The 3D Films Are Coming, the 3D Films Are Coming

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A little over a year ago, I wrote that, “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.” I also noted that it was seen as a way to get theaters to switch to digital projection, providing what Tim Partridge, Executive Vice President, Products and Technologies, for Dolby Laboratories, called the “wow factor.”  Well, it now seems certain that 3D has established a strong beachhead, which will go beyond being just a niche market.

For most, the game changer was James Cameron’s Avatar, which seemed to  legitimatize the process; if nothing else, its $2 billion plus box office receipts, with an overwhelming  amount of domestic revenues coming from 3D theaters, made people realize that stereoscopic films were no longer a recurring fad.

As a result, there looks to be a dramatic shift toward 3D production  and, yes, a wider use of digital projection; however, I suspect theaters will only install digital projection only when necessary to show 3D films. After all, digital projection is not cheap (especially in the current economic climate), but those multiplexes that put up signs saying they were not showing Avatar in 3D, will not want to be put in such a situation again. In fact, my local AMC multiplex in the North DeKalb Mall, in Decatur, Georgia, which had one of those signs, has converted its largest screen in time to show Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 3D. And the Regal Hollywood 24, which had been my closest 3D venue (a 15-20 minute drive), now has two 3D screens; previously, the nearest multiplex with two such screens was on the other side of Atlanta.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

The shift to 3D production has now gone beyond the party faithful and Warner Bros. announced it will release the new version of Clash of the Titans, as well as Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1, Guardians Of Ga’Hoole, and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore in 3D. No matter that these films, and Alice in Wonderland, were not designed for stereoscopic viewing, the major studios  see the writing on the wall. In this, it has some semblance to the post-Jazz Singer shift to talking pictures, when talking sequences and musical tracks were anxiously added to silent movies, and to the shift to color in the mid-1960s, when films that began shooting in black and white, like Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid, were reshot in color.

The Problem
The problem, according to this Associated Press story, is:

Movies in 3-D are becoming such big moneymakers that Hollywood studios are cramming them into the nation’s theaters, even though there aren’t enough screens available to give each film its fullest possible run.

That will mean an unprecedented number of 3-D movies for film fans to choose from this spring, and smaller profits for Hollywood studios than they might otherwise get with fewer 3-D competitors.

How to Train Your Dragon

Subsequently, The Los Angeles Times reported, “Studios are using high-pressure tactics to book their films into theaters,” adding that,

Paramount Pictures is using high-pressure tactics against theaters to book DreamWorks Animation’s upcoming big-budget 3-D film, “How to Train Your Dragon” onto scarce 3-D screens around the country, according to industry executives. “Dragon,” opening March 26, will be going head to head against the swords-and-sandal 3-D picture “Clash of the Titans,” from Warner Bros., which opens a week later, and Disney’s 3-D “Alice in Wonderland,” still drawing audiences and expected to remain in theaters for several more weeks.

Frankly, I don’t see the shortage lasting very long. If history is any guide, the shortage could be short-lived. When The Jazz Singer came out in 1927, there was only a limited number of theaters wired for sound; but when Warner Bros. brought out its follow-up, The Singing Fool, in 1928, there were enough theaters available for it to set a box office record that would only be broken 10 years later by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Also, in the early 50s, most theaters underwent wholesale conversions to both 3D and widescreen in fairly short order.

But I see no reason to believe that theaters will feel compelled to convert each and everyone of their theaters to stereo, let alone digital projection.  For now, 3D will probably be limited to specific types of large-budget movies or exploitation films, much as color was initially limited in its early days to the likes of animated cartoons (Snow White), spectacles (Gone with the Wind) and musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis). It was only when US TV networks decided they would only broadcasting movies made in color that Hollywood almost overnight converted to making films only in color. (Since, then, only directors with some clout, such as Martin Scorcese (Raging Bull), could use black and white.)

The Princess and the Frog

Though 3D TVs have recently been introduced, sales would have to take off dramatically for broadcasters to add more than token stereoscopic programs (such as the World Series). The amount of 3D product available on Blu-Ray will be limited over the next few years, though one should not count put the lure of 3D for gamers being a factor. (One of the problems probably hindering sales of 3D TVs, beyond the added premium over conventional HDTVs, is the cost of glasses, which will initially be over $100 each; this will certainly limit the purchase of such sets by bars and restaurants (which were among the first to buy TV sets after World War II and more recently HDTVs) and institutions such as schools, where the cost of providing patrons/students with expensive 3D glasses will be prohibitive.  And until these markets reach some sort of critical mass, any hope of wholesale conversion to stereoscopic production and exhibition seems premature.

