Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Journey to a world unseen

Journey to a world unseen
By Raymond De Asis-Lo L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star)

MANILA, Philippines - My recent shared elevator ride and brief but interesting conversation with British actor Jim Sturgess on our way to the mezzanine of the Hyatt Hotel during a junket in Century City a few days ago brought back a flood of memories from the days when I was just starting to write about Hollywood.

Having met countless actors and filmmakers and after doing over a hundred celebrity interviews in five years, one would be tempted to think that I would be jaded about all these by now. Thankfully, that’s not the case. I still get excited — and nervous, always! — everytime an e-mail pops up containing an invitation to cover a particular junket.

My very first interview was with the Backstreet Boys back when they were making their first comeback in early 2005. It was followed by an invite to interview the cast of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, where I first met a pre-adolescent Taylor Lautner, who, I must admit, never struck me that he would grow up to become the hottest werewolf after Michael J. Fox.

That junket was made memorable by two other reasons: it was the first time I shared an elevator ride with a certified Hollywood star! Kristine Davis of SATC fame just wrapped the final season of her HBO hit and was making the transition to film at the time when I interviewed her and I remember my friend Sally pressing me to ask Kristine what her secret was in maintaining her shiny flowing long locks which the pretty actress obligingly shared.

3D filmmaking was the other reason why that junket holds a certain memory: It was the first mainstream Hollywood movie in many years to experiment with the ’70s era gimmickry where images magically leap from the screen to sheer amazement by the audience — and, boy, look how that experiment turned out five years later. Technological advances have finally allowed Hollywood to reap tremendous amount of profits from that inspired decision by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.

When James Cameron perfected the process with his Avatar late last year and pulled in billions of dollars in earnings, a slew of movies were hastily converted to 3D to capitalize on the growing market demand and the results have been mostly disappointing. Many critics have lashed out at how Hollywood is indirectly destroying the long-term viability of this new lucrative platform as evidenced by the recent trend of declining 3D attendance, triggering alarm bells in the industry.

“Like everyone else, when you see a 3D movie, you kind of question the why of it,” says director Zack Snyder. “There have been a few films like Avatar where I get the 3D. I think the thing about Guardians… is that it is kind of built for 3D.”

The director of such blockbuster hits as 300 and Watchmen met with this writer a few days ago during the junket for the visually stunning Warner Bros. 3D animated tale called Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole, which is an incredible adaptation of a hugely-popular series of books about a mythical land inhabited by two groups of owls battling each other in a classic good versus evil conflict which interestingly draws striking parallels to the real-life struggle for racial and social equality today.

“Working on this movie, you really get to have a sense of how hard a process it is to make a 3D movie,” he confers, “and the 3D in this film sort of remind you how 3D can be cool. “

I must attest to what he is saying, I saw the movie a week before its US release and I was stunned by the marvelous work done on the movie. Had I not known beforehand that the movie was hand-drawn, I would have fooled myself into believing that the owls in this movie were real! And not only can they talk, they can engage in combat like the battle-tested Spartans of 300!

The process took three years to complete, acccording to Zack, who started working on the storyboards immediately after he finished 300 and before he started Watchmen. “There’s this other world, a spectacular world like you’ve never seen before: landscapes, mountains, giant trees, stone palaces and everything you can think of and the depths that the 3D create becomes the window into that world.”

Those familiar with Zack’s films would not be disappointed with the movie. His trademark “dust moves,” those slow-motion shots focusing on the details of an action scene like a sword cutting through the air or a feather falling to the ground, are present in this arresting movie.

After completing the storyboards, the Oscar-nominated artists behind Happy Feet came on board and started fleshing out the owls and the magical world of Ga’hoole. The impressive line-up of dedicated actors was finally cast midway through. Their voices and the delivery of the lines were painstakingly added into the facial animation. Zack shared that when Helen Mirren, who voiced the evil Nyra, sighed during her delivery, the artists redesigned the character to allow the pause into the scene.

Jim Sturgess, for his part, recalled working in the studio where he literally had to act like a bird flapping his arms while delivering his lines. “It was a lot of fun, there was a lot of standing inside dark empty room thinking ‘what am I (expletive) doing? I hope no one sees these tapes!’”

“There were times when Zack and I would be in different countries while I was recording for my scenes,” he added. “Just the pure nature of it forces you to use your own imagination because there was nothing to react to but the best part of it is to be able to sit in a cinema and just watch this whole thing come to life and I am just honored to be able to voice one of the most beautifully-crafted creatures — I was totally floored by the film, I thought it was incredible!”

For those not so familiar with Jim, he was the starry-eyed protagonist of the Beatles-infused love story Across the Universe with Evan Rachel Wood. In this movie, the actor voiced the character of Soren, a young adventurous owl who can barely fly but whose rich imagination, fuelled by the stories about the legend of their ancestors, take him to an adventure of his life similar to the heroes in his favorite tales.

Fellow Brit, Ryan Kwanten of True Blood fame, voiced Kludd, Soren’s older jealous brother, shared his similar experience working on the movie: “From the outside perspective, you would really think like you are disappearing into another world where I would be running around, sweating profusely, making all sorts of ridiculous noises. You really have to suspend disbelief, ‘I am in that world, I am an owl, I possess all those qualities and I am gonna go there,’ because the moment you don’t believe that, the audience will see that, they will hear that.”

The rest of the impressive cast includes Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, David Wenham and Matrix-villain, Hugo Weaving.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole is currently playing in theaters.

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