Robert Rodriguez Uses High Tech Tools to Revive a Classic Format with Spy Kids 3-D
By Ray Zone
Some people just don't like anaglyph. Viewing the world through complementary colored glasses, red and cyan, is just too much retinal bombardment for them. But the anaglyph continues to fascinate filmmakers and artists as a viable way to display stereographic imagery. Director Robert Rodriguez, creator of the popular Spy Kidsmovie franchise, is the most recent case in point.
For the third installment in his popular Spy Kidsseries, titled "Game Over," which opened on 3300 screens July 25, Rodriguez has made an extensive use of polychromatic anaglyph, introducing a a fuller palette of color into the two-color stereographic process. Rodriguez has done his homework and has made an entertaining and easily viewable film which is about 75 percent color anaglyph. The audience is directly told when to take the glasses off or put them on by on-screen instructions and the actions of the characters.
When high-tech bad guy, the Toymaker, played by Sylvester Stallone in multiple humorous roles, traps Carmen Gomez (Alexa Vega) in a new computer game called "Game Over," her younger brother Junie (Daryl Sabara) dons his 3-D glasses and comes to the rescue. With the assistance of his grandfather, played by Ricardo Montalban, Junie enters the computer-generated world of Game Over and faces a series of dimensional duels and tests to save his sister.
Green screen filming of the actors was done at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas using the new Reality Camera System (RCS) built by James Cameron and Vince Pace and utilized previously for stereoscopic capture of footage for Ghosts of the Abyss.The RCS uses two Sony High Definition cameras and dual Fujinon lenses having a 69mm interocular with convergence which can be driven independently or slaved to focus, iris and zoom controls. A separate dual-camera unit with a beam splitter was also used to shoot footage with smaller interocular distances going down to zero.
The live action stereoscopic footage was composited into the computer-generated world of Game Over. This kind of control over the stereoscopic imagery allowed Rodriguez in making what he called "good, old-fashioned anaglyph," to minimize onscreen parallax where necessary, control colors and continually place the stereo window in an optimum position for the most comfortable viewing. As a result, Spy Kids 3-Drepresents a definite step forward for anaglyphic motion pictures.
Anaglyphic motion pictures have a varied and intermittent history that goes back to the Nickelodeon era of cinema when filmmakers and audiences were first discovering the story telling capabilities of the new technological art.
The projection of anaglyph images using complementary colors was first attempted and described by Wilhelm Rollman in Germany in1853. In 1891, Louis Ducos du Hauron of France patented and named the system of the "anaglyph" and it was used at that time both for printing and projection of lantern slide shows.
The first public presentation of anaglyph motion pictures in America took place on June 10, 1915 at the Astor Theater in New York with anaglyphic sequences in the film Jim the Penmanphotographed by Edwin S. Porter with the assistance of William E. Waddell. Two anaglyphic travelogues, Niagara Falls and Rural America,were also on the program. It seems likely that Porter and Waddell used a twin interlock projector system with two black and white film strips projected through red and green filters. The audience, of course, was equipped with anaglyph spectacles to view the films.
When Technicolor introduced their two-color cemented film positive process in 1921, Frederic Ives and Jacob Leventhal, under their Educational Pictures banner, produced a number of short films in the single-strip process and named it Plastigrams,the title of their first production. Other anaglyphic shorts, Zowie, Luna-cy, Ouch!and The Runaway Taxiwere released by Ives and Leventhal in 1925 through the Pathe studios. An interprising producer, Harry K. Fairall released an anaglyphic feature, The Power of Love,in 1922 in Los Angeles which gave the audience the option of viewing two different endings to the film through either the red or green lenses of the spectacles.
"The problems involved in producing anaglyphs in natural colours have claimed the attention of many workers," wrote Leslie P. Dudley in his 1951 book Stereoptics, An Introduction,"and various processes for the production of so-called polychromatic anaglyphs have been proposed from time to time."
