time for Brevig to finally take the reins and direct his first feature length film, and he had the unenviable task (or is it an honor?) of directing the first full 3D live action movie using the latest RealD technology, something we’ve discussed a lot here on ComingSoon.net. (Read The 3D Explosion! or our Final Destination 4 Set Visit for more on 3D.)

New Line’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is a modern day update of the Jules Verne classic from the 19th Century in which Brendan Fraser plays a geologist who travels to Iceland with his nephew Sean (Josh Hutchinson) and ends up in an amazing adventure in a fantastic world at the earth’s core, along with a feisty Icelandic tour guide (newcomer Anita Brien). To recreate the amazing environments, Brevig and his team traveled to Iceland to shoot the exteriors on location and then combined sets with CG environments to create Pangea, the world beneath our own, all realized in full glorious 3D.

We were very excited to finally have a chance to meet and talk with Brevig after having seen “Journey” twice and marveled at how fluidly the 3D is incorporated into Jules Verne’s adventure story, but be warned that we got pretty technical when talking about what’s involved with shooting a 3D movie.

ComingSoon.net: You’ve worked with 3D before, but when you were first approached to do this movie using this new technology, what was the learning curve like?

Eric Brevig: The 3D part of it was the same. I had a choice of shooting the movie on film or HD digital because if you capture on film, you can transfer to HD and then you can continue the process, in post the same way we did. I wanted to learn more about HD photography just to make sure that there wasn’t anything too unpleasant that I was getting myself into if I decided to go that route. That’s definitely the future of cinematography, and I wanted this to be like a cutting edge, never-before-done approach to filmmaking, but I had to make sure the image would be halfway decent when I was done. I talked to a lot of people who worked in HD including Fred Meyers, the person who is my video engineer… he has a much better sounding title (“HD engineer”)… but anyway, he was the person in charge of the image capture on “Star Wars: Episode III,” so he definitely was the top person in the world to talk to. He walked me through it: “This is how to record imagery that looks very good in HD, it looks as good as film if you follow these restrictions” and so forth. There’s so many benefits to working in digital capture in that you can see your playback immediately and you can watch on the monitor in full resolution. You can go into a 3D tent. What we did is we had a full-size screen because I needed to see the imagery full size because our eyes don’t scale down.

CS: You mean like a full movie theater sized screen?

Brevig: Thirty-five foot screen. Because we were studio based, we took over an abandoned section out of… it was probably the cafeteria or something at one point, but it had a high enough ceiling. We installed a thirty-foot screen and two projectors, and that was a standing dailies screening room the entire time we were there. Literally, I could shoot at lunch, walk over with the tape and see it the same way the audience sees it, full color, sound, 3D, full size screen, judge all the issues, looking for eye strain, any problems in focus or whatever might creep into it, and call them back on the phone across the lot and say, “Okay, you can tear down the set, I’m done with it,” literally thirty minutes after walking off of it with the actors. That was definitely the filmmaking of the future, and if you visited our set, we had a ten-foot screen in a tented area on the soundstage that was getting a live feed from the cameras so that guests to the set could come and sit in there with 3D glasses on and watch live while I’m filming what I’m doing. If I ever needed to see something played back, instead of having to leave the soundstage, I would just run over there, grab the glasses, call Fred and say, “Play me back Take 2; I want to check something” because of a 3D moment or whatever–make sure I’ve done it correctly because I’m looking at it on a flat monitor and watching the actors.

CS: I understand that 3D is not very forgiving and that something like a pimple can jump out. Were those things you had to deal with?

Brevig: No, the convergence is completely adjustable in post-production. The depth that you build into the scene which is determined by how far apart the lenses are when you shoot, that’s baked in, that’s locked in, and it takes extraordinary measures to ever change that. You have to actually recreate one of the images to do that, so if I was doing a 3D gag–to use a low brow term–where I wanted Brendan to hold something out and I wanted to enjoy the 3D moment to see how it was playing, I would run over and check it in 3D and say, “Okay, we didn’t get that” or “I think I could put more depth into the scene and it’s not going to hurt my eyes.”

