“3D is finished” says Ben Stassen, director of 3D film The House of Magic

I saved one interview from my prolonged stint at the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film last month, because it was interesting enough to merit a solo spot and because the film it concerns hits movie theatres in Germany this week.

Ben Stassen, the Belgian co-director of The House of Magic (German: Das magische Haus), is a veteran when it comes to 3D-animated films (which is probably why he has perfected the pose seen in the image above). He started his career – and his company nWave Pictures – in the early nineties and created theme park shorts for several years, before he decided to ride the digital 3D boom of the late noughties with his films Fly me to the moon and Sammy’s Adventures. He’s a strong figure in Europudding land and very confident in his opinions about the industry, which – as you will see – can sometimes lead to him descending into rambling about it for a while.

The House of Magic, his newest film, is actually quite good. It uses 3D in a very knowing way and takes you for an entertaining 90-minute ride that you won’t regret if you’re into that kind of stuff. In the interview, Stassen talks about the inspiration behind The House of Magic, the challenge of competing with Hollywood and the uncertain future of 3D.

You’ve done quite a few 3D-animated films in the past, what’s the new ground that you’re exploring with this one?

With the first three Films, Fly me to the Moon, Sammy’s Adventures: The Secret Passage and Sammy’s Adventures: Escape from Paradise, it was much more about an immersive experience, going to space and under water. I think that one of the most important things about 3D is that it gives you that physical immersion that you don’t have in a 2D film. You might have an intellectual and emotional immersion, but you can’t have a physical immersion.We wanted to continue that with this film, but I also wanted to explore the more gimmicky side of 3D, because the story lent itself.

“I wanted to explore the
more gimmicky side of 3D”

By gimmicky, I mean in-your-face effects. The other films had a few in-your-face effects, but this film is about a bunch of characters – animals and automatons – that fight to prevent a house from being sold. All the visitors that come to buy the house and the movers and all these people that want to get rid of the house, the characters want to stop them. They stop them by using all kinds of things, so it was a really nice setup to do in-your-face effects that were part of the story, not just gimmicky, gratuitous and meaningless. I wanted to explore that and that’s one of the things that we did here and hopefully it works well and is well-integrated into the movie.

Did you approach it in this way? Did you say “What kind of story could we find, where people throw things around a lot?”

No, actually it was the other way around. I was looking for a film to do after Sammy. You must know that in animation, there are very few writers that write scripts on spec, meaning: you write them and then try to sell them. In live action, thousands of scripts are being written, in animation: almost none. Because there are no buyers. All the big studios do their own thing and the small independents like ourselves, we do try find them, but people don’t spend energy writing the scripts. So, I was looking for a film to do. And 15 years ago, we had done a theme park attraction – because that’s still a big part of our business. I’ve done a lot of IMAX films but also short, what we call 4D-films for theme parks. 15 years ago we did a film called Haunted House about an abandoned cat that was looking for a place to stay. And that film had been so succesful worldwide, I decided to take that twelve-minute-film and expand it to a full feature-length story. So, we had already tested the concept of doing a film like that with a lot of immersive and in-your-face effects in a theme park environment. The big difference is that when you do a feature film, you need to build a story. You need to build up the characters, it’s not just about sensations, but also about emotions. But that was the starting point.

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You are maybe the most well-known European figure who kind of stands against Hollywood’s dominance in computer-animated film. Do you see yourself that way?

It’s true that we have been trying to be in the major league with the quality of our films, the quality of the animation, and thanks to our affiliation with Studio Canal we’ve had reasonable budgets to do a film. By “reasonable budgets” I mean 20 to 25 million Euros, which compared to the US is about 20 percent of their budget, so we’re still not in the same league in terms of budget, but we’re trying to be, in terms of the quality of the films. Now, the challenge is that it is extremely difficult to get US distribution. So yes, we are a little bit perceived as the people that are able to do films that get distributed worldwide. Fly me to the Moon was distributed in theatres, I think this one might get theatrical distribution, we’re negotiating right now. But the Sammy-Films went directly to DVD in the US and that’s quite frustrating.

“The US makes it very hard
for independents to succeed”

It’s quite a frustrating thing, because the US dominate the market and basically make it very very hard for independent animation companies or animated films from outside the US to succeed, not only in the US but also in the rest of the world. In the 1980s, 1990s, the majors released two or three films a year. Now there is ten or twelve films coming from the majors – DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky, Universal – and so they block all the good windows. A window is a good period to release a family film, like Christmas or Easter vacation. And you only have five or six good windows for animated films and they’re all completely blocked by the US majors who have way more money and way more marketing power than other animation studios, so it is very challenging and very frustrating in a way. It’s hard to make the business model work. For us, it does work, because we have that combination of making feature films that succeed quite well and get sold worldwide, from all the territories in Europe to China to South America. But from the feature films we also make shorter films that we exploit in theme parks and that can make the business model work. That is why we are one of the few companies in europe that cancompete with the Americans a little bit, because we have these other sources of revenue. Otherwise, it would be almost impossible.

Ignoring the business side for a moment, how do you think the European animated film is doing from an artistic standpoint at the moment?

The great thing that has evolved over the last few years is that the technology – I don’t want to bring everything back to money, but it has become much more affordable. So, ten years ago, from a creative standpoint, the Americans had a big lead, because they had big research and development teams and could create tools that enabled them to do more refined, better-looking animation. Now that has become off-the-shelf software, and we do have a small R&D team internally. So, now at least we have the same tools as the Americans. I think that, from a creative standpoint, our films start to look really really good, even though we don’t have the same budget and we are being considered like being part of the major league in terms of the look of our films.

