- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas — The more Hollywood changes, the more Hollywood stays the same.Movie audiences have been barraged this summer with the most state-of-the-art technology imaginable in “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Hulk” and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”

It’s been a head-spinning and ear-splitting season of glitzy blockbusters. One wonders whether next year will see a back-to-basics reaction against this summer’s excess.

Now comes a blast from the distant past: 3-D. Yes, 3-D. That cheesy medium that first surfaced back when Cadillacs had shark fins and people ordered Coca-Colas from people called “jerks” — a medium of eyeball-maddening illusions viewed through a headachy prism of flimsy cardboard glasses with red and blue tint.

Did we want it back? Doesn’t matter. We got it.

“Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over,” which opened yesterday in area theaters, incorporates the latest in high-definition digital video and computer-generated imaging (CGI) gadgetry, but writer-director Robert Rodriguez, a guerrilla filmmaker based here in Texas’ hip capital, has added a very old wrinkle with 3-D technology.

Although the retina-bending technique dates to the early 20th century (according to the Guinness Book of World Records), the 3-D fad reached American theaters in the early ‘50s with such movies as “Bwana Devil,” “House of Wax” and “Creatures From the Black Lagoon.”

It persisted in fits and starts for another 30-odd years, but the technique never really amounted to much more than a gimmick. That was no deterrent to Mr. Rodriguez.

“I wanted to do a science-fiction movie for kids set inside a virtual game, and I wanted it to be in 3-D,” Mr. Rodriguez says while promoting his latest family-friendly wares at Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel earlier this month.

“At a certain point, I thought, I’ll just make it a ‘Spy Kids’ movie, because it was going to take time to develop the characters, and I wanted to jump right in …,” he says.

“SK3D” is the third and final installment of the popular children’s franchise, and Mr. Rodriguez pulled out all the stops to ensure that the trilogy ended with a bang — or at least a virtual pop in the eye or two.

And, of course, he joshes, it allowed him to integrate that “coveted” 3-D trademark in the title of a second sequel, a la “Friday the 13th Part 3: 3-D” and “Jaws 3-D.”

Get it?

Mr. Rodriguez makes no bones about the fact that those films — early ‘80s attempts to revive the 3-D fad — were pretty lousy products.

“They were just movies that they were gonna make, and they said, ‘Hey, put ‘em in 3-D — kids love that stuff,’” Mr. Rodriguez says. “No one had really embraced the idea of 3-D as part of the story and then made sure the movie could play on its own without the 3-D.”

To that end, Mr. Rodriguez tapped an unlikely children’s movie star, Sylvester Stallone, whom he met at a film festival in Venice, Italy, five years ago.

In “SK3D,” Mr. Stallone plays a split-personality comic villain called the Toymaker, the lord of a complex video game in which the movie’s young heroes become virtually trapped.

“I went to my kids and said, ‘They want me to be in “Spy Kids,”’ and right away there was a celebration in the house unlike any I’d ever heard, certainly not in connection with any film I’d done,” Mr. Stallone recalls. “Now I had gained parental respect. I had to do it; otherwise I would’ve been disowned by a six-year-old.”

Good, engaging storytelling aside, Mr. Rodriguez knew he had to raise the bar with 3-D technology if he was going to sell it to youngsters already sated with ever-proliferating video-game exploits — and to parents who never really liked it in the first place.

The idea was to “create an immersive world” where, he says, “it wasn’t just the 3-D gimmick of throwing stuff at the audience but using the 3-D to pull the audience into the movie. I wanted this to use the technology to make you feel like you’re in the world with the characters.”

Help in that department came unwittingly from the Oscar-winning director James Cameron, who already had developed an innovative camera system for his Titanic documentary “Ghosts of the Abyss” by the time Mr. Rodriguez started working on “SK3D.”

Things get tech-geeky here, but the development had something to do with a new twist on the 3-D filmmaking method of “convergence” — the point at which two images, filmed on two separate cameras, cross, creating the illusion of depth in viewers’ eyes.

In the early days of 3-D filmmaking, achieving convergence was an unwieldy, hit-or-miss process. The system commissioned by Mr. Cameron, on the other hand, was nimble and user-friendly, lending itself to the kind of improvisational shots directors shoot in 2-D.

After fiddling with early CGI drafts of “SK3D,” Mr. Rodriguez continues, he “saw Cameron’s setup for his 3-D movie, and I didn’t even realize he had already invented a system that could do so much more.

“The cameras could move independently, so you could change the convergence on the fly. In the past, if you did a 3-D movie, you’d have to lock the camera down, set a convergence and just let it ride. That’s why, half the time, it didn’t work.”

Mr. Cameron’s flexible camera system, combined with digital video and CGI, meant that the old, outsized gestures actors made for 3-D effect were no longer necessary.

“In the old days, they didn’t have CG,” Mr. Rodriguez says. “So, unless the actor was poking his finger in the lens, there was no 3-D moment. Whereas, here the environment can constantly be coming out into the audience. I can add that in at any point during post-production, and the actor can go about his business.”

Better still, the high-definition digital technology allowed the director to check his results in real time instead of waiting a day to see how the film turned out. “We had a projector on the set with glasses, and as we were shooting, we could see in 3-D and see if it was working,” Mr. Rodriguez says. “It allowed us to do a lot more than we would’ve been able to do before.”

From conception to post-production, “SK3D” took a mere five months, with most of the acting being done before a green screen at an airplane hangar outside Austin owned by Mr. Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Digital Studios, as well as at the director’s own house.

Mr. Stallone, for instance, shot his part in a mere four days.

“What’s great about Robert is that he has to see the entire film in his mind — every shot — because it doesn’t exist,” Mr. Stallone says. “There’s no set; there’s nothing. He can see it. We can’t see it, and we have to trust him. It’s pretty extraordinary.”

Acting wasn’t the only thing going on chez Rodriguez. The multitasking director planned lighting schemes and costume design and edited the film at his Austin pad; he also scored the film on guitar.

“You gotta strip down and become a commando unit,” says the director, who’s set to complete another trilogy later this year with “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” the third in a string of movies that started with 1992’s indie favorite “El Mariachi.”

“You get addicted to this, because you really feel like you’re making a movie; you don’t feel like you’re working on it.”

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