Stereoscopic Films

Last month, IMAX signed a deal with AMC Entertainment to “to install 100 IMAX digital projection systems at AMC [theater] locations in 33 major U.S. markets.” Once this is done by 2010, IMAX says it will have doubled the amount of its 3D large-format theaters. This, coupled with the small but increasing number of films being produced for stereoscopic theatrical presentation, is further evidence that this is not a trend that will soon go away. It is particularly marked in animation and has some interesting implications for theatrical exhibition (especially for the future of digital projection), and even for TV and home video.

Stereoscopic film production and exhibition has been gradually percolating up for the past few years. However, it has only been in the last year or so, that there have been enough venues to see these films in 3D in all major metropolitan areas in the US. For instance, in 2004, Polar Express was shown in both flat and IMAX 3D, though the latter option was not available here in Atlanta, where the Fernbank Museum only shows popular science films. The IMAX-AMC deal will add 2 new Georgia facilities (both in Atlanta), which will double the number of locations in the state (the other being in Buford, outside of Atlanta).

Actually, the increase in IMAX theaters in multiplexes rather than in science museums will more than double the venues showing Hollywood films. For instance, New York City, which has 2 IMAX theaters (including one at the American Museum of Natural History), will see 6 new locations; the same will happen in Los Angeles, where one of the 2 current sites is also in a science museum). (This IMAX press release lists all the new venues.)

However, IMAX is not the only game in town, as the number of multiplexes having a 3D-equipped theater has also increased during the past year. Thus, when I saw the 3D version of Meet the Robinsons in Savannah last year, I had a choice of 2 locations. (This means that in certain cities, one can see 3 different versions of a film like Beowulf: IMAX 3D, traditional 3D and flat.

BeowulfFilm historians Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s blog recently had an interested discussion on Beowulf which also speculates on the future of stereoscopic films. Thompson said,

It seems to me that the people who are pushing 3-D so hard and hoping for it to become standard in filmmaking are forcing it on the public too soon. It’s still fiendishly difficult and expensive to shoot live action material in digital 3-D, so most projects are animated.

Because of this some, she feels some filmmakers compromise and use motion capture, as in Beowulf, which Thompson is not a fan of.

Bordwell is even more adamant in his view against stereo projection.

It would take a perceptual psychologist to explain why 3-D looks fake. Whatever the cause, I’d speculate that good old 2-D cinema is better at suggesting volumes exactly because the cues to depth are less specific and so we can fill in the somewhat ambiguous array.

He also brings in parallels with the first 3D boom in the early 1950s, and concludes that the current boom will also fade away. The two draw an interesting parallel between the motivation behind Hollywood embracing 3D then and now:

The American box office plunged after 1947 as people strayed to other entertainments, including TV, and so the industry tried to woo them back with some new technology. Today, as viewers migrate to videogames, the Internet, and movies on portable devices, how can theatres woo their customers? Answer: Offer spectacle they can’t get at home.

(One argument Thompson makes for the waning of the current trend was that the IMAX format was “actually waning in popularity, except in newly emerging markets like China,” which she had to backtrack on when the IMAX-AMC deal was announced.)

However, I suspect 3D will not go away anytime soon; the question , I believe, is whether or not it will go beyond being a niche market.

Polar ExpressThe Wow Factor

One reason for the growth of 3D is that such films bring in more money at the box office. Some of this is probably due to the premium theaters charge for tickets; for instance, the Regal Hollywood 24, in Atlanta, charged me $2.50 extra for 3D versions of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beowulf. Nevertheless, 3D movies do seem to be genuinely more popular than their 2D counterparts. This was shown dramatically during for the initial run of Polar Express, which only did well in IMAX theaters. (So much so that IMAX brought the film back to some of its theaters last month.)

While the switch to 3D is not as great as it was back in the early 1950s, some major players are coming on board. In this Business Week story published in September, it is noted that,

[DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey] Katzenberg is convinced they are about to become “the single most revolutionary change since color pictures.” … He thinks it could boost a slow-growing U.S. box office and, not so incidentally, help the prospects for DreamWorks’ own animated flicks.

Katzenberg’s army of followers seems to grow almost daily. Steven Spielberg is on board and is preparing to work with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to produce a 3D film. They join devotees like Titanic director James Cameron and a certain Yoda from San Francisco named George Lucas, who intends to trot out his six Star Wars flicks in 3D starting in 2009. “Jeffrey’s Mr. Go Go,” says Lucas. “The time has come for 3D to become more than some theme park attraction. We see a business there.”

Also, independents such as StereoVision Entertainment are also trying to get in on the act; to this end, it has hired Baywatch creator Doug Schwartz to run its production slate. In a recent interview in Digital Cinema Report, Schwartz in replying to a question about the relatively small number of theaters equipped for 3D, says:

There are currently over 1,200 3D theater screens in the world, most of them in the U.S., and that number is expected to more than double by next summer. This dramatic growth should continue into the foreseeable future: by late 2009 there will be over five thousand 3D screens, and by late 2010, over ten thousand. So, if anything, the numbers are on our side.

The new-found popularity of 3D may also prove to be a way for Hollywood to get theaters to switch to digital projection, which holds the promise of considerable cost savings, especially in terms of print costs, for movie studios. However, theater owners have always resisted doing this for good economic reasons.

Leo Enticknap, in his book Moving Images Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital (Wallflower Press, 2005), pointed out that the barriers to theaters converting to digital projection “lie more in the economic and political domain than the technological.” (228). Among these factors he notes that,

with film, a 35mm projector can reasonably be assumed to have a service life of several decades, the rapid growth in computing power may well mean that a year or two after a cinema invests in a DLP, its rival venue acquires a newer model projector, producing a better image and rendering theirs obsolete and economically uncompetitive. (226)

Some of this technological one-upmanship was evident in the recent announcement by the San Francisco Opera that it will use superior [movie quality] technology to what the Metropolitan Opera has been using for its high definition theatrical broadcasts. (See the S.F. Opera’s press release and San Francisco Chronicle story.) But while there very well may be a difference between the technologies used by the Met and San Francisco Operas, I suspect the differences between competing projection systems is not a real cause for concern when it comes to most movies, whether 3D or 2D. (Incidentally, the Met’s success has led a number of other groups to join the fray, including Britain’s Royal Opera, La Scala, San Francisco Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and Theatro Madrid; if nothing else, these moves can only create additional demand for digital projection.)

The logic of using 3D to win over theater owners to digital projection is put forth in this video interview with Tim Partridge, Executive Vice President, Products and Technologies, for Dolby Laboratories, by Scott Kirsner on his CinemaTech blog, who feels that 3D provides a “wow factor.” (Best known for their audio technology, Dolby is also involved in digital projection).

With most live-action films having a large digital component and almost all animated movies being digital, digital projection would seem a natural, especially since it can produce a superior picture. If 3D does hang on, as I think it will, then the question remains what will happen to these films in terms of TV and home video. There have been experiments over the years in 3D broadcasting and DVD with mixed results. I suspect the ultimate solution will come through modifications to high definition TVs; though one can expect considerable buyer resistance given the high investment consumers have made recently in HDTVs.

By the way, I dragged out a prototype DVD sent to me a number of years ago of nWave Pictures‘ 1999 IMAX film, Encounter in the Third Dimension, complete with red and blue 3D glasses; the stereo effect was there, but it was easier to watch the film without glasses. The film is still available on DVD, either separately or as part of The Ultimate 3-D Collection.

Last update: February 6, 2017.

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.