Science & Technology

Hollywood Studios are Raising their Glasses to 3-D Movies

Between 100-yard interception returns and extreme close-ups of Bruce Springsteen’s leather-clad crotch, many viewers of this year’s Super Bowl watched a handful of blurry red-and-blue-tinged commercials. Any number of these viewers could have been feeling the effects of their gametime beer and pizza, but their physical state was not to blame for the shaky picture quality.

This year was the first time that advertisers aired 3-D commercials during the most-watched television program of the year, but any viewer without a pair of those special paper lenses was stuck watching a flat, distorted image. With two 3-D movies already in theaters this year and another on its way this week, 3-D is filling up the cinema and may soon be jumping off the big screen and into our homes.

Super Bowl viewers saw 3-D commercials for Sobe energy drinks, a trailer for the animated film ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ and a preview of a special 3-D episode of the NBC series ‘Chuck,’ which aired the following night. These television spots ran in the simpler anaglyph stereoscopic format, which requires viewers to wear blue and red lenses ‘-‘-available at participating supermarket chains before the big game ‘-‘- to see the effect.

Although anaglyph technology is the classic type of 3-D technology, and many people can identify it, it is rarely used for movies, said Lenny Lipton, a stereoscopic supervisor in the film industry currently working on the horror movie ‘Piranha 3-D’. But for 3-D technology to gain wider acceptance, he said media companies need to move away from this older technology, which is better suited for magazines or comic books, and use digital polarized technology.

Two predominant types of 3-D formats exist right now. Conventional movie theaters capable of digital projection use Real D while 3-D films released in the larger IMAX format use IMAX 3-D. ‘Coraline’ and ‘My Bloody Valentine 3-D’ are two films from this year that utilize Real D.

Studios are releasing many digital 3-D movies to IMAX Theaters at the same time as regular theaters. IMAX screens are much larger than standard theater screens and have been showing 2-D movies with select scenes in 3-D for several years now, including ‘Superman Returns’ in 2006 and ‘Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix’ in 2007.

Until recently, filmmakers shot most 3-D films the same way they would shoot 2-D and then converted the footage in post-production. Now, filmmakers have the option to use specially designed cameras that capture 3-D images in real time. To film in 3-D, two separate side-by-side cameras simultaneously film images for the left eye and the right eye. Last year’s ‘U2 3-D’ concert film was the first feature-length project filmed with these ‘3-D cameras.’

Lipton has worked with stereoscopic electronic display technology, the technical name for 3-D imaging, for more than 25 years. He said that audiences cannot tell whether a 3-D movie was filmed with 3-D cameras or was converted after the fact.

Just as technical advances are making 3-D filmmaking easier, public interest in stereoscopic movies is increasing. The age of the audience of 3-D movies is widening, Lipton said. When Disney’s first 3-D animated film, ‘Chicken Little,’ was released in 2005, the studio was aiming for a very young demographic. Now with the release of horror films, studios are producing 3-D movies for the R-rating crowd.

‘The stereoscopic component is the star,’ Lipton said. ‘It serves the same role as a well-paid movie star would serve. The progression will be, hopefully, that you’ll get more mature dramas in 3-D, and it becomes part of the filmmaking armamentarium.’

Anaglyph 3-D images have two images placed on top of each other, one outlined in red and one in blue and once a viewer wears the colored lenses, the eyes bring these images together as one image that seems to jump off the page.

The current technology behind 3-D movies uses digital projectors to superimpose two images by rapidly alternating an image for the left eye and the right eye. Each of the two polarized lenses of the glasses viewers wear receives only the image intended for that specific eye and just as in anaglyph, the eyes unite the images into one.

Digital projectors have no film running through them but can project an image from a hard drive. The simultaneously projected digital images can be synced up perfectly for a crisp three-dimensional image.

‘When you’re dealing with two pieces of digital media, it’s easier to know more about that media and correct problems,’ Angela Gyetvan, vice president of sales and marketing of 3ality Digital, said.

Innovations in 3-D filmmaking include camera rigs that hold the two side-by-side cameras together and software that ensures the cameras are aligned properly, some of which 3ality Digital has created. The company also produced ‘U2 3-D’ and the recent 3-D episode of ‘Chuck.’

Polarized 3-D technology is not new ‘-‘- it was invented in the 1930s ‘-‘- but digital projection is. Older 3-D movies were projected from film. To achieve the 3-D effect, two film projectors would have to run side by side and be manually synchronized. If the two reels of film did not begin at the exact same second, the 3-D image would appear blurry or in 2-D.

With the widening audience demographics, movie studios are getting behind a variety of 3-D film projects.

After the success of the 3-D concert film, ‘Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert’ last year, Walt Disney Pictures has another tweeny bopper concert film coming out this week starring the Jonas Brothers. The three brothers from New Jersey, who made guest appearances in the Hannah Montana film, will star in ‘Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience’ opening on Friday.

Director James Cameron, whose resume includes such blockbusters as ‘Aliens,’ the first two ‘Terminator’ films and ‘Titanic,’ is a high-profile advocate of 3-D technology.

His 2009 film ‘Avatar’ is his first foray into feature length films since he directed ‘Titanic’ to box office records and Oscars glory in 1997. Cameron worked closely with 3-D technology innovator Vincent Pace to design the 3-D high definition cameras used to shoot the upcoming science fiction epic. ‘Avatar’ will feature a combination of live action sequences and photorealistic motion capture performances, the same technique used to produce the animated film ‘Beowulf’ and to create the character Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films.

‘I don’t want to go back to shooting on film,’ Cameron said in a January 2007 interview with Entertainment Weekly. ‘I don’t want to go back to shooting in 2-D, so for me it was just a question of waiting for the right moment. In fact, I think I’ve actually waited too long.’

Cameron directed several 3-D short films for the IMAX format before getting involved with his feature length 3-D debut. ‘Avatar’ officially began production in January 2007 when 20th Century Fox approved its $195 million budget.

Scott Kirsner, a columnist for Variety and The Boston Globe, and author of the book ‘Inventing the Movies,’ compared the conversion from monophonic to stereophonic sound systems to that of 2-D and 3-D visuals.

Although all theaters once showed movies in single channel sound and there was an intermittent period where stereo was the exception, theaters today have universally embraced stereo sound, he said. If 3-D movies continue on their current path, stereoscopic visuals could completely replace the old ways of showing movies.

‘That added dimension is just going to be a part of the movies,’ Kirsner said. ‘It won’t be gimmicky, it won’t be about throwing a spear at the audience.’

Just as home theater systems are capable of reproducing cinema-grade sound, the 3-D technology of movie theaters may soon be available to be enjoyed from the couch. Television manufactures including Sony, Samsung and LG showed stereoscopic televisions at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month.

Some of these televisions will hit stores this year, but theater owners should expect to hand out those black framed glasses for a little while longer. Consumers have shown a willingness to pay a premium for the 3-D theater experience and the infrastructure is already in place and growing at theaters all over the country. Not to mention, affordable 3-D television sets and readily available 3-D movie content for them are probably still about five years away, according to Kirsner.

‘Are people going to want to wear glasses in their living room?’ Kirsner said. ‘You can imagine putting on 3-D glasses for two hours in a movie theater, but are you going to want to sit there for your evening TV viewing and wear 3-D glasses?’

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