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The 21st Century Return of 3-D Movies in Cinema Theatres

Ghosts of the Abyss 3-D
Ghosts of the Abyss 3-D -
3-D live-action for IMAX release
Spykids 3-D
Spy Kids 3-D -
actors in CGI sets for general release

The Polar Express 3-D
The Polar Express 3-D -
3-D CGI for IMAX release

A Bigger and Better comeback of 3-D Cinema

3-D films are very exciting, oh yeah! They can be everything that we love about going to the movies and give us the big WOW. After the box office success of The polar Express 3-D in the IMAX, Chicken Little on Real-D screens and Spy Kids 3-D in regular theatres, Hollywood is taking 3-D releases serious again, even if it is an independent-driven return. Almost exactly 30 years after the last 3-D boom of 1983, a new wave of stereoscopic releases will be coming our way.
But in what format and where?

In 1983 the going format for stereoscopic releases was polarised projection of single strip over-under 3-D. A cheap, simple solution that required a one-time purchase or rental of cinema projector lens adapters, ideally a silver screen (less cheap and simple) and polarised 3-D glasses – usually the cardboard type.
Theatres that did not have the financial means to install all these items would often simply display a flat version of the movie or sometimes display a 3-D anaglyphic version of the feature. In the latter case only red-blue glasses needed to be purchased.
But 3-D films disappeared out of the theatres again after just one year. And no major 3-D titles have been released between 1983 and 2003.
So what does that mean for the present coming 3-D boom? Will history repeat itself – including flat releases of 3-D features after the fad has past and gone?

A clear incentive for studios and distributors to produce 3-D features is the ability to release an IMAX version of the film. 3-D equipment is already installed; equipment of the highest standards, so a quality 3-D experience is guaranteed. Yes, blowing up a feature to IMAX size means blowing up the parallax values as well and features originally shot with converging lenses can cause an enormous amount of eyestrain. This problem is discussed down here.
However, for a proper worldwide release normal theatres must run the 3-D feature as well. So are all major cinemas going to be equipped with over-under lens adapters again, are we going to see many anaglyphic releases or is every theatre going to purchase a DLP projector with 3-D capabilities?
In a press conference of early 2006 by George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron, the latter was suggested as the ONLY solution. These big independent directors/producers were clearly stating their preference rather than a global realistic solution. DLP-displayed 3-D is indeed an amazing solution for stable, problem-free 3-D, but costs of the hardware can be prohibitive for smaller, independent and third-world cinemas.
Let's hope for the sake of a prolonged 3-D future distibutors will understand this and choose to distribute stereoscopic films which ever way possible and not decide to release flat versions in non-3-D enabled DLP theatres.
During a keynote speech at IBC 2006, Universal’s svp of technology Jerry Pierce addressed the potential opportunity of 3-D, but also cautioned the audience that 3-D features have roughly an additional $10 million in production costs, as well as roughly $50,000 in exhibition costs per screen. “The problem is the revenue model you need to replace those costs,” he related. “How do you generate the additional revenue?”.


3-D = Boxoffice Success

Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D by Robert Rodriguez - 2005

Chicken Little 3-D Chicken Little by Disney - 2006

Lord of the Rings colorized Lord of the Rings - colorized still

It is true that a 3-D release of a movie generates more press, more interest, and better box-office results because of that. The latest US-based research states that of the 52% of Americans who have seen a 3-D movie recently, 12% of adults would go to the movies more often if there were more feature-length films in 3-D. Another 6% say they would go more often, depending on the films offered. More interestingly fourteen percent (over 30 million American adults) say they would be willing to pay $2-3 more to see a feature-length film in 3-D, while an additional 6% (or 13 million) would pay more depending on the films being offered in 3-D.

Empire magazine's top 10 worst movies of 2005 had 'Shark Boy and Lava Girl' take spot nr. 5. But that's what you get when you let a 7 year old write a film script. The main problem facing a proporous future of 3-D releases of films is that people are willing to pay extra and go more often if a film is released in 3-D, but NOT if that movie is a BAD MOVIE. The main reason why the 3-D boom was over within a year in 1953 and 1983? Not because of 'silly red-green glasses', as journalists happily write these days, because in both those years polarized projection was used just like it is now - no difference, but because the kind of films made in 3-D were just BAD. A stinker is a stinker, no matter how you dress it up.

