nWave relishes in its giant leap

Filmmaker says 3rd dimension is only way to 'Fly'

BRUSSELS -- If such moviemakers as James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are to be believed, then we are at the dawn of a dazzling new era of 3-D cinema. Spielberg is teaming with Peter Jackson to create a 3-D trilogy based on the adventures of comic strip hero Tintin; Cameron is working on an epic 3-D sci-fi movie called "Avatar"; and Lucas is exploring the possibility of remastering the "Star Wars" movies in 3-D.

But long before any of these reach the screen, there will be the 3-D children's movie "Fly Me to the Moon." Featuring a voice cast of Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, Kelly Ripa and Nicollette Sheridan, it follows three tween-aged houseflies who stow away aboard the Apollo 11 flight to the moon. Due for a U.S. release this summer, Belgian director Ben Stassen says it will be the first animated movie made exclusively for digital 3-D.

"Fly" was made for $25 million outside Hollywood by Brussels-based nWave Pictures, which has, until now, never produced a single conventional movie.

"Fly" director Stassen, who founded nWave in 1992, might have slipped under Hollywood's radar, but his approach -- allied with the new paradigms offered by 3-D technologies -- is building a new model for filmmakers.

Stassen is a pioneering user of 3-D technology whose films are probably seen by an estimated 200,000 people around the world every day. Even on his home turf, he maintains a low profile. "My movies are the three top boxoffice films Belgium has ever created, and yet, even here, no one really knows who I am," he concedes.

Focusing exclusively on 3-D movies since 1997, nWave has produced short films for Imax theaters, rides and attractions. Because of the format, these films rarely generate much media interest, but Stassen has been behind eight of the 36 made-for-Imax 3-D films that have been distributed in Imax theaters.

Indeed, nWave titles like "Encounter in the Third Dimension," "Alien Adventure" and "Haunted Castle" have generated more than $200 million in boxoffice revenue in Imax theaters worldwide. At the same time, the nWave library of titles makes up two-thirds of all ride simulation films being shown worldwide in malls, theme parks, fairgrounds and other entertainment centers.

Being at the vanguard of 3-D, Stassen can see the business changing and says the release of "The Polar Express" in Imax 3-D was a milestone. "The film grossed over $45 million in just 67 Imax 3-D theaters in less than two months. That's a $700,000 per-screen average," he says.

He points to the digital 3-D versions of "Chicken Little" and "Meet the Robinsons" and the 3-D Imax version of "Monster House," which each outgrossed their 2-D release nearly 3-to-1 on a per-screen basis. "And look at my 3-D films," Stassen enthuses. "They have no stars attached and hardly any marketing budgets, but they routinely gross well over $30 million in just 140 Imax theaters."

However, he believes the key to success will come down to technology. Old analog 3-D disoriented moviegoers as it was never able to synchronize two images perfectly. Digital cinema is more precise, but 3-D filmmakers still have to wait for theaters to convert to digital -- an expensive proposition. Yet the demand for 3-D seems to be speeding that conversion process.

"We were waiting for digital cinema to drive 3-D, but now 3-D is the engine for the conversion to digital cinema," Stassen believes. "Fly" will open in August, by which time he estimates 1,600 digital 3-D theaters will be in operation worldwide, compared with the 800-plus when "Beowulf" opened.

Stassen says that 3-D's long-term appeal depends on some key factors, most notably an overhaul of digital projection systems and a steady supply of content designed and created in 3-D for 3-D-only release.

Studios need to change too, Stassen says. "Studios need to work on 3-D strategies that apply all the way from the theater to the home -- including televisions, broadcasts and trailers," Stassen says. "And until 3-D-ready televisions are (widely available), their business model will not include a ready DVD market."

Yet perhaps the most creative challenge of 3-D is to the filmmakers themselves. "The third dimension means a totally different approach to filmmaking," Stassen says. "It's a new grammar of cinema, and we all need to learn how to speak this new language. If we want to ensure 3-D immersion, we have to change everything from the writing and pacing to the framing and lighting.

"It must be a sensation of total immersion," he says. "You want the audience to forget there is even a frame around the picture. You want them to be part of the scene."