CS: That has to be done while you’re shooting?

Brevig: Right. Convergence is literally taking one of the two images and sliding it sideways, and you could do it in post easily, so that’s in fact what I did to speed up my work on the set, I told the convergence pullers–just like a focus puller, a convergence puller–“I want you to be very slow, very careful, and get there late on everything because I can tighten it on post, but if you jerk to a place, you’re going to build in a bad, blurred frame which I can’t get rid of later.” So convergence was never my concern on set. It was something I easily fixed in post, but in ocular, the distance between the lenses, I wanted to see how it was working, so I would always make sure that I set that, or I would bracket it, I would actually shoot a couple of takes, “Give me the two inch ocular, now give me a one inch ocular,” and I’d play those back and go, “I love the one inch, the two inch hurts people’s eyes; we’ll go with one inch and then we’ll match the scene to it.”

CS: It’s funny you should say that, because all the 3D I’ve seen, has given me a really bad headache–even the IMAX stuff I’ve seen–and this is one of the first movies I’ve seen twice now and it has not.

Brevig: That was my goal. I know from working on Disney’s short films for theme parks how easy it is to hurt audiences eyes because I’d spent years fixing problems that were built into the photography. I know what the parameters are, I know how much you can exercise the audience’s eyes by putting some 3D gags in. It’s sort of like sound, you can have some really loud gun shots that’ll make you jump out of your chair, but you then have to keep the rest really quiet for a while so you react to it, so that it’s a contrast, similarly in 3D, in a short film like a 3D film, they’re just throwing everything in but the kitchen sink at you, you kind of can endure it because it’s a short time, and you leave, and your eyes are really smarting, if you do that over a ninety minute movie and halfway through I’m just going to go, “It just hurts my eyes,” and tear up the glasses, so what I did is I reduced the depth in the movie to a comfortable level that looked pleasing, but was always near the movie screen, and behind it in general because that’s where our eyes are used to focusing, and then for the moments where I really wanted to take advantage and draw the attention to, layered depth, I would then bring things out on this side of the screen plane, where your eyes aren’t used to converging, and that would be something that would look remarkably interesting or fresh because I hadn’t been doing it already, and so you’re seasoning just enough to make it exciting, but not overwhelming.

CS: You must have known going into this how much CG and green screen you’d have to do, but what was your approach to mixing and matching what you shot on location and what you did on sets you built on the soundstages?

Brevig: It was based on twenty five years of doing visual effects with actors on stages in second unit direction. I know that actors need some tangible environment to play in to really give their best performance. That means they have to physically be able to touch the things that are surrounding them. If they’re walking, they need to be jostled by an uneven floor. They can’t just do that in their head because it’s too much to try and pull off, and a lot of actors need that sensation. I said early on, “This is a movie about a small group of people looking at big things. I want to build the sets so that whatever they’re touching, I’m going to have as a physical set so that they have something.” It may just be the side of this little section of the room, ten foot by ten foot, but that’s going to be a service that they can react to and it gives them the sense of what they’re working with, and the rest that they’re looking at, I could put that in computer graphics. There’s another reason for doing that, which is that by photographing the set, I’ve now told the computer graphics artist, “This is what the set looks like, it’s not up to your little imagination.” A lot of times CG people don’t go outside enough and don’t know what photography does to complex textures and they make it up and it looks like a videogame. Here, it’s like, “This is what it looks like. Take pictures of this. Use still photographs of the small piece of set to build your base set, and it will all look the same.” These are just tricks I’ve learned over a long time of watching it not be done right and then be done right, so that it did two things. In the post-production, it raised their game by setting the bar of reality at what we had, and it also allowed the actors to respond to things that were physically around them.

CS: You’ve been creating CG effects for a long time including the groundbreaking CG work in “The Abyss.” Was there anything you had to do different in order to create the CG effects within this 3D environment?