RottenTomatoes rates Chicken Little as 'Rotten' with a 34% score out of 109 reviews. The New York Times writes: "The first computer-animated film from Disney also has the distinction of being a terrible movie a hectic, uninspired pastiche of catch phrases and cliches." and 3-D-wise eFilmCritic writes: "Disney has also utilized a questionable marketing gimmick by running a 3-D print at selected theaters, which is how I happened to see it. I can’t say the 3-D adds much. It’s neat, like most 3-D films tend to be, but unlike last year’s The Polar Express, there’s little to gain from the format. It feels like an afterthought, an idea brought about by sheer panic amongst the fearful suits at the Disney plantation.".

There is a difference between making a great 3-D movie and adding 3-D to a movie to make it look and sell better. International succes of 3-D films will remain a short-lived affair if the latter is done too often. The argument "but it's in 3-D" is as valid as "but it's in colour"; see the still of The Lord of the Rings" to the left. Colour does not mean the right colour, enjoyable colour, colour you want to watch and sit through for 2 hours. It's exactly the same with 3-D.

 

Before the 21st Century

Whatever press releases of modern 3-D films may claim, 3-D cinema has been around for quite a while. And quite a while longer than most people think.
Stereoscopic photography was invented around 1838 and evolved into 3-D cinema at the beginning of the 19th century, shortly after the invention of film. As a matter of fact, the Lumiere brothers, the fathers of cinema, shot the arrival of the train at Ciotat in 3-D as well as in 'normal' film.

The first feature length 3-D film would be The Power of Love of 1922 (shorter, one-reel 3-D films have been produced and displayed before and after this), followed 30 years later by the first feature with sound in 3-D "Bwana Devil" of 1952. The latter started the 3-D craze of 1953 - otherwise known as 1953-D. The most famous films produced in these two years were Creature from the Black Lagoon, House of Wax and Dial M for Murder.
Lots and lots of 3-D C-quality movies were made alongside these B-movies (although Dial M is A-quality Hitchcock material), which gave a B-movie name to the 3-D film process. But almost all of the 3-D movies of 1953 were released in polarized format, not anaglyphically (red-blue 3-D) like journalists and film critics write in their reviews of 3-D films nowadays.

3-D photograph from 1860
3-D Photograph from 1860

Arrivee du Train
L'arrivée d'un train a La Ciotat - 1895
 
Jaws 3-D
The famous 'Jaws 3-D'
This film has enjoyed probably the best
marketing for a 3-D feature yet
House of Wax 3-D
Unmistakable 1950ties poster art
for 'House of Wax'
Spacestation 3-D
Space Station 3-D
for IMAX release only

A second boom of 3-D feature films from Hollywood occurred again exactly 30 years later; in 1983. Famous 3-D titles such as Jaws 3-D, Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D and Amityville 3-D graced many a movie screen around the world. Again, the horror/slasher type subjects of these titles embedded a B-movie image of 3-D movies in the public's mind. The third dimension was then branded a gimmick for film - something studios used to make an extra buck out of poor quality product.

It took another 30 years, amazingly almost to the dot, for 3-D to emerge again as a Hollywood medium of choice. In 2003 Spy Kids 3-D was released, followed by Space Station 3-D for IMAX, Ghosts of the Abyss 3-D for IMAX and the Polar Express 3-D for IMAX. It clearly appears to be an IMAX-driven resurfacing of 3-D so a benefit for these filmmakers is that their audience comes to the IMAX theatre specifically to witness a spectacle of 3-D on a very big screen rather than a well written, directed and filmed story for a 3-Dimensional medium.
Banking on this technical advantage, the current 3-D wave may last longer than just one year. And when it does, it should certainly not be exclusive to IMAX cinemas.


3-D Film back into your local cinema

To mimic the before mentioned technical advantage of IMAX, how can local theatres get 3-D display right? One sure-fire way, and a way that is time and again promoted by George Lucas and his friends at Sony and Barco, is DLP projection. With the distribution of DLP projectors - digital cinema - a new wave of 3-D films will be able to find its way to the widest possible spectacle-hungry audience in a nearly flawless way.
Why is digital projection so important?

1. To cancel out projection mistakes. No more horizontal or vertical misalignment or even inverse stereo mistakes.
2. To use the existing distribution network and most of all to use the existing and installed equipment. A one-off distribution and installation of 3-D hardware will be necessary.
3. To lower costs because of standardisation. This also reduces problems in production with transfers and intermediates.

ZScreen adapter
Polarising frame sequential lens fitted on a Mirage Projector.
Now used by Real-D


1983-D projector lens
3-D projection through a projector lens adapter

What about Real D and Dolby 3-D?

A fantastic piece of technology used with DLP projectors right now is the frame-sequential Liquid Crystal polarising shutter projection lens, installed all over the world by Real-D.