Right now, the only type of movie where 3D production will be de rigueur are mass market animated features. Of the non-3D animated films released lately, only Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Princess and the Frog made any sort of impact and then mainly for its merchandizing revenues; ; and because of this, Disney will likely continue to make the occasional drawn animation. (For the record, I found some of its musical numbers sporadically entertaining, but felt it was a lesser effort than than directors’ last effort, the underrated Treasure Planet.)

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Conversion Fever
In the short run, we are in for a number of special effects laden, live-action films haphazardly converted to 3D. The first being Tim Burton’s “version” of Alice in Wonderland, which predictably looks rather awkward. Much of the 3D looks artificial, with discernibly flat layers of action substituting for any real sense of depth (a sort of multiplane effect, if you will). Having no desire to see the film in its flat version, I can only suspect that the conversion did little to help. (I never liked the original Lewis Carroll books and have found any previous screen versions satisfactory.)

The earlier 3D conversion of Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its occasional insertions of foreground props in a vain attempt to provide added depth, really diminished the film; even worse was Toy Story, which had new animation added, including full-figure shots of the boy and his mother instead of just legs, which really made no sense. The 3D version of Toy Story 2, however, did not seem substantially hurt by the conversion, since there seems to have been little or no tampering with the film itself. (The two films were given a modest release last year, with distribution obviously limited by the scarcity of 3D venues.)

Though critics will surely pounce on these bastardized films as proof of 3D’s inferiority or whatever, I don’t see the public turning away from them.

Post Scripts
By the way, I do recommend “Third Way: the rise of 3-D,”  by Anthony Lane, in the March 8th issue of The New Yorker, which can be found here. It provides an excellent summary of the history of 3D cinematography, including the role played by Oliver Wendell Holmes in its pre-history.  Along the way, he perfectly reflects both the attraction and horror felt by many at the prospect of converting older films:

Faced with the thought of a 3-D “Casablanca,” one is torn between outrage at such blind desecration and a sneaking wish to know—well, what the hell would it look like? The mind runs riot, in search of screenings past. Imagine the older couple dancing, with slow grace, in “The Magnificent Ambersons,” with the younger pair behind them, watching in admiration from the stairs; imagine the gentle ascent of the camera, at the end of “Ugetsu Monogatari,” as the child lays an offering on his mother’s grave, and we gaze beyond him to the workers, with griefs and rituals of their own, toiling in the distant fields; imagine the arrival of the train at the start of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” with those seamed, all-knowing faces so close to us and the railroad stretching so far; imagine the flirtatious darting between trees, in “Smiles of a Summer Night,” as the maid half seeks to flee the randy groom in the background, both of them blessed and maddened by the midnight sun. All these scenes depend on figures held in separate planes, and on the unspoken feelings that brim in the spaces between them; would it weaken or intensify those feelings if the spaces were given solid form? Try asking Patrick von Sychowski, the chief operating officer at Reliance MediaWorks [an Indian company involved in such conversions], quoted in the London Times: “You can’t just press a button and have a computer do it. You have to take artistic decisions, such as what’s going to appear in the foreground.” Ah.

I would also recommend Kristin Thompson’s report here on a screening by archivist extraordinaire  Serge Bromberg (owner of  Lobster Films and the Annecy Festival’s Artistic Director) of early 3D films, which ended with a surprise:

… two films that had never been meant to appear in 3D.

[Georges] Méliès’s early shorts were often pirated abroad, and a lot of money was being lost in the American market in particular. After the Lubin company flooded that market with bootleg copies of a 1902 film, Méliès struck back by opening his own American distribution office. Separate negatives for the domestic and foreign markets were made by the simple expedient of placing two cameras side by side. The folks at Lobster realized that those cameras’ lenses happened to be about the same distance apart as 3D camera lenses. By taking prints from the two separate versions of a film, today’s restorers could create a simulated 3D copy!

Two 1903 titles–I think that they were The Infernal Cauldron and The Oracle of Delphi–triumphantly showed that the experiment worked. Oracle survived in both French and American copies, and the effect of 3D was delightful. For Cauldron only the second half of the American print has been preserved. Watching the film through red-and-green glasses, you initially saw nothing in your right eye, while the left one saw the image in 2D. Abruptly, though, the second print materialized, and the depth effect kicked in. The films as synchronized  by Lobster looked exactly as if Méliès had designed them for 3D.

Of course, if you’re in Toronto, you could also check out the activities of Reg Hartt’s Cineforum, which tomorrow tonight is having a screening of “The History of 3D in the Movies,” which he describes as

Stereoscopic Cinema from its origins to the present day (Reg Hartt has the most advanced 3D system in Canada and, in his archive, nearly every 3D motion picture ever made). The Cineforum is THE ONLY PLACE in the world where stereoscopic cinema can be studied IN DEPTH.

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.