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Sea Rex 3D Interview: Co-directors Pascal Vuong and Ronan Chapalain


Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: June 8, 2010

Co-directors Pascal Vuong and Ronan Chapalain chat with BMZ on their first Large Format 3D feature film SEA REX 3D.


Category: Interviews

Veterans to 3D technology and filmmaking, co-directors Pascal Vuong and Ronan Chapalain have released their first Large Format 3D feature film, Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World. The film follows Julie, an imaginative young woman, as she journeys from a modern-day aquarium to the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, and explores an amazing underwater universe inhabited by larger-than-life creatures.

Big Movie Zone: Hi Pascal and Ronan, thank you for doing this Q&A with us. Can you tell us a bit about your filmmaking background and how you got started in the industry?

Pascal Vuong:
Thank you very much! This is a very exciting time for us with the recent premieres of Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World at the New England Aquarium's Simons IMAX Theatre and the IMAX 3D Theatre Myrtle Beach. I am actually a certified Architect but, even throughout my studies, my passion was always filmmaking. I directed my first film, called the "Invisible Man in Blind Love," in 1991. Produced entirely in CGI, it was actually awarded the Best Fiction Award at the annual Imagina Film Festival that same year. Shortly afterward I began making TV commercials, which is how I met Ronan (Chapalain), who was a special effects supervisor at the time and was already well known for his work in 3D and digital techniques back when very few people were doing that. Ronan began his career in the early Nineties and worked on over 700 TV commercials. In 2004, Ronan and I, along with my wife Catherine, founded our own production company, N3D LAND Productions. Having worked on hundreds of CGI projects between us, including TV commercials, music videos and corporate presentations, we decided to produce that same year our first film together, a 12-minute CGI short in high-definition Digital 3D called Monsters of the Abyss. But our ultimate goal has always been to work in IMAX. It's truly the ultimate movie-going experience. That's how we decided to attend our first Giant Screen Cinema Association Conference in September 2006 in Galveston.

BMZ: I'm familiar with your previous short film Monsters of the Abyss. Is Sea Rex your first foray into writing and directing a full feature?  What has the experience been like?

Ronan Chapalain:
Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World is indeed the first feature film we've written and directed together. In its own way, making a feature film is quite a different experience from making a short in high-definition 3D. It took us nearly five years to complete Sea Rex 3D and there were challenges on all levels: production, financing, managing several CGI studios, 3D shooting and the post-production work, which was done entirely in 4K and in 3D. And in this scope, we had to reinvent the entire post-production process to adapt the images in 4K and in 3D. We had to develop a whole workflow, a methodology that allowed us to post-produce and produce this film in 4K. We were also the first to use 4K 3D cameras to shoot live action sequences. All that said, it's been an incredible experience from begin to end.

Behind-the-scenes of Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World. Photo courtesy: 3D Entertainment Distribution Ltd.

BMZ: How did the idea of Sea Rex come about? Was it always intended for 3D and IMAX?

Pascal Vuong:
I've had a passion for dinosaurs ever since I was a child but we actually came up with the idea of producing Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World a few months after completing Monsters of the Abyss. The two films have one thing in common: a plesiosaur, which is a marine reptile. With its long neck that glides right off the screen, audiences -- and kids in particular -- were crazy about it. After intense research and lengthy discussions with specialists such as Dr. Nathalie Bardet at the Museum of Natural History in Paris and Dr. Olivier Rieppel at the Field Museum in Chicago, we thought it would be interesting to make a film about the extraordinary ancient underwater creatures of the Mesozoic, which, with their daunting size and natural ability for predation, were already ruling the seas 20 million years before dinosaurs roamed the earth. We also came to realize that there was astonishingly little information available on marine reptiles in comparison with dinosaurs. That seems absolutely incredible to me given just how fascinating these animals were due to their size, their strong predatory skills, their adaptation to the marine environment and their longevity.

Ronan Chapalain: From the very start, we knew we wanted to make Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World both in 3D and for IMAX theatres. It's a natural fit and we couldn't dream of better locations in which to show our unique film. These animals are ideally suited to the IMAX format as they share a very important common point: their massive size. The IMAX screen actually allows audiences to see the majority of these T-Rex of the seas nearly life-sized. To illustrate that point, we included a scene in the film in which we divided the screen into 1-yard -- about 3 feet -- segments so that viewers could better comprehend the size of our two human characters in comparison to the 42' Liopleurodon.

BMZ: On the topic of 3D, how did you balance the visual needs of 3D theaters vs. 2D and dome theaters? Was a special dome version created and if so, what was different?

Ronan Chapalain:
Before we began working on the film, we made the conscious decision to film everything in at least 4K in order to match the quality we wanted onscreen. The fact that all the images have been rendered in such high definition made it possible for us to create a specially formatted IMAX Dome version which we invested thousands of dollars in. We certainly recognize the importance of the Dome theatres and I believe we completely and utterly fulfill our goal with this version, which allows us to offer a breathtaking immersive experience.

BMZ: A previous Giant Screen film, Sea Monsters, also studied sea reptiles of the prehistoric age. How would you differentiate your film from that one?

Ronan Chapalain:
Our approach is entirely different. While the National Geographic film focused primarily on underwater life during a single prehistoric period, we wanted to show the diversity and role of marine reptiles throughout the three periods of the Mesozoic era -- the Jurassic, Triassic and Cretaceous -- in Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World. To me, we've created something that goes beyond the traditional IMAX documentary with its story-driven screenplay, state-of-the-art CGI sequences, historical re-enactments and renowned paleontologists who speak directly to the viewers. It's the combination of all these elements that makes Sea Rex 3D truly unique, both from a technical and artistic standpoint.

