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Toonzone Interviews Ben Stassen, Co-Director of “Thunder and the House of Magic”

by onSeptember 30, 2014

Ben StassenBelgian filmmaker Ben Stassen has been a longtime proponent of 3-D cinema. He founded nWave Pictures in 1994, producing CGI films for theme park rides and IMAX theaters. Several of his films are also in the “4-D” market, where 3-D movies are mated to physical effects to create an even more immersive experience. His most recent films are moving into the feature film space, with Fly Me to the Moon and 2 A Turtle’s Tale movies under his belt (though only the first received a theatrical release in the United States). His latest film is The House of Magic (titled Thunder and the House of Magic in the United States), which expands on the “Haunted House” short film that nWave produced in 2004.

On the eve of the home video release of Thunder and the House of Magic to home video formats, Toonzone News was able to speak with Ben Stassen via e-mail about the movie and the future of 3-D filmmaking in general.

TOONZONE NEWS: The behind-the-scenes featurette mentioned that Thunder and the House of Magic was expanded from “Haunted House,” one of your theme park ride movies. What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting from the 12 minute short to a feature-length movie?

BEN STASSEN: The biggest challenge was obviously to develop a story and characters that could deserve the audience attention for a full 90 minutes instead of a short theme park ride. But “Haunted House” has been such a popular attraction for over 10 years at hundreds of venues around the world that we felt it could serve as the basis for something much bigger.

Ben Stassen Thunder and the House of MagicTOONZONE NEWS: I thought it was interesting that Thunder and the House of Magic was set very specifically in Boston, Massachusetts. Was there a reason why you selected that location in particular to set the movie?

BEN STASSEN: The original theme park attraction was set in a Victorian house somewhere in New England, so we decided to stick with it. I must say, I do not remember what motivated us to use that setting in the early 2000 when we created “Haunted House.”

TOONZONE NEWS: I know you’re a big proponent of using 3-D as a filmmaking tool. What would you say were the special challenges or breakthroughs in using 3-D in this movie?

BEN STASSEN: In my opinion, the use of the 3rd dimension in cinema is as groundbreaking a revolution as the advent of sound in the late twenties. When sound was added to the picture, it had a profound impact on the way film were made from the script writing to the casting, the directing, all the way to the editing of the picture. The same is true for 3D films. As inconceivable as it would be to play a modern film without sound, I don’t think a real 3D film can play well in 2D.

If we want to understand the real nature and the true appeal of 3D cinema, we simply have to look at the successes and failures of the genre in theme parks and IMAX theaters over the last 20 years. Hundreds of millions of people have seen 3D films in these special venues since the opening of the Captain EO at Disney Land and Transition (the first IMAX 3D film) at the Vancouver Expo in 1986. Our company has been a major supplier of 3D ride films, 4D attraction films and IMAX 3D films over the last 15 years. Tens of thousand of people see one our films daily around the world and I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the appeal of 3D film has much less to do gimmicky in-your-face effects than with the sense of total immersion viewers experience in a good 3D theater. Don’t get me wrong: in-your-face effects are a lot of fun, but the real appeal of a 3D film is the feeling of “being there” conveyed by the 3rd dimension.

One of the main reason why people leave the comfort or their home to go and see a film in a movie theater is to have a more intense experience. The size of the screen, the quality of the picture and the sound and the darkness of the movie theater all enhance the movie experience by reducing or even eliminating the viewers’ awareness of the surrounding environment and enabling them to be totally absorbed by the story. This is precisely the magic of 3D cinema: it provides the ultimate immersion. Under the right circumstances (a good stadium seating theater), the viewer is no longer watching a story through a window (the screen), but is physically transported into the filmic space.

Ben Stassen Thunder and the House of MagicIn order for the 3D revolution to succeed, filmmakers must drastically change the way they make their films. 3D is the foundation of a new language of cinema which fundamentally affects the positioning of the viewer. To think that a film should play well both in 3D and in 2D is to reduce 3D to a dispensable gimmick. Now you have, now you don’t. Filmmakers must decide whether they want to make a 2D film or create an immersive 3D experience.

Contrary to our other feature films where the 3D was all about immersion, The House of Magic gave us an opportunity to do a lot of in-your-face 3D effect as well because of the nature of the story. We have been doing 3D film for almost 20 years, so it wasn’t especially challenging, but it was a lot of fun.

TOONZONE NEWS: You said in a recent interview that theatrical 3-D was going to die within 2 to 3 years. How do you feel about the potential of 3-D in the home video market? A lot of Blu-ray players and new TVs come with support for 3-D by default today, so do you think that’s a viable outlet for true 3-D filmmaking?

BEN STASSEN: I am not too optimistic about the future of 3D cinema. Hollywood saw 3D as the best, if not the only way to convince exhibitors to go digital. They did not see 3D as a revolutionary new way to tell stories but as a sales tool. The 3D in most feature films is totally useless. There are exceptions of course. The use of 3D drastically impacted the viewing experience of a film like Gravity. I thought it was brilliant. But for one Gravity you have dozens of films that aren’t worth the additional expense and the trouble of wearing glasses.

Ben Stassen Thunder and the House of MagicHaving said that, early on I was still optimistic that 3D was here to stay because of the industrial momentum pushing the technology forward. It was not only about the theatrical experience, but TV manufacturers were all bringing 3D capable sets to the market. The video game industry saw the potential as well. Five years later, most of the TV sets sold today support 3D, but a very small percentage of the home consumers ever watch 3D.

Without ancillary markets for the 3D experience, there is no future for 3D cinema. But I believe the salvation could come from the Head Mounted Devices like Oculus. As the technology evolves, the 3D will be exceptional, totally immersive without any filtration as a separate left and right image will be delivered directly to each eye without any loss of quality. It will be like having an “IMAX experience” on the tip of your nose. Let’s hope this become a commercial reality before the appetite for 3D cinema fades away once again.

TOONZONE NEWS: What are you working on now? Is there anything we expect to see from you soon?

BEN STASSEN: We are in the middle of the production of Robinson Crusoe, a film about the well known character, seen from the point of view of the animals on the island where he shipwrecked.

Toonzone News would like to thank Ben Stassen for taking the time to speak with us, and to the PR teams at Shout! Factory and Click Communications for making it possible. Thunder and the House of Magic is now available via OnDemand services, and on DVD and a Blu-ray 3-D combo pack as a Walmart exclusive release.

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