'Piranha' director prefers severing limbs in 3D

Film is latest to be converted from 2D in post-production

Although converting 2D movies to 3D looks like the easy way out, it's anything but.

That's clear from talking to director Alexandre Aja about his action thriller "Piranha 3D," opening Aug. 20 via the Weinstein Company's Dimension division.

Originally, the R-rated horror film about an undersea tremor sending pre-historic razor-teeth killer fish into an Arizona lake during Spring Break was going to be shot in 2D. Then Aja decided to shoot 3D. Ultimately, he converted to shooting 2D with planned conversion to 3D.

About six years ago after directing "High Tension" Aja started receiving other thriller scripts to consider. One of them was an early "Piranha" draft he thought had possibilities.
           
But Aja went on to do the 2003 reboot of Wes Craven's horror classic "The Hills Have Eyes." A few years later, Dimension called to see if he was still interested in "Piranha."
 
"It's a movie I cannot get out of my head," he replied. "Every time I'm thinking about making a movie in the genre of 'Gremlins' or 'Jaws,' I'm thinking about 'Piranha.' "
           
Working with his longtime writing partner Gregory Levasseur, Aja started rewriting what he felt was then a B movie script. He was excited at the time by the buzz about "Avatar" and 3D technology. He knew this was how he wanted to do "Piranha," but obviously on a much lower budget.

"I couldn't help thinking how exciting it would be to see a real R movie in 3D," Aja told me. "These movies are very visceral. If you're not on the side of a character, you cannot be scared enough."

For an R rated film, immersion in the story is critically important, he explained, "and 3D is one of the best tools invented to create a better immersion."
           
Aja had no trouble convincing Dimension "Piranha" should be 3D.

"I called Bob Weinstein to explain and he got it right away -- right on the spot. It took me five minutes on the phone to convince him that the movie should be in 3D."

That was almost two years ago and predated the release of "Avatar" and 3D thrillers like "Final Destination 3D" and "My Bloody Valentine."

"We wrote the script including the 3D and focusing on what elements would be flying off the screen. I thought because 'Piranha' was such a pop culture movie, it would be great doing the opposite of 'Avatar' and really having as much as we could flying off the screen."
    
Aja changed his mind about shooting 3D when he learned more about the technology.
    
"We were prepping the movie with James Cameron's system and were supposed to do the movie in complete 3D. But we were facing two big problems. One was shooting in the heat of Arizona during summer with 110 or 120 degrees when all the electronics just melt."

He'd experienced similar equipment meltdowns shooting "Hills" in Morocco and knew there's no way to avoid them.

"But the biggest issue was that when you shoot stereo you have to be sure your left eye and your right eye have exactly the same lighting."

When you shoot on water, however, "the sun's reflection on the surface of the water is changing. So whatever you do, the reflection on the surface of the water is creating a different light for the left and the right eye."

That would have required slow and costly fixing in post-production shot by shot.  
 
While debating what to do, Aja saw 20 minutes of Peter Jackson's 'King Kong' footage converted into 3D and he was blown away. "For me," he said, "converting to 3D made no sense in the beginning. I was like, 'Can you imagine the amount of work to create that?' "
     
But seeing some "Kong" conversion for a Universal Studios Hollywood theme park attraction left Aja thinking, "This is the best 3D I’ve seen so far." It convinced him to shoot first in 2D and convert afterwards.

Afterwards didn't, however, mean making 3D an afterthought.

"We had a conversion supervisor with us at all times. We started the process of converting in early November 2009 and as I speak to you right now I'm still working on it -- and I will still be working on it till they take the movie off my hands."

Converting to 3D added, Aja estimates, several million dollars to the budget, which he puts at a tight $25 million to $30 million all in. But considering the film's action and extensive effects -- piranha attacks require buckets of fake blood and many decapitated limbs -- those dollars are on the screen.

Aja faced challenges at every turn during filming, but wasn't surprised.

"When I was writing the script, that little voice in my head was telling me, 'Are you aware of what you're putting on the page? You're going to shoot in the desert during summer on the water with a thousand extras, a thousand gallons of blood, hundreds of prosthetics, make-up that's going to melt in the sun, CGI piranha, kids and everything in 3D?'"
   
The only thing missing, he laughs, were animals.
     
"If we had a German Shepherd as one of the protagonists it would have been like the last thing I could have added to the gig."
 
See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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