Brevig: It was just much harder because in traditional 2D effects you cheat everywhere you can and you composite something together and just because you stick it in front so it’s blocking the background, we all perceive it as being in front, in 3D it might actually be further away you from the background and you see it through a hole in the background, so that the tolerance level of all the layered composites becomes infinitesimally accurate, and that’s what made it very tricky.

CS: That’s what I was saying about it not being so forgiving, that you can’t cheat things so much when working in 3D.

Brevig: Exactly. You can’t build sets that have forced perspectives built into them either, or cast a shadow on something hoping that it looks like it’s just receding in the distance because you have two eyes in a 3D movie going, “That thing’s flat and it’s got a shadow on it,” so those rules whether it’s working on a computer, a virtual world, or on the set, those rules had to be maintained.

CS: What was the learning curve of using the 3D cameras for your crew and DP (Director of Photography).

Brevig: They caught on instantly. My DP studied 3D and studied HD; he hadn’t worked in HD before. We’ve been buddies for twenty years and worked together on visual effects sequences, so we have good communication, and he came to the set an expert already, and he asked me questions along the way, so he was up to speed. The camera crew were local hires and literally, by Day 3, they would anticipate how I was going to set the stereo on the camera because they saw the pattern: if it’s a close-up, we go to a 1-inch ocular; if it’s wide shot, we go to a 1 3⁄4 inch. We’re going to pull the convergence of the eyes of the character we are looking at. The rules were so simple for easy 3D, that it’s kind of amazing that nobody else had successfully analyzed how to do it.

CS: Having worked on 2nd Unit with the likes of Michael Bay and James Cameron, what were you able to bring from your experience working with them to your own movie in terms of the FX and action scenes?

Brevig: I think just a sense of action pacing, dynamic camera use, cutting. I think both of those directors are masters in slightly different ways of big action sequences, and by doing second unit work, you wind up emulating the style of the movie that you’re working with, the principal director. I’m really good at doing a Michael Bay style sequence, but it’s not my personal directorial style, and I didn’t choose to do that to that extent in “Journey,” but I used the same sort of tools and approach in knowing how to do it to pep up the excitement in some of my sequences.

CS: I thought it was cool that you did both the 2nd Unit and FX on “The Island” which had a really intense chase sequence that I’m sure I could watch many times.

Brevig: I went to Dolby two years ago to see Dolby’s dynamic seats, the seats they’re thinking about marketing that jiggle and respond. They sit me down and said, “Hey, we’re going to show you a demo,” and the scene that comes up is the scene from “The Island,” from where they throw the barbells off the back of the truck to when the big “R” falls down. I watch it and it’s all loud, and I go, “It’s great, but I personally shot most of that stuff,” and they go, “Huh?” So I go, “Yeah, that’s all visual effects stuff, so yeah, I know it well.”

CS: I’ve spoken to Dennis Murren and some of the ILM guys and Dennis was talking about this new computerized system that can create 3D out of older movies shot in 2D. Brendan mentioned that you showed him some “Star Wars” footage using this technique which helped convince him to do this.

Brevig: The term is “dimensionalized” and a different company from “The Island” did the “Star Wars” thing, that company is called In-Three. They were the first to come up with a really viable, although very labor intensive, set of software so that you take a 2D image and literally–and I’ve gone to their studio and sat there and played with it myself, so I know exactly how it works–literally, you put on glasses and you push and pull various parts of the scene so that you make it in 3D, and then with a lot of hand rotoscoping, which is tracing around all the layers, the software that chugs along and builds a second synthetic eye for you to view. It costs about a hundred thousand dollars a minute, so if you have a feature, it’s like a ten million dollar investment.

CS: That’s not too bad actually.