Pascal Vuong: Another significant difference is that our film features two human protagonists: "Georges Cuvier," a real-life historical figure considered to be the father of vertebrate paleontology, and "Julie," an imaginative young woman. In order to guide the viewers and capture their attention, it was very important to have a common thread throughout the film. We thought the ideal way of doing so would be to have a mentor and a candid character with whom audience members could identify. I'd had the idea of incorporating the scientist Georges Cuvier in the film from the beginning ... Not only is he a significant figure in the history of paleontology but he also came up consistently during our various exchanges with Dr. Bardet. Cuvier was in fact the one who studied the famous Mosasaur of Maastricht, our T-Rex of the seas, which we see both at the beginning and end of the film. In addition, we were able to assemble an international team of renowned scientists who not only worked with us on the script but also all agreed to appear in the film in a rather original manner. We really wanted to avoid the clichéd image of an ageing palaeontologist digging for fossils in the middle of nowhere ... and I think we did so quite successfully.

Co-director Pascal Vuong (center) directs a historical re-enactment in Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World. Photo courtesy: 3D Entertainment Distribution Ltd.

BMZ: The digital animation looks incredible in your film. Can you tell us a bit how this was achieved?

Ronan Chapalain:
I believe the film actually features the greatest number of special effects and computer generated images ever in an IMAX film if you take into consideration the fact that not a single image was not worked on in terms of special effects, stabilization or 3D effects. Though we produced much of the CG ourselves through our animation studio, we also worked with five different CGI and visual special effects companies to complete the film. In order to achieve the ultra-photorealistic look we wanted for Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World, we chose to combine CG images and live-action shots filmed using a specially-designed 3D rig featuring two RED 4K Digital 3D cameras. In addition to shooting in studios in London and Paris, we went to Egypt to film the various seabed images and New Zealand to capture the aerial shots. Only in New Zealand can you find such a variety of natural landscapes and vegetation not yet touched by man.

BMZ: There's a big focus on science and education on the film. Was it important for you to get scientific accuracy in your digital portrayal of the sea reptiles?

Pascal Vuong:
Absolutely! Our goal in making Sea Rex 3D: Journey to a Prehistoric World was to try to bring science to life and make it accessible to the largest audience possible. As such, it was crucially important to us to ensure that everything in the film, from the script to our depiction of each animal's morphology & onscreen actions to their environment, be 100% accurate. That is why, with the tremendous help of our main scientific advisor, Dr. Bardet, we enlisted an international team of renowned experts in the field to help guide us, which includes Dr. Rieppel, Rowe Family Curator at the Field Museum in Chicago; Dr. Ryosuke Motani, Professor at the University of California, Davis; Dr. Zulma Gasparini, Paleontologist at Argentina's La Plata Museum and CONICET; and Dr. Benjamin Kear, Paleontologist at Melbourne's La Trobe University (Australia). They also collaborated closely with us on with the creation of the educators' guide for the film. I think the greatest compliment we received from Dr. Bardet after she first saw the completed film was that it was literally as though her childhood dreams had come true. She finally got to see these animals she'd studied for years come to life right before her eyes!

Ophthalmosaurus. Photo courtesy: 3D Entertainment Distribution Ltd.

BMZ: What creatures are featured in Sea Rex? Is there one that you found particularly fascinating?

Pascal Vuong:
The film actually features over thirty different prehistoric species -- aerial, terrestrial and aquatic -- but the true "stars" are the marine reptiles. We selected the species featured in the film -- i.e., Ichthyosaurs in the Triassic, Plesiosaurs for the Jurassic and Mosasaurs during the Cretaceous -- because each truly represents its particular period as the dominant marine reptile group of that time. That said, the story we wanted to tell was essential as well in this selection. We'd always asked ourselves which species could best serve the script. Also, unlike many other films, it was impossible for us to show two different species together if they had in reality lived and become extinct in entirely different periods. It's difficult to fully comprehend but the Mesozoic era lasted 180 million years! All these animals are unquestionably fascinating but I have a particular fondness for the Liopleurodon, which is both quite impressive and very "beautiful." I am sure audiences will enjoy themselves and will have learned about an era and species which remain largely unknown. There are also some very interesting scientific notions we hope people remember after leaving the theatre since marine reptiles are just as fascinating and significant as their terrestrial cousins, the dinosaurs.

BMZ: Although 3D has been around within the Giant Screen/IMAX industry, it's only starting to pickup now with mainstream films and audiences. What are your thoughts on this 3D boom? Do you think it's here to stay?

Ronan Chapalain:
I think 3D represents a logical progression in the evolution of cinema, much in the same way the arrival of color images did. The move toward 3D could perhaps have been seen as a passing fad when the tools weren't readily available but now virtually anyone can shoot and post-produce in 3D. The resources are there.

Pascal Vuong: As filmmakers who have worked with the 3D medium for nearly 20 years, there is no question that stereoscopy has enhanced our product. The moment audiences put on their 3D glasses, the visual barrier that separates them from the images is eliminated; it's virtual reality in its truest sense. It is difficult to accurately predict what will happen in the end but we are firm believers in its unequaled power to bring people straight into the heart of the action. That's not to say, however, that all films should be made in 3D; it has to add something significant to the overall film experience.

BMZ: Can you tell us of any upcoming projects, for IMAX or otherwise?

We have a lot of exciting projects in development, but we certainly plan to continue working in the IMAX format as nothing can come close in terms of the experience!

BMZ: Thank you again for speaking with us and congratulations with the film!

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