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3D looms into movie universe

Success off 'Monsters vs. Aliens' confirms digital 3-D's draw, and studios are leaping at the opportunity.

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A growing number of filmmakers beyond the “Titanic” veteran is banking the future on 3-D, because of the richer palette it offers, says newcomer Aristomenis Tsirbas.

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“Audiences process three-dimensional images differently than two-dimensional,” Cameron told a recent industry gathering in Century City. Because separate cameras for each eye provide so much more information, viewers are more engaged and have a more “immersive experience.”

Animator and aspiring live-action filmmaker Tsirbas says 3-D offers a new suite of storytelling tools – as well as challenges. For instance, he says, two-dimensional images carefully move the eye to the desired focal point in a movie, but once a viewer is surrounded by a movie environment, attention can wander freely. “A director has to find new ways to guide an audience through a scene,” he points out.

Other technical aspects “get sort of geeky,” says IMAX chief Rich Gelfond, but can have a big impact on the viewer. The theater geometry, for instance – the traditional rectangular movie house versus the wide, square IMAX space – affects how easily 3-D technology can “float” objects into viewer’s laps or push them into the distance.

Despite the industry pile-on, cooler heads still can be found around town. Some critics have dubbed it a new/old fad that still faces the same challenges it had in earlier efforts: eye-strain and motion sickness in some movie patrons. But researcher David Wertheimer, CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at the University of Southern California, points out that this new iteration has fixed the underlying problems of the old analog efforts, namely image alignment. Digital technology now allows both the captured and projected images to be nearly perfectly aligned, which was not previously possible. The old system, he points out, lined up physical film negatives and images from two separate projectors.

“This system is fraught with imperfections,” he says, which digital technology has largely solved. The proof, he adds, is in the audience response. In a national 2008 ETC survey done in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Association, 25 percent of respondents wanted to see a 3-D film. But that number rose to nearly 40 percent after they’d actually seen one. IMAX has been spooling 3-D spectacles for 15 years. Mr. Gelfond says not every subject may need the treatment, which can add up to 30 percent to a movie’s budget.

However, Mr. Dergarabedian points out, ticket premiums for the 3-D version of a film average $3 over regular prices. When audiences are given a choice between 3-D and 2-D, says Michael Lewis, CEO of RealD, one of the primary providers of 3-D technology, they overwhelmingly choose the 3-D version – up to seven times as often.

Most observers agree, 3-D will become as routine as sound or color within the next few decades.

“I used to think not every film should be done in 3-D,” says Dergarabedian, “but then, I used to think not every car should have GPS.”