Brevig: It’s not that bad if it’s a hundred minute feature. If it’s “Titanic” and it’s three hours, that’s thirty million dollars, so you have to weigh the benefits. I talked to George’s producer, Rick McCallum, about doing “Star Wars” because they did a ten-minute demo of the opening of the classical first “Star Wars”, and it was wonderful in 3D. That’s what I showed to Brendan, and Rick said, “The problem is that you pay them ten million dollars to make the movie and then you have to make the prints, with the marketing ads and all that, you’ve got a sixty million dollar investment for a movie that people have already seen three hundred times. If you’re lucky, you’ll make a very small profit after all the returns have come in, and we just thought it isn’t financially so beneficial for us to do it,” so they haven’t gone ahead with the whole movie.

CS: Having experience with both techniques, I’m curious what you think about the differences of using dimensionalizing vs. shooting in 3D.

Brevig: The difference is that I designed a sequence and placed the camera knowing that the depth will look wonderful in the sequence. In the dimensionalization of an old movie, the camera is just placed where it happened to be in the 2D movie and you’re adding depth to it, so it’s like colorizing a black and white movie versus selecting the colors of all the costumes and lighting them with color gels and all that stuff. They both look fine, one is just after the fact, retrofitting, and one is intentionally.

CS: One of the problems is that there aren’t nearly enough 3D theaters to show this everywhere in 3D, but is there any reason why people might want to see this in 2D?

Brevig: I knew that the majority of people that will ever see this movie in it’s lifetime will see it in 2D. That’s airlines, that’s DVDs, that’s watches, that’s iPhones, the first theatrical release… so I made a 2D movie that looks good in 3D as opposed to making something that only looks good in 3D. I want to be established as a movie director, not as a 3D movie director, so that as soon as they did a test screening of the 3D movie, they screened it in 2D for an audience, took the 3D off the title and showed them the same movie that we’ve been testing. It got the exactly the same scores, and they realized that, “Yeah, this thing just plays fine,” I sort of shot myself in the foot because I wanted to go back and adjust some of the edits because I feel that things that I’m sitting on that are merely 3D delight moments I could trim, but because it got such good scores they wouldn’t let me do the cut.

CS: I’ve also been told that when you’re editing footage in 3D, you have to sometimes change the convergence to make the edits work.

Brevig: Well you do and you don’t. You do because some things are wonderful to look at in 3D and you want to sit on it a little longer, so you have to screen your movie in 3D. If it plays in 3D, it’ll work in 2D.

CS: Before I forget, I wanted to ask about the scientific accuracy of the movie.

Brevig: Its 100% accurate! (laughs)

CS: I know that it’s supposed to be a fun family movie but there’s a couple things that people have targeted as killing the credibility… like the cell phone that gets service at the center of the earth.

Brevig: We get broad there, that and the bird shaking his head “no” are the two places where we just sort of go for the joke. It’s all just slightly possible, but unlikely.

CS: No one has gone digging in the mines of Iceland to see if they can get to the center of the earth?

Brevig: No, it’s all based on Jules Verne’s book and he never went there. He made up the stuff and we just tried to make it plausible in a modern day.

CS: Has RealD been using you as part of their campaign to try to get other directors to use it? I know that so much of getting 3D into the mainstream is getting more people using it.

Brevig: You know it hasn’t been that blatant, but I’m going to do a panel discussion in a week for the Society of Cinematographers, the ASC, because I love 3D and the more people that get into it, the more theaters there will be, and the more I can do 3D movies in the future.

And here’s more with Eric from roundtable interviews conducted earlier in the day:

CS: We understand that Brendan Fraser was fairly hands-on as a producer on the movie besides acting in it.

Brevig: Yeah, he’s a very good creative collaborator. He and I worked together to really help the movie get to be where it is.

CS: This is your first film as a director after doing FX on so many movies. What was it like directing actors?