“You cannot only appeal
to a local market”

One of the strengths of the US film industry in general has always been that they develop stories that have worldwide appeal. And when you do a computer-animated film on a certain level, you do have to pay a lot of attention to them. You cannot deal with a local subject that would only appeal to a local market. You need to broaden that up, so the commercial side of doing animation still has a big impact on the creative side. Probably far more than in live action. In live action, you can make small, independent films that are great and sometimes even succeed internationally. In animated films, it’s different, because it’s family entertainment. You have to please the parents, the kids and you need to be really as broad as possible, which means more americanised. When you look at all the animated European films that have succeeded worldwide, they have all been more americanised, based on the model of the big US films, which is not the case with live action films. You can sometimes have really local stories that become huge successes worldwide. Animation is also the only field, where they always compare you to the Americans. If you make a film, the reviews and the audience, they compare you to Pixar and DreamWorks. If Luc Besson in France or a big German director makes an action film, they are not compared to the last Bruce Willis …

(I frown)

A little bit, but they look at it: Is it entertaining? Yes. For us, it starts from there. It starts from “How does it compare to …” In live action, it’s much less. So it is challenging, but, you know, it’s been fun. It’s worked. So far.

© StudioCanal

You’re also one of the pioneers of 3D, of course, not only because of your theme park background. The way I see it, at the moment is that it gets tacked on to every summer blockbuster, whether it works or not – and then you have movies like Gravity last year, where it’s really put to the test and audiences like it. So, where do you see 3D going in the future, in maybe the next five to ten years?

It’s going nowhere. 3D, I’m afraid to say, is going to die. Because you have one Gravity, which is absolutely fantastic, for a hundred other films. 99,9 Percent of the films coming out of Hollywood are not 3D. They are, at best, 2.5 D; 2.25 D. The evolution is such that, as we speak today, there is not a single US film shooting in 3D. We started by converting them from 2D to 3D, then a few films were shot in 3D, and now they’re all converted again, because 3D does not work. Well, 3D works fantastically well in films like Gravity and I think we pay a lot of attention to 3D in our films, but most people don’t. Even great films like the Pixar films. I heard an interview with a Pixar director, saying he doesn’t handle the 3D, it’s done in post-production. Not converted – they do render both eyes, but if it’s not part of the storytelling then why do 3D?

“3D is finished
in two or three years”

Audiences have come to realize that. They don’t want to pay extra money anymore to see 3D. The kids don’t want to wear glasses. You can see it in a film like The House of Magic, which has already been released in a few territories: the little kids don’t mind wearing 3D glasses, if they have a sense that it makes a difference. So I’m extremely frustrated, because I truly believe that 3D as we know it today is going to be finished within two or three years. Not ten years, two or three years. Even countries like Italy – The House of Magic came out only in 2D in Italy, even though I spent a lot of time and energy making it in 3D. Why? Because they decided that family films will not be released in 3D anymore. Only the tentpole Hollywood films, because people don’t want to pay. The future of 3D will be in high frame rate. So far there’s only two films that have been in released in HFR-3D. The Hobbit 1 and The Hobbit 2 by Peter Jackson. The next one will be Avatar. Peter Jackson did it at 48 frames per second, and Avatar will have 60 frames per second.
© StudioCanal
It’s quite technical, but at a high frame rate you have absolute freedom to do anything you want. At 24 frames per second, you are so limited – and that’s why a lot of filmmakers don’t want to deal with 3D. You cannot do fast lateral movements, you have to be very careful in anything you do, so that it doesn’t strobe and stays watchable. In HFR – and I’ve seen The Hobbit at 24 frames 3D and in HFR – it’s a different film. The 48-frame-version is fantastic. And the 24-frame-version has been re-converged so that people don’t get sick during the projection. So I think that in the future, the current form of 3D will probably die and there will be a few, much fewer 3D films, but films that are truly designed for 3D. And there will not be three per weekend, but maybe ten per year. Films like The Hobbit, Avatar and hopefully a few animated films and hopefully ours will be among them. I think that’s where were going, because why do we even have 3D? One reason: Hollywood was unable to convince theatrical exhibitors to go digital. They didn’t want to spend the money. And at one point they decided to say: We’re going to do 3D, because you need a digital projector to do 3D. Avatar was really the milestone. The most digitisation of movie theatres around the world happened with the release of Avatar and then it grew from there. So now Hollywood doesn’t care whether 3D stays or not.

“Hollywood doesn’t care
if 3D stays or not”

The interesting thing is that HFR-3D, which I see as the future of 3D, is what the studios are going to use, on a different scale, to convince exhibitors to install 4K projectors. Because 4k projectors can do native HFR, with the existing projectors you need to spend too much money on the projector to make it possible. Not every theatre is going to be equipped with 4K projectors, but a multiplex of 20 theatres may have one or two 4K projectors. And again, the argument ist: go HFR and you get The Hobbit in 3D. To me the biggest milestone in 3D cinema from Hollywood was The Hobbit 1, because it was the first one to do that. We did it in the 90s already with Showscan and 60 frames per second, but that was for a theme park specialty market. The Hobbit was the first one to do it for the multiplex and I think that’s the future.

Thank you for your time.

Das magische Haus startet in Deutschland am 22. Mai im Kino. Ein bisschen mehr zum Film und anderen Familienfilm-Highlights auf dem ITFS habe ich für das Kinderfilmblog aufgeschrieben.

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