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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Three-Dimensional Career
By Anders Wright

Charlotte Huggins, Warren, '80, is one of the most experienced producers of 3-D movies, from Journey to the Center of the Earth to her current project, a 3-D documentary with the legendary heavy metal band Metallica.

Over the course of her career, Huggins has become one of the most prolific producers of 3-D movies on the planet.

Robert Trujillo (left) and Kirk Hammett (Right ) with Charlotte Huggins, Warren '80, as she starts production on the Metallica documentary.

These days, anyone who goes to see a major Hollywood movie usually has a decision to make at the box office. Should they watch their film of choice the way movies have been watched for decades, or should they drop a few extra bucks and see it in 3-D?

It has been less than a decade since modern 3-D—the kind that uses polarized glasses to create depth of field—became an option for filmmakers and audiences alike. But new 3-D movies are released almost every weekend, the number of theaters fitted for the technology has grown, and it is exploding overseas. Much of this is due to the success of Avatar, but it is worth remembering that films like the animated Beowulf, 2007, or the live-action version of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, released in the summer of 2008, preceded James Cameron's other-worldly epic, and essentially served as audience beta projects. Charlotte Huggins, Warren '80, remembers all that, however, since she was one of the producers on Journey to the Center of the Earth and its sequel, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which came out in theaters earlier this year and was released on DVD and Blu-ray in June.

That early experience with 3-D, says Huggins, was eye-opening, because there was no road map for her or the director, Eric Brevig, to follow. "We didn't even have words for how we were shooting things," says Huggins. "We were inventing new ideas. Every day was a Hail Mary day." The crew was using a camera that was essentially being built and modified on a daily basis. At the time, 3-D cameras were bulky and heavy, and since shooting demanded something lightweight for mobility, the crew had to improvise. "We didn't know what we were doing," says Huggins, "And we didn't know if it was all going to work."

By now, we all know that it did work. Journey to the Center of the Earth was a hugely profitable venture, and the sequel made even more money. However, when the first movie came out, success was far from certain. "We didn't even know how to release the movie," says Huggins. "You couldn't put 3-D in the title, because we were going to release it in 2-D as well. So how do you release a movie that's coming out in two different formats?"

And there was much that came prior to the actual movie-making process. Long before the cameras rolled, the entire film needed to be considered in an entirely different way, in terms of how the 3-D elements would impact every phase of production. Huggins says that almost everything was worked out before shooting began. "When we write our scripts, when we do our storyboards, when we do our animatics, all of that, from the written word on the page through to the animatics, is thought about in terms of 3-D," she says. "You think about every sequence in terms of 3-D. Does it have a lot of depth? Is it shallow? How do we create space to help tell the story?"
Over the course of her career, Huggins has become one of the most prolific producers of 3-D movies on the planet. Though Journey to the Center of the Earth was the first of the new breed of feature-length live-action films, she had already been working in 3-D for over a decade, producing IMAX films such as Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun and Encounter in the Third Dimension.

A scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson and ANita Breim. Produced by Charlotte Huggins, Warren '80

Her first exposure to the medium came in 1993, when she served as the visual-effects producer on the theme-park film that introduced many people to modern 3-D, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. That proved a turning point for Huggins, who says she went to the theater at Disney's Epcot Center where it was playing and, rather than watching the screen, spent time watching the audience. "I sat in the front, in the corner seat, and I didn't wear glasses," she says. "I just watched people watch it. They quit thinking about who was sitting next to them, or about where they were, and they just lost themselves. It was really exciting. That was when I realized I had to stick with it."

The thing is, Huggins never expected to work in 3-D during her time at UC San Diego. In fact, she had no intention of working in film at all. She graduated with a degree in political science, and was planning to start a career in international law and business. She was so dedicated to the idea of going to law school that she actually graduated early to study for the LSATs, but stayed in San Diego so she could participate in the graduation ceremony. In the interim, she took a job as an economic researcher for a non-profit organization called World Research, where she was approached by Doug Richardson, the son of one of the organization's founders and a student at USC Film School. He was making short films for the company and was the first person to tell her she should be a movie producer.

"Honestly, I said, 'Get outta here,' but he said, 'No, you were born to be a producer,'" says Huggins. She eventually gave in, and along with Richardson, who would go on to write screenplays for a number of successful Hollywood films, made a short educational docudrama called Interview 15, which won awards at several film festivals. That was enough for Huggins. "I took my LSATs and got into law school," she says. "But when it was time to go, I was hooked. I was never, ever going to go."

Though she didn't follow the path she had set for herself, Huggins credits her time at UC San Diego as integral to her success. "As a producer, you create circumstances to make a movie," she says. "You bring together creative people, you do the legal work that needs to be done, you do the financial work and the business work, raising the money, and spending it carefully and wisely. What I didn't know when I was at UCSD was that all of those things that I was learning, I would use in making movies."

A scene from Journey to the Mysterious Island, starring Josh Hutcherson, Dwayne Johnson and Michael Caine. Produced by Charlotte Huggins, Warren '80

All of those skills, as well as her many years of experience, have given her unique insight into 3-D, and made her realize that her early impressions of the shifting medium weren't necessarily correct. "I used to believe that 3-D was a character in the movie," she says. "The reason we did Journey Into the Center of the Earth was that the center of the Earth is great in 3-D. But I don't believe that anymore."

Huggins says that 3-D can be used to enhance almost any topic, and points to films like Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Wim Wenders' documentary Pina, which examines the work of the German dance legend Pina Bausch, as examples. Wenders used the technology to explore depth of field and truly make viewers feel as though they were watching a dance performance. Scorsese used new technology to write an insightful love letter about the history of cinema "Pina is remarkable and beautiful," she says. "Wenders said he'd always wanted to make that movie, but he needed 3-D to tell the story. Wenders used 3-D brilliantly in one way, and Martin Scorsese used it brilliantly, but differently, in Hugo. 3-D is capable of exploring the most intimate of experiences or the grandest of experiences. I don't think it's a character—I think it's a tool, to use, and I think it's all about how you use it."

Huggins' current project is a 3-D film with the legendary heavy metal band Metallica, which she says blends concert footage and narrative structure into one movie. The film, directed by Nimród Antal, started shooting over the summer, and proved a new experience for her. "All I've ever done, my whole career, is family-friendly fare," she says. "But they were making a 3-D movie, and their management reached out to me as a 3-D producer." In fact, she says it was her husband, Thomas, with whom she has two children, who convinced her to take the project. Sure, it's different from what she's worked on in the past, but Huggins' entire film career is something of a departure from her original plan. "I always tell people to prepare for one thing but be open to something else," she says. "I was going to go to law school, but I made a movie, I won some awards, and I never looked back."

Anders Wright is a freelance journalist in San Diego.