The first full-color anaglyph motion picture appears to be a 1969 adult film called Swingtail. Los Angeles-based producer Steve Gibson's Deep Vision company with the talents of 3-D cinematographer Arnold Herr has also produced seven adult films in polychromatic anaglyph including The Playmates(1973), Black Lolita(1975) and Disco Dolls in Hot Skin(1978), among others.
These polychromatic anaglyph features were filmed with a beam-splitter and color filters directly onto a single strip of Eastman Kodak color stock. The disadvantage of the system is that no adjustment to parallax is possible after principal photography. For the color anaglyph finale of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare(1991) the stereoscopic photography was done with the single strip Stereovision process and then optically printed to anaglyph composite.
Freddy's Deadwas a good example of how notto art direct a color anaglyph movie. Freddy's sweater, for example, consisted of alternating bands of bright red and green stripes. The retinal rivalry that bright red, blue and green induces in the anaglyph is a deficiency that Robert Rodriguez has assiduously avoided in Spy Kids 3-D. The color palette consists of gun metal grey and purple backgrounds, highly metallic surfaces and primary colors that are minimally used. Yellow and purple, light orange and green, carry most of the color design and help to minimize the color flicker through the red/blue glasses.
An additional achievement of Rodriguez's polychromatic anaglyph color design is to stage the action of the actors continuously at the stereo window where minimal color fringing and ghosting is evident. You could even watch the anaglyph sequences in Spy Kids 3-Dwithout the glasses and not experience too much distraction. This is a real achievement for anaglyphic motion pictures which historically have had excessive ghosting and exaggerated parallax that is painful to view.
While film critic Roger Ebert remains "unconvinced that 3-D is necessary in cinematic storytelling," Spy Kids 3-D,with a story set in computer cyberspace, creates a natural fit between the narrative and the anaglyphic format. For the audience, as well as the characters in the story, entry into stereoscopic cyberspace is made possible by wearing the red/blue glasses.
A 1961 black-and-white horror film, The Mask,directed by Julian Roffman, featured a similar imaginative use of the anaglyph with three different segments that depicted the subconscious minds of characters in the film. The hypnotic voice of a psychoanalyst in The Mask commanded the audience to "put on the mask now" to view hallucinatory anaglyphic segments. As with The Mask, Spy Kids 3-Dmakes use of the anaglyphic glasses as a metaphoric portal to another world of experience.
It's a challenge for 3-D filmmakers to coherently justify the use of stereopsis within the context of a narrative. "It is a mistake," says Ebert, "when the medium distracts from the message." Quite often the use of off-the-screen effects, the sheer sensory distraction of 3-D, does little to enhance the story. Spy Kids 3-D,however, set within an active arena of cyberspace with floating platforms, outsize weapons and hovercraft motorcycles, uses the stereoscopic parameter as a seamless part of the kinetic narrative.
The classic ride film is invoked when a brief surfing segment takes place with the youthful spies gliding down hot lava that is judiciously colored yellow and black with the merest traces of red. A glissando of surf guitar music is heard in this segment. Another classic homage is invoked when a giant custard pie is flung at a youthful combatant. The many off-the-screen effects take place logically within the main actions of the film which include plenty of jousting, racing and hurling objects flying randomly in the zero gravity of the immersive cyberspace.
At the end of Spy Kids 3-D,giant robots escape the world of the video game and break out into the reality of the Austin, Texas state Capital building. The outsized robots, appearing monumental in scale and colored as a kind of faded brass, are impressive in 3-D. When they are destroyed by the family of superspies and come crashing down at the viewer from great heights, it's a real stereoscopic climax with dimensional jolts surpassing those seen previously in the film.
With its sweetly pro-family message, rated PG, and its heart on its armored sleeve, Spy Kids 3-Dis the first anaglyph film created for children since the MPAA ratings code was created in the late 1960s. One can be grateful to Robert Rodriguez for rescuing the polychromatic anaglyph motion picture from the shadowy precincts of the sex and horror film.
