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Getting Immersed in 3D All Over Again

Bill Desowitz looks at the reemergence of 3D with big pushes by IMAX and George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez and Peter Jackson.

A good part of The Polar Express box office success came from its consistently impressive performance on IMAX 3D. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

A good part of The Polar Express box office success came from its consistently impressive performance on IMAX 3D. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

3D is definitely back but were not talking about House of Wax (the Vincent Price original, not the recent remake with Paris Hilton) or Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. No, when The Polar Express IMAX 3D grosses $45 million in 83 theaters, amassing nearly a quarter of the domestic take, and when George Lucas shows up at ShoWest to preach the 3D gospel with Robert Zemeckis (Polar Express), James Cameron (who plans on shooting his next feature, Battle Angel, in the stereoscopic format) and Robert Rodriguez (whose second foray, The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D, opens June 10), and to announce that the entire Star Wars franchise will be reissued in 3D beginning in 2007, you realize that this is no gimmick. The 3D revival currently underway is a real business, with definite ramifications for our industry.

When you see some of this test footage, its shockingly good, and you can see how people would want to go see it, Lucas said at ShoWest last month. It means we can repurpose a lot of old movies, and at the same time it really gives a whole new dimension to the movies were making now.

Its not just the use of digital projection, which we all know is on the horizon, added Peter Jackson in a pre-taped session, who reportedly has installed a 3D master suite in his production offices in New Zealand. But that the particular technology can be used to create three-dimensional movies that go far beyond the quality and the spectacle of anything weve ever seen before. Forget the old days of wearing the red and blue glasses and the eyestrain. All of that is behind us now. These new active glasses that youre wearing and seeing 3D with are a breakthrough in technology.

ShoWest attendees were treated to test footage of Attack of the Clones, Lilo & Stitch and Top Gun dimensionalized by In-Three Inc. of Agoura, California, and projected by a single Texas Instruments DLP-based 2K D-Cinema projector from Christie and fed from a single dual-stream server from QuVis. The other related news at ShoWest was that Mann Theatres signed an agreement with REAL D to exhibit digital 3D, with the famous Hollywood Chinese serving as the flagship theater. The system would utilize a single digital projector and lightweight sunglasses.

Spectacle kings George Lucas and James Cameron are two of the biggest backers of the reemergence of 3D. Photo credit: Sarah Baisley.

Spectacle kings George Lucas and James Cameron are two of the biggest backers of the reemergence of 3D. Photo credit: Sarah Baisley.

I think whats about to happen is considerably different [from the 50s 3D fad], suggests Michael Kaye, president and ceo of In-Three. This is not gimmicky. We wanted to produce a system that converts the movie in high quality, which is what we achieved. Its the only reason we can attract the likes of Lucas or Cameron or Spielberg or anyone. Weve developed our own hardware and software for 2D to 3D conversion for digital cinema intentionally under the radar. We started working with studios doing tests. It was a bit of an uphill battle getting in there, falling in the wake of failed attempts, until they actually saw what we did and how different it was. One studio led to another. When we finally got it in front of Lucas, he was all over it. He watched Episode I and II in a screening room and said, Im sold, Im sold.

Then we set him up with his own system and glasses up north, and he showed all of his film buddies. We got calls from a lot of studio people to see demos. Then Spielberg and Katzenberg and Cruise called. So weve been in front of every studio over the last two years. Its been good, its been fun; now we have our work ahead of us with an expansion program.

The Dimensionalization system operates on In-Three custom designed workstations running hardware and software designed by its development team. The process is roughly analogous to the post-production techniques used in the creation of 3D graphics, animation and vfx. Operators create 3D versions of scenes utilizing a wide variety of proprietary software tools, many of which are automated and computer-optimized algorithms at their disposal.

According to insiders, 3D might be just the catalyst to convince exhibitors to jump on the stalled digital cinema bandwagon, along with offering a way to combat piracy since its so difficult to recreate the immersive 3D experience.

Make no mistake: Immersive is the key word, thanks to the astonishing success of The Polar Express IMAX 3D, which created an event-like atmosphere because of its quality and fanfare, dwarfing, for many, the conventional 2D theatrical experience. Some would argue, in fact, that IMAXs achievement with Polar Express not only created enough momentum and word of mouth to drive ticket sales way north of $120 million, but may also prove to be an ancillary boost as well when it comes to added DVD units purchased by prestigious retailers such as Wal-Mart and higher pay cable advances paid by HBO and Showtime. Little wonder that Polar Express in 3D will become a holiday perennial at IMAX theaters.

But this is precisely what IMAX had in mind when it started investing in its breakout DMR conversion of blockbusters to compete with the coming of high-def home entertainment, along with its growing network of theaters (255 worldwide, including Central America, China, Russia, India and Pakistan). The business plan was to eventually convert live action 2D to 3D using DMR. And next year IMAX expects to launch three 3D movies, with possibilities ranging from Warner Bros. The Poseidon Adventure and Superman Returns to Sonys next peformance capture CGI title, Monster House. Meanwhile, the number of commercially viable IMAX theaters to play Hollywood movies has expanded to about 100.