With polarisation theatres will have to gear up on a silver screen to keep polarisation, polarized glasses and the polarising projector lens. Nu-Vision offers frame-sequential non-polarized projection with electronic shutter glasses, while Dolby3D employs a colour-wavelength separation technique that works with regular cinema screens, but custom Dolby glasses. The cheapest alternative to these high-tech solutions is to distribute in anaglyphic 3-D and just distribute anaglyph (red-green) glasses. Colour will be lost and 3-D separation will be of lesser But it's cheap and possible right now without the need for conversion of the cinema.

It can't be discarded that practical, cheap and working 3-D projection techniques already exist since the 1920ties. Improved in the 1950ties and perfected in the 1980ties, these techniques work for any film or video projector and no fancy DLP technology is required. They are techniques that have proven themselves throughout the years are they are ready to be used again in a heartbeat. No need to wait for digital projection to come to your local cinema. 3-D can be displayed in all its glory anywhere around the world RIGHT NOW. However small the budget.
Click here for a list of these techniques and how to practically use them for your 3-D project.

 

Points to consider with IMAX 3-D

However good IMAX 3-D sets out to be, there are some weaknesses. the most obvious point about IMAX is that the screen is so big, it's vision-wide. This means that material needs to be shot with a vision-wide 3-D experience in mind. What does this mean? A vision-wide screen has no perceivable edges, so there is no stereo window: the 0-point in Z space where the screen depth is. So depth cues are even more important than with regular cinema 3-D. Secondly, it means that everything on screen comes forward into the audience space much, much more than with regular cinema 3-D presentation. That is wonderful for scenes where it snows, filling up the audience space with snowflakes, but a close-up of a face has to be treated with extreme care!

A case against IMAX DMR for 3-D releases

A big problem with the current trend of IMAX releases is it DMR technology in conjunction with 3-D features.
DMR means blowing up existing release prints from 35MM to 70MM. This is a problem because blowing up footage means interpolating - guessing - the missing image information. If in the original footage there is a blue dot next to a red dot and this is blown up to twice its original size, there will have to be an invention of information for the space between the blue dot and the red dot. This will either be a purple dot or a repeat of either the blue dot or the red dot.
So what happens with 3-D source material? In most cases there will be two independent filmstrips - one for the left eye and one for the right eye. These filmstrips contain different viewpoints of scenes, but equal in quality and image density and sharpness. When these two filmstrips are blown up independently using DMR, the interpolation generated by the DMR process will create uneven effects for left and right eye frames and when projected retinal rivalry will occur.
This is easily noticeable in James Cameron's latest IMAX release Aliens of the Deep.
HD video material was blown up to IMAX size, meaning lots and lots of interpolation because of HD's relatively small resolution. The resulting retinal rivalry can make for an unpleasant 3-D viewing experience.

House of Wax
Although difficult to convey on such a small scale,
the distortion created by DMR can be examplified roughly
by these two examples of a still from 'House of Wax' (1953)
House of Wax DMR
Left would be the IMAX original camera resolution,
right the HD material blown up to IMAX resolution using DMR.
The result is scruffy, blurry, and damaging to the 3-D.

Special lenses and enlarged parallax

HD cameras with fish-eye lenses were used on Aliens of the Deep. Besides through DMR, retinal rivalry is created by the fish-eye lenses picking up different vertical angles in the corners of the image. This means serious viewing discomfort for the audience. Although this problem is unique to Aliens of the Deep, a serious question mark must be placed with directors and d.o.p.'s who are planning to shoot in 3-D, but are not aware of some basic limitations of using a stereoscopic camera setup.
Connected to this is the apparent inability of directors and d.o.p.'s who are preparing to shoot for IMAX 3-D to consider the magnified parallax of the larger IMAX screen. When using converging cameras, this can mean serious divergence and thus serious eyestrain for the audience. Ignoring this magnification is simply inexcusable for anyone working on an IMAX 3-D release!

Click here for an explanation of 3-D terms like parallax, divergence and retinal rivalry.

Aliens of the Deep 3-D
Still from 'Aliens of the Deep' by James Cameron.
Note the unfortunate need for use of fish-eye lenses
in these close quarters.

As published in Australian New Media Magazine 'Digital Media World', 3-D Revolution's Alexander Lentjes talking about the present 3-D DLP wave and its relevance in realtion to the future of 3-D.

Article
(with the tail end of an opposing view by an Australian SFX professional)


Contact 3-D Revolution Productions


Contact 3-D Revolution Productions
Tel +44 1179 441 449

3-D Revolution Productions | 51 Sefton Park Road | Bristol BS7 9AN | United Kingdom

© 2009 3-D Revolution Productions

 
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