Ben Stassen Is Buzzed About 3D Lunar Journey

“A giant leap for mankind” was what Neil Armstrong famously called it on July 20, 1969, the second that his booted foot first pressed firmly into lunar soil. Imagine what that momentous occurrence must have been like for the common housefly!

Probably you haven’t imagined that, but let Fly Me to the Moon and its director, Ben Stassen, do the imagining for you. The premise of this fanciful $25 million feature-length cartoon—the first animated feature created from the ground up as a 3D attraction—is that a trio of tween houseflies stows away with Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Armstrong on Apollo 11 for the first manned space mission to the moon. Summit Entertainment launches the film, with a voice cast including Christopher Lloyd, Kelly Ripa and Tim Curry, on August 8.

As a pleasant, painless way of acquainting young people with a stirringly heroic historical event from the not-so-distant past, Moon is Mission: Accomplished. Within its own Looney Tune framework—keeping the small-fry interested via the antics of these quite literal fly-boys—some well-researched history is quietly imparted.

“I believe that this is the first full-length animated film that’s based on a historical event,” contends Stassen. “It has never been done before, so we went to really great lengths to be accurate. NASA provided us with the original blueprints of the space capsule so we could design the sets and spaceship interiors accurately. Also, all the exchanges between Mission Control and the astronauts are the actual transcript.”

For a final flourish of authenticity, Aldrin himself steps into the animation to refute the foregoing. “I’m the real Buzz,” he announces in a line he wrote himself, then he goes on to tell the viewers that “no contaminates,” meaning flies, were on board for the flight. But a little post-production doodling allows the flies to have the last laugh.

“We thought it might be a nice twist at the end to have one of the real guys come up and say something,” Stassen says. “We were not sure if Buzz would go for it or not, but he really liked it. He lives in Los Angeles, which was easy for filming reasons. Of course, we had to shoot in 3D on a green screen, et cetera, et cetera. So when he showed interest, we had our man. We didn’t even try with the other two. We knew Armstrong doesn’t do much. He doesn’t do anything, actually. Even in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, he didn’t appear—but the other two did.”

Born in 1959, Stassen missed the Hollywood heyday of 3D movies by a few years, but he has seen his share in the interim and has no problem in pinpointing the pick of the litter: “My favorite is an easy one to say. From that era, it’s Dial M for Murder.”

A graduate of USC’s School of Cinema and Television, Stassen is co-founder of nWave Pictures, a Brussels-based firm that has become the largest producer and distributor of ride and attraction films in the world. For him, the medium is the message. Quite logically, a film about space pioneering (even one coated in kiddie-show caramel like this one) plays right into his mindset of technological pioneering.

Not all 3D features start out that way, he is quick to note. “Like Chicken Little and Monster House—they were created as 2D films, and then, in post-production, they somewhat artificially created a sort of 3D effect. But Fly Me to the Moon is the first true 3D [animated] film that has been conceived and created for the 3D environment.”

Which would seem to open up a whole new set of problems. “Well, problems or opportunities,” Stassen fields nicely. “Basically, we’ve been doing 3D films for 15 years—before Hollywood was starting to pay attention. I’ve made eight of the 36 IMAX 3D films released, so IMAX 3D was a big market for us as well as motion-simulation ride films. We’ve always been aware of the great attraction of 3D for audiences.”

According to Stassen, two films in 2003 changed industry thinking about the 3D gimmick. “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, the third film in the franchise, was released in 3D, using those old red-and-blue glasses, and grossed $116 million in the U.S. Polar Express followed a few months later. It was a 2D film, but they made a 3D version for IMAX. It was released on only 64 screens and grossed $45 million on those screens. That’s when Hollywood started paying attention to 3D. Then, with the advent of digital projection systems, 3D suddenly seemed to be becoming easier.”

This industry shift was felt in faraway Belgium by nWave Pictures. “When we saw that on the horizon in 2005,” Stassen recalls, “we decided to segue from doing these shorter specialty films—IMAX and theme-park films—to doing our first feature film. (A much shorter version of Fly Me to the Moon is already playing at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and science centers and theme parks in Europe and Asia, and Six Flags parks in New Jersey and Texas are offering a ride-film version.)

“The challenge of 3D films is that it’s a fairly technical type of filmmaking. You have to make two films—one film for each eye, basically. Our visual system sees reality with two eyes from two somewhat different angles. When you make a 3D film, whether it’s a live-action film or a computer-generated film like Fly Me to the Moon, you basically have to shoot with two cameras. There are lots of technical implications that have had a very big impact on the creative approach, but the craftsmanship part of the 3D filmmaking process we have pretty much under control.” All he needed now was a screenplay that worked for the 3D process.

“When we decided that 3D is coming to the multiplex and we wanted to be part of it, the big challenge was to find the right script. Any script can be turned into a 3D film, but, to me, the future of 3D will depend on our abilities as filmmakers—and also on the exhibitors’ willingness—to really create immersive entertainment.”
For Stassen, 3D or not 3D is not the question: “3D cinema can be treated as an evolution in the history of cinema or as, really, a revolution. There have been many evolutions—the transition from black-and-white to color, for instance—but there has only been one revolution. That was the transition from silent films to sound films because, when the soundtrack appeared, everything changed overnight—writing, casting, acting, directing, pacing, editing—everything about making films changed.

“The advantage with 3D cinema is that you can make 2D films that you happen to shoot with two cameras or you can really go out there and say, ‘3D gives me an opportunity to tell a story in a very different fashion and to use really different language.’ And I think that’s what the audiences want. From our experience in doing IMAX products, the difference between the films that succeeded or those that didn’t have been the films that have been more immersive than others. It’s about the story, of course. You don’t want to ask people to go to the extra step of putting glasses on their noses. It’s a little more demanding to watch a 3D film physiologically than it is to watch a 2D film, so if you ask a viewer to make that extra effort, you’d best have a reason to do that, not just to throw things at them and create a few 3D effects.”

A screenplay credited to co-producer Domonic Paris provided the “Eureka!” moment in Stassen’s script-quest, but it required considerable reshaping. Its Cold War conflicts were cut down to kiddie consumption, and what made it to the screen is some pesky Russkie houseflies plotting skullduggery for the capsule stowaways.

Still, the serious underpinnings of the event won Stassen over. “When I stumbled across the Fly Me to the Moon script, I felt, ‘This is marvelous.’ Here we have a story about one of the most incredible adventures of mankind—the first step on the moon. It’s never been brought to the screen. Why? Because it’s much too predictable. People know what’s going to happen. Of course, that’s the Achilles’ heel of any script—yet I thought that, as a 3D experience, we could tell that story.

“What is surprising—and this seems to be what the audience reacts to—is the positioning of the viewer. A scene like stepping onto the moon lasts four minutes and is fairly slow, but little kids are mesmerized. They don’t move. Why? Because they feel physically present. They feel they are there—with Armstrong coming down the ladder—and that’s magic, in a way. That’s really what I wanted to explore.”

Next stop for nWave Pictures will be—“Reverse your engines, gentlemen!”—a turtle crawl around the universe: “Around the World in 50 Years is a coming-of-age movie,” says Stassen, “an epic journey of a sea turtle, from birth in 1959 to maturity in 2009. Stacy Keach will be Grandpa turtle narrating the story, looking back over his life.”