Brevig: My background is extensively in visual FX and second unit directing so the idea of directing actors in fantastic situations where everything’s put in computer graphics and there’s creatures was very familiar to me. The thing that was new was actually two people sitting in a room talking, so what I spent most of my time preparing for was actually what was going on between the characters, making sure that the characters have a creative arch through the story that we believe in them, that we’re invested in their survival, because that’s what makes all the running around, yelling and crazy visual FX important to the audience. That was what I was focusing on and what I did was I met with the actors for two weeks prior to shooting, just myself and them and the script supervisor and we rehearsed the entire movie, because I knew once we got on stage, it was going to be crazy, and I wanted to really sort out the issues of “My character wouldn’t say that” or “I don’t understand the line.” The three principals and I, every day, we took a certain chunk of the movie in an empty room with some tape marks on the ground and chairs to be the props. We went through the scene and worked out all the issues, so that it was solely about the actors, solely about the characters. That way when we got on the set, we all knew what we were doing and we could all just deal with the onslaught of technology.

CS: Was there anything in the original book that was too difficult to translate into the 3D environment?

Brevig: The 3D wasn’t a limit, because I knew how to photograph in 3D so I wasn’t restricted. What was a limit was that some of the things in the book were amazing visionary ideas 120 years ago, like half of their journey is just getting to Iceland, and that’s amazing in the book, but an audience is not going to be very impressed with that. What I did was I took the highlights, the things that I felt were the big, fantastic events… making a raft to go on the underground ocean, running from a dinosaur, that kind of thing. Those were the things we kept in the movie. By updating it to a modern story, I felt like we had the creative license to do that. Everything we set out to do, I did. It wasn’t easy because we had to create the technology. It hadn’t been done before and the cameras were finished literally the week before we started shooting. None of the visual FX places that did the FX for us had worked at this complexity level in 3D so I was constantly teaching or figuring out how to do it so they could do it. But we achieved everything we set out to do, but it wasn’t easy.

CS: Can you talk about the casting of Anita Brien? She’s quite an amazing find, not only because she’s from Iceland.

Brevig: Yeah, she was an amazing find. I interviewed a lot of actresses–one of my favorite parts of the job–and because she needed to be Icelandic and have an accent, I was concerned that I would be spending a lot of time with the dialogue coach with someone who was American. I was looking for someone I actually believed their speech patterns. When Anita came to me and she was Icelandic, it was like, “Great, that’s solved.” She read for me several times and she’s such a good actress, she’s classically trained at a school in London. She’s diminutive, she’s gorgeous, she looks great on camera, and it’s such a nice compliment to Brendan who’s this big hunk, that the three of them, Josh, Anita and Brendan, just made the perfect little trio to watch go through this adventure. The situation was that she wasn’t known. I liked that, because I love the fact… her character, unlike Brendan’s and even Josh’s character, her character you want to believe. She’s the straight man in the group. We’ve got the comedy guy, we got the grumpy kid and we have the straight man. You want to believe that she’s for real, and I find it’s such an advantage that at least American audiences weren’t familiar with her, because she’d done mainly Icelandic work in movies and TV stuff, so that she was like a fresh new face. It took a while to convince everybody that she’s the best actress for the role, and we did, and at every test screening, people remarked that they just love her. “Who’s your favorite character?” and all the girls say “Hannah”… and all the guys say it, too. (laughter)

CS: Will you want to continue doing 3D movies after this?

Brevig: I have an extensive background in 3D. I did 3D for Disneyland theme park films, one every five years for like 20 years, so that was already a skill set that I had. I didn’t think I’d ever use it in a feature. When the technology in digital projection and 3D projection came about, it was great to be able to make this movie in 3D, but for me, it’s more about the story. I would love to make another 3D movie, because I think they’re so much fun to watch. It’s a financial consideration and I’ll always pitch anything I’m doing if it’s appropriate to be made in 3D, but for me, it’s a tool, like sound or color or anything else to use. It helps tell stories, there’s a certain cost associated with it, so I think the project will determine that.

Journey to the Center of the Earth opens in regular and digital 3D theaters on Friday, July 11. Check back later this week for our interview with one of the film’s stars, Anita Brien.