Avatar-class 3D comes to Alaska studio

Image/Courtesy/Evergreen Films

The biggest movie yet filmed in Alaska has gotten a boost from the biggest director in Hollywood.

“Walking with Dinosaurs 3D” producer Evergreen Films is the first studio to win certification from Cameron Pace Group for creation of 3D content and will be using the same technology from blockbusters “Avatar,” “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

CPG was co-founded by James Cameron, the director of the two highest grossing films of all time — “Avatar” ($2.8 billion) and “Titanic” ($1.8 billion) — and Vince Pace, who worked with Cameron on “Titanic” and “The Abyss.”

Of the 50 or so 3D films released in the last few years, CPG has contributed to about 30 that have generated some $7.5 billion in gross box office worldwide.

Among films using CPG technology, the “Dark of the Moon” installment of the “Transformers” series grossed $1.1 billion last summer and “On Stranger Tides” posted just more than $1 billion for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.

Expectations for “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D,” set for a so-called tentpole release in 2013, are also high. Twentieth Century Fox won the bidding war for distribution at the American Film Market last November, and according to a report from industry pub Variety, sold out within a week worldwide.

The dino epic, scripted as a dramatic offering with character arcs, is a collaboration between Anchorage-based Evergreen, BBC Earth and Reliance Pictures. Variety pegged the deal as the largest ever closed by IM Global, a film financing, sales and distribution company partially owned by Reliance.

NANA Development Corp., an Alaska Native regional corporation, acquired a minority stake in Evergreen Films last year.

“‘Walking with Dinosaurs 3D’ offers us a fantastic opportunity to push our advances in 3D even further,” Cameron said in a release from BBC Worldwide. “We’re inspired by the creative ambition behind the film and the opportunity to work on a feature that brings audiences a real, visceral experience.”

Evergreen Films CEO Mike Devlin, who moved to Alaska in 2005, a couple years after selling his company, Rational Software, to IBM for $2.1 billion, said achieving “Avatar-class” 3D has long been a goal for Evergreen.

“By partnering with Jim Cameron … we get the benefit not only of great technology, but technology developed from a filmmaker’s point of view,” Devlin said. “He’s not just doing technology for technology’s sake. He’s looking at it from the point of view of what does the filmmaker need to have artistic freedom and creative freedom to tell a story, but use 3D in a tool for telling that story.

“Jim is a big advocate of shooting the films in 3D, in using 3D in the storytelling from the very conception of the film. In ‘Walking with Dinosaurs,’ we’re very much thinking that. If it was just the dinosaurs at a distance, you wouldn’t have to worry about the 3D as much.”

The original “Walking with Dinosaurs” was a six-episode documentary series produced by BBC Earth in 1999 that won several Emmys and drew a worldwide audience of 700 million.

Variety reported the presales are expected to cover most, if not all, of the film’s $65 million budget. That’s more than double the estimated $30 million budget for “Big Miracle” starring Drew Barrymore filmed in Alaska that wrapped last year (originally titled “Everybody Loves Whales”).

The script is by John Collee, who wrote “Happy Feet,” which won the 2007 Oscar for best animated feature film of the year. Animal Logic of Sydney, Australia, was the animation studio for “Happy Feet” and is also building the cast for “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D.”

Filming has already begun around Southcentral near Girdwood and on the Kenai Peninsula for the live backgrounds that will provide a prehistoric setting for “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D.” Alaska isn’t just providing the scenery, either.

The film will star dinosaurs that once roamed the North Slope and wintered in Denali National Park more than 70 million years ago. All of the post-production work will also take place in Evergreen’s Anchorage studios.

Evergreen has post-production offices on Hillside, and is renovating the old Crowley building on Sandlewood Place in south Anchorage. The new headquarters for Evergreen will have a “smart” sound stage with a 50-foot by 50-foot green screen and a 24-seat studio for screenings and viewing dailies.

Sound stages and state-of-the-art post-production capability are essential infrastructure if Alaska wants to truly develop its film industry. The new Evergreen headquarters and technology will be available for any company producing a film in Alaska, and represents a new job opportunity for NANA shareholders.

“We’ll have a chance to add more permanent jobs as the industry grows,” said Robin Kornfield, vice president of communications for NANA and the president of its film services subsidiary Piksik. “We’re looking forward to having special technology here in Alaska that anyone can use. NANA is known in Alaska as a support company to oil and mining. We’re taking those capabilities and applying them to a brand new industry. We’re looking forward to providing those same services — catering, security — and opportunities for training and jobs and advancement and education that come through the film business.”

A state package of film credits passed in 2009 is up for renewal. About $9 million of the $100 million appropriated has been paid out, but the incentive must be approved by the state Legislature to continue after 2012. 

A bill was introduced during the 2011 session and will be taken up when the Legislature convenes again next January. While none of the investments in infrastructure or technology are eligible for the credit, representatives of Evergreen including Devlin said continuing the credit is vital to the picture filming in Alaska.

The hero of the film, a pachyrhinosaurus — pronounced pak-ee-rino-sore-us, and similar to a triceratops with the frilled head but without the horned snout — is based on the latest research by Tony Fiorillo, who will release findings this fall describing a new species of the dinosaur that was unique to Alaska.

“It’s an Alaskan story about Alaska dinosaurs filmed in Alaska,” said producer John Copeland. “That’s why we’re here.”

Copeland’s best-known work is as producer of the 110-episode run of “Bablyon 5” in the mid- to late-1990s. He also was a producer on the 2001 Discovery Channel documentary “When Dinosaurs Roamed America,” also an Evergreen Films project.

Tongue-twisting dino names now come easily to Copeland, who said “Walking with Dinosaurs 3D” is working with a team of paleontologists such as Fiorillo to root the film’s dramatic story in the latest advances in research.

“In the last 25 years, we’ve learned more than the previous 150,” Copeland said. “We’re learning more almost every year. It’s like digital technology. The amount of knowledge is just leaps forward. This is a counter-intuitive dinosaur story because who would have thought dinosaurs lived in Alaska, lived above the Arctic Circle?”

Copeland spoke of character development without dialogue.

“Our protagonist is the last of his clutch of eggs to hatch,” Copeland said. “He’s the runt of the litter. You wonder how he’s going to make it. Dinosaurs laid 20 or so eggs, and out of those eggs one or two would make it to adulthood. He’s curious, very cooperative … survival of the fittest in the true sense of the word doesn’t mean the strongest or the biggest or the baddest.

“It means the most adaptable and that’s how our guy gets through the day. He’s very adaptable and we think that will appeal to the viewer no matter what their age is.”

09/21/2011 - 1:15pm