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The Digital Eye: Recapturing Cinema Magic in 3-D

In this months Digital Eye column, Sony Pictures Imageworks Jenny Fulle discusses the recent advances in stereoscopic 3-D and how it may be bring the magic back to the theatrical experience.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Making movies special and making going to the movies special have long been the fuel of movie magicians, transforming the passive experience of watching a movie into the exhilaration of immersion.

Surround sound enveloped the audience, making it a true multidimensional experience. It also brought the natural experience of hearing into the theater. Yes, the audience is listening. And we are listening to the audience.

In digital production, we have two kinds of 3D 3D graphics, which are two-dimensional illusions of depth, and stereoscopic 3-D that adds the sense of depth by mirroring the perception of left and right eyes.

Both added significant dimension to our work. 3D effects and animation essentially transformed the kinds of characters, models and images that can be created. It enabled convincing integration between live-action and digital effects. And it transformed both game and animation production.

What is exciting today is that we can build on this experience with 3D imagery and add the stereoscopic element to truly draw our audience into the movie. It is the visual equivalent of surround sound and, when done well, can be as natural as its sonic sister.

Dimension. Consider the word. In its simplest terms it is a measurement of something in one or more directions such as length, width and height, coordinates in space and time. Interestingly, it also addresses the distinctive qualities of something, its artistic quality or the level of reality.

Dimension, in many respects, is what digital production is all about. It the best instances, we expand the filmmakers palette enabling the telling of stories and introduction of characters otherwise unimaginable. As the audience becomes increasingly sophisticated, the bar is consistently raised for us to deliver movies that truly engage their interest and imagination.

This is what is really, in my opinion, at the heart and soul of the stereoscopic 3-D renaissance. This is not our parents 3-D experience, a date night novelty.

The watershed event was The Polar Express. For many the 3-D IMAX experience proved to be a remarkably different movie. It was the first time that a mainstream long-form narrative movie played in stereoscopic 3-D on the enormous IMAX screen. Something remarkable happened when you took the faithful interpretation of Chris Van Allsburgs story and drew in the audience. Suddenly, the audience was not watching the movie as much as they were experiencing it.

While the box-office performance of The Polar Express surprised many, the audience experience was no accident. From the very first test to the final frame output, we took great care to insure that we optimized every image for stereo viewing. We believe that the audience is being sold a premium experience when they are invited to see a movie in 3-D stereo and we believe that we owe it to the audience to take the necessary care to insure that we deliver on that promise. Just as digital production is not as simple as point and click, the production of quality 3-D stereo is not as simple as running the 2-D flat version through an image processor and magically producing a great product. For this reason, we established a dedicated team and resources at Imageworks to produce stereoscopic 3-D versions of our films in the format of the filmmakers choice. We take this business, and our responsibility to it, seriously.

Part of the surprise success of Polar Express came from the solid performance of the IMAX 3-D version week after week.

Part of the surprise success of Polar Express came from the solid performance of the IMAX 3-D version week after week.

The 3-D imagery that we create, especially in all-CG movies, is especially suited to the stereoscopic experience. Part of that is because the characters and the environments are synthetic rather than photographed, and the added dimension of stereo is an extension of the illusion that we create. But, to be sure, there are camera systems, such as the ones being developed by Cobalt and others, that will allow filmmakers to shoot in 3-D stereo and, surely, we will be called upon to build upon those live-action plates. It is only a matter of time.

The increasing number of stereo-enabled screens, whether in the digital RealD format, the large format IMAX 3-D or others, is creating excitement in the marketplace. Theater owners, filmmakers and, ultimately, the audience benefit. Of great interest is the impact on the creative process. Just as it is fun to watch a great movie in 3-D stereo, it is fun to make them. This is no small point. There is a direct connection here between what the audience experiences and what the creative team experiences. Something remarkable happens when we go from looking through window to stepping into the world.

The cautionary note to sound here is that just as visual effects have never been a satisfactory substitute for the lack of a good story wonderfully told, 3-D stereo is not a panacea. Just as captivated as enamored as audiences were by the Polar Express or Chicken Little, and we believe they will be when they venture into Monster House in RealD or take part in Sony Pictures Animations first feature, Open Season in IMAX 3-D, they will quickly sour if it is overused and under produced. The hallmark of excellence has always been the attention to details. The layperson, and even many experts, may or may not be able to tell you what is missing from an image but it does not take a trained eye to feel when something is not quite right.

The added dimension of 3-D stereo creates an extraordinary opportunity across the board. It really opens up a world of possibilities on a creative level and it provides digital artists with an exceptional challenge and we are always up for a challenge!

Jenny Fulle.

Jenny Fulle.

Perhaps most interesting is that not only does it tend to bring the audience closer to the movie, but it brings the artists closer to the audience. Making the 3-D stereo version of a movie has the benefit of building on the already completed 2-D or flat version. Now when the artists go into those frames to add the stereo effect, they look at the work in very much the same way the audience does. The multidimensional experience they see is the one they envision the audience seeing. The process is visceral. And, as the artists and the audience come closer together in the way they experience these movies, there is a surge in the energy generated by that connection.

Jenny Fulle, evp of production and exec producer for Sony Pictures Imageworks, joined the company in 1997. Fulle served as exec producer on the Academy Award-winning film Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Bad Boys II, The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Zathura, the Academy Award and BAFTA nominated Spider-Man, as well as The ChubbChubbs, Imageworks first animated short film and the Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Film in 2002.

Fulle is in production on the live-action feature films Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3. Additionally, she is in production on the first two fully animated CG feature films from Sony Pictures Animation, Open Season and Surfs Up.