Despite the widespread ignorance of journalists about stereoscopic cinema, Spy Kids 3-Dreceived generally favorable press. A common prevalent misconception is that the 1950s 3-D films, inaugurated by Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil,were viewed by audiences with red/blue glasses instead of the polarizing glasses which they actually used. This error of fact was once again reiterated in the July 20 issue of the New York Times. With a July 25 review of Spy Kids 3-Din the New York Times, Dave Kehr called the film "an enjoyable, noisy romp" but wrote that it had "been photographed in the relatively primitive analglyphic process."
Roger Ebert, no friend of stereoscopic cinema, stated that Spy Kids 3-D represented "not much of an advance." Claudia Puig, however, writing in the July 25 USA Today wrote that "rather than merely startling the audience by hurtling things toward it, Spy Kids creates a vivid fantasy world that is all the more alive in 3-D." Two days earlier USA Todayfeatured a full-page illustrated feature explaining the camera technology behind Spy Kids 3-D.
Megan Lehman, reviewer for the New York Post,must suffer from some form of visual impairment or stereoptic deficiency to write in the July 25 issue that "combined with the eyestrain produced by the cheap cardboard 3-D glasses, the resulting vertigo is decidedly unpleasant." The 4-color Spy Kidspaper glasses actually use red/blue filters with sufficient density to produce the necessary cancellation of colors to make the anaglyph process work very well. In addition, the glasses feature a flexible band that goes around the head to ensure that they stay on during the film.
Why do these newspaper writers think that the anaglyph glasses are "cheap" just because they're made out of cardboard? The Spy Kidsglasses are supplied folded and wrapped in food grade cellophane so that they are untouched as supplied to audiences. Of course many of the 5 to 10 year old kids emerging out of the theatre after the screening continue to wear their high-tech looking anaglyph glasses which are similar in design to the glasses the characters in the movie wear. It's a ready means of identification with the Spy Kids themselves.
I asked a couple of old codgers leaving the theatre what they thought of the stereoscopic effects in Spy Kids. "It doesn't work!" replied one cranky old senior, obviously no fan of retinal bombardment. Querying about twenty different children, aged 5 to 10 after the film, all of them attested to enjoying the 3-D effects. The open minds and supple eye muscles of children bode well for the future of anaglyph movies.
Modestly budgeted at $40 million, Spy Kids 3-Dtook in $32.5 million with a 3-day gross over its opening weekend, which was a better opening than either of the first two Spy Kids movies.
Numerous theatres playing Spy Kids 3-Dwere using the Texas Instruments DLP digital projection system. Rodriguez is persona non gratain Hollywood because he has stated for the record that he dislikes film itself and would produce and exhibit all of his films digitally were it possible. At the very beginning of Spy Kids 3-Dthe opening credit reads "A Robert Rodriguez Digital File." In addition, Rodriguez writes, designs, directs, photographs, edits and scores the Spy Kidsmovies, a rather too eclectic approach to filmmaking which flies in the face of the division-of-labor system which has been built up in Hollywood for decades. We are not surprised to find that Rodriguez has named his production company Troublemaker Studios. Like George Lucas, Rodriguez is a highly successful digital rebel working outside the Hollywood system.
I made a point of seeing Spy Kids 3-D twice with both digital and film projection to analyze some of the visual differences for anaglyph in the two separate processes. The overall colors with digital projection were slightly more on the pastel side and there was less ghosting in evidence with solid edge colors. Film output of Rodriguez's digital files produced a slightly harder red and blue. This is controllable, of course, but the film ouput was slightly more brilliant and just slightly more difficult to view in anaglyph.
Spy Kids 3-Dwill very likely earn over $100 million profit, just like its two predecessors. Children will be wearing their anaglyph glasses around the neighborhood, creating very powerful juvenile word-of-mouth promotion for the film. And they will be using them to look at the color anaglyph Spy Kids 3-D comics available with Happy Meals at McDonald's over the course of a six-week promotion running concurrent with the film's release. With his new digital "old-fashioned" process, Robert Rodriguez has a winner on his hands. Good for him. And good for the polychromatic anaglyph.