It is the suite of tools that Imax provides that distinguishes the IMAX 3D experience, explains Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Filmed Ent. The IMAX brand tells consumers this is going to [look good.] The geometry of the theater, the sound, the maintenance of the theater, the slant of the screen, which helps provide a more immersive experience. Plus we provide three sets of glasses per seat, so you know not only that they work but that theyre clean. And so when you add it all up, the IMAX 3D experience, in my opinion, is the best presentation cinema has to offer.

Sony Pictures Imageworks president Tim Sarnoff, whose company collaborated with IMAX on the 3D conversion, agrees, The Polar Express was a challenge for everyone to create a wholly different experience of an animated film at the same time we were creating an animated film. But the experience was stimulating to the artists and they wanted to engage in that. It also happens to be the first of these 3D projects that elegantly fits into our workflow because we were able to utilize the designs and suddenly create a new viewing environment that the audience otherwise wouldnt be able to see. Its a different experience when an audience member sits in a theater and sees things on a 2D plane. To some extent, its like working in 2D you still dont feel the depth. You get moved by the story either way. But, boy, was there a difference. Polar Express looked like a living View-Master. And there are different points of view of how you are engaged in that View-Master. Is the plane your viewing more like a window pane or is it more like you are in the middle of it. So its a whole other level of participation. I truly believe that 3D is going to grow.

To convert a live action film like The Matrix Reloaded would be costlier and more challenging than a CGI transfer like The Polar Express.

To convert a live action film like The Matrix Reloaded would be costlier and more challenging than a CGI transfer like The Polar Express.

In considering live action, which, at around $5 million, costs more than a CGI conversion for IMAX, Sarnoff adds, For the animated film, we have all of the environments, so you have a different level of 3D work that you can apply when youre in complete control. In live action, youre reduplicating some of the plates that were provided to you. I think the experience can be satisfying in both [2D and 3D], but the process is different. When youre doing a 3D movie, the earlier in the process that you can prepare, the better. For example, you do not want the primary action to break the main plane so that if you go beyond the top and bottom of the screen, it defeats the 3D experience. It has to be formatted properly to take advantage of the 3D experience. There are certain projects that lend themselves well to 3D and its an ongoing conversation that we are having within the facility.

As its own test, IMAX recently converted two minutes of Spider-Man 2, which looks dazzling as Spidey webslings his way across New York City and thwarts villainy in a much more dynamic way.

Rob Engle, the digital effects supervisor for The Polar Express IMAX 3D, adds that it was a very good learning experience for his crew of 60 animators plus support staff. We really didnt know 3D before working on Polar Express. We learned a few tricks that make for a more immersive 3D experience. Rather than throwing objects at you, the idea was to bring the viewer into the environment and let them fit and soak it up, whether it was falling snow or puppets in the background. We effectively increased the depth of field and gave you so much more to look at. I refer to it as eye candy.

Sharks 3D is the most recent nature documentary to get the 3D treatment. An IMAX theater film presented by Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Sharks 3D is the most recent nature documentary to get the 3D treatment. An IMAX theater film presented by Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Of course, there are other 3D players too. 3D Ent. recently made Sharks 3D that allowed more flexibility in shooting aquatic 3D, thanks to the Sony HDW750 high-def video cameras and lighter underwater camera housing (Celco provided stereoscopic recording and imaging services).

There is also Cobalt Ent., founded by Steve Schklair, former vp of Digital Domain, a leading 3D production services and technology company in Los Angeles. Its proprietary 3ality Systems camera platforms are the first high resolution digital 3D camera systems to utilize zoom lenses with advanced software image processing, completely integrated electronics, metadata recording and blue tooth enabled digital remotes. The camera is suitable for every type of shot, from long lens sports photography (they shot the 2004 Super Bowl) to extreme close ups, often covering this range in realtime and within a single continuous shot.

For us digital television is the ultimate device where this is going to play, Schklair explains. And if we can bring live events from around the world to digital theaters in stereo, this will be the ancillary use that everyone is talking about. The plan is to shoot stereoscopic films that are composited from bluescreen/greenscreen environments, drive the backgrounds through meta data readouts from all the axes and do a lot of experimentation with how to shoot and record the workflow.

Then there is In-Three, with its own business plan tied to digital cinema. (IMAX is still researching how and when to convert its own system to digital cinema. In fact, IMAX recently filed a patent infringement claim against In-Three, which responded with its own counter suit. As someone suggested: This proves this is a real business.)

Kaye insists that what makes Dimensionalization different from other systems is that the 3D material has no geometric disparities between the left and right eye views, which are normally inherent to original 3D photography and even some 3D CGI. Another key aspect of In-Threes process is that the left eye view is the original material completely untouched. The right eye view, however, has been converted from that original information. Kaye says he even altered Spielbergs perception of what looks good in 3D.

Although he has not yet begun work on the Star Wars movies, Kaye says In-Three is busy converting a big year-end tentpole picture. The company is also working with Cameron on Battle Angel, which will be shot in both 3D and 2D and will contain performance capture CGI.

The big question remains: What about the theaters? Im confident the theaters will be equipped by 2007, he adds. [Star Wars producer] Rick McCallum keeps me informed about rollout progress.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.