Miércoles 30 de Abril de 2008, Ip nº 228

Before your very eyes
Hollywood has had the most dreadful itch for the past 50 years. After cinema's initial heroic breakthroughs alchemised colour and coaxed sound from previously mute lips, Technicolor unleashed its kaleidoscopic magic in the 1950s. But despite vast improvements in sound quality, there hasn't been a single enduring innovation that has fundamentally transformed the visual component of cinema in half a century.

Attempts to revolutionise the communal cinema-going experience have naturally focused on the senses. There was the hopelessly ill-considered olfactory assault of Smell-O-Vision in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1974, Hollywood developed Sensurround, a subterranean rumble designed to intensify the experience of Earthquake, starring the late Charlton Heston. It became an unmitigated disaster. There was the Eisenhower-era 3D fad, often revisited in later years, which proved to be largely forgettable and gimmicky. By the time we reached the early 21st century the only thing that had evolved significantly in the moviegoing experience was that they'd made the seats more comfortable and super-sized the popcorn.

DVD, video on demand and the rise of home gaming have cracked cinema's hegemony in the world of visual entertainment, and theatre owners are looking over their shoulders and scrambling for a saviour. And salvation may be just around the corner in the form of digital 3D. Ridiculed and distrusted for its former failings, 3D is finally poised to come of age, backed by the rapid deployment of digital projection infrastructure and a roster of evangelists who swear blind it will transform the way we watch films once and for all.

Industry icons such as James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and studio mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg are working feverishly on eagerly anticipated 3D projects. Cameron is readying the sci-fi epic Avatar in time for December 2009 for 20th Century Fox, which is also lining up Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. Spielberg and Jackson have committed to three live-action adaptations of Hergé's comic book detective series Tintin, while Jackson has spoken of converting his Lord of the Rings trilogy into 3D. And this summer will see the release of Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, a $50m-60m family romp starring Brendan Fraser based on Jules Verne's classic tale of exploration.

The current high priest of the 3D digital revolution is Katzenberg, the former Disney Studios wunderkind who launched DreamWorks with Spielberg and David Geffen 14 years ago and now enjoys sole command of his own diocese after DreamWorks Animation was spun off in 2004. Katzenberg is under no illusion about when his 3D epiphany occurred. "It was a few years back and I went to see The Polar Express in IMAX 3D," he says. "I walked out of the theatre and realised this was something that could be a big opportunity for the movies and for our company. I had to learn more about it."

And learn he did, hiring savvy directors and imbuing his staff with a passion for creating viable 3D cinema. This would evolve from the mid-20th century's dual-strip projection systems and tacky red-and-blue cardboard anaglyph glasses, to a new model built on digital foundations, where each of us will eventually own designer-style polarised spectacles that we will take with us to the cinema. Katzenberg pledged that from summer 2009, with the release of Monsters Vs Aliens, and continuing the following year with Shrek Goes Fourth and How to Train Your Dragon, his studio would only make films in 3D. Disney, days ago, announced they would follow suit: beginning with BOLT, next Christmas's film about a canine TV star, all its animated releases (that means Pixar and Walt Disney Studios titles) will be in 3D.

"Right now there's an amazing confluence of events that makes 3D so exciting," Katzenberg says. "You have new polarised glasses that deliver a much better viewing image and are much more comfortable than the old cheeseball ones. The movie theatres have digital projectors that can split the image without any distortion, and the tools we have enable us to make a perfect image that has no blurring, no eye strain, no ghosting.

"Our film-makers now can create a truly breathtaking, immersive experience that brings audiences into this dimensionalised world. It refines what it is like to be in a movie theatre. Eventually we'll see this set of innovations move to the TV, the computer screen and billboards." On average, DreamWorks spends between $140m and $150m to make a film, and Katzenberg estimates the 3D process will add roughly 10% to budgets.

Currently there are three companies - REAL D, Dolby and NuVision - that can bolt on their proprietary 3D systems to the cinemas' existing digital equipment. So far the LA-based REAL D, the most prominent company in this sector, has upgraded digital cinemas and installed 3D projection systems in 1,250 screens across 25 countries. It estimates it will have equipped more than 4,000 screens by next year. The company recently signed a 500-screen deal with Odeon in the UK and began installing projectors. Inevitably, cinema owners will pass on the hefty installation costs - believed to be in the £10,000 range - to the audience in the form of "premium" ticket prices, to use an industry euphemism. In the US, tickets for Disney's successful movie Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert 3D sold for $15 (£8) - approximately twice as much as the average national ticket price in the US.

Exhibitors hope the quality of the viewing experience will raise cinema attendances, and higher admission costs will increase revenues. "Cinema owners believe 3D brings significant value to the cinema experience," says John Fithian, who heads the US exhibitors' body, the National Association of Theatre Owners. "3D in the digital age is unlike anything seen previously in cinema. We believe it will drive more people to the cinema than the normal growth inspired by 2D."

On the production side, film-makers have reported the process to be relatively straightforward now live-action 3D films can be shot with the same degree of flexibility as a normal 2D picture. James Cameron shot Avatar, which stars Sigourney Weaver, in New Zealand over the course of four months using the Fusion camera he invented in the early 2000s with longtime collaborator and cinematographer Vince Pace. The Fusion, like all 3D camera set-ups, comprises two cameras, mounted on a rig, that capture left eye and right eye images. A beam splitter channels the light evenly between the cameras. Incidentally, both individual cameras will deliver a 2D image that is perfectly suitable for projection in cinemas.

Like Katzenberg, Avatar's producer Jon Landau stresses that the process needs to be organic or risk dying on its feet. "We're making the movie because it warrants it on the basis of a terrific story from Jim, not because we wanted to make a 3D movie for the sake of it: the 3D enhances the storytelling, and we've learned that very little of it goes a long way. Our goal with 3D is to make the screen plane disappear and have the viewer look beyond a flat screen into an entire world. You've broken down that barrier and the experience becomes more voyeuristic."

"You mustn't create a rush of poorly executed films or else they will seem gimmicky," warns Chris Meledandri, the former head of animation at Fox who is developing a project with Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, the makers of the current UK hit Son of Rambow. "It was the same with computer animation. The first movies in that field like Ice Age, Toy Story and Shrek were really good, and the audience developed a very positive association. Had they been badly written, no matter how good the animation, the audience experience would have been negative."

But will 3D movies change the ways we perceive movies, or just the way we consume them? During the making of Journey to the Centre of the Earth 3D, the makers stumbled across something fascinating. "Your brain can only process information at a certain speed, so test audiences felt cheated because the scenes were too short and had too many cuts," says producer Beau Flynn. "In 3D, people wanted to stay immersed in that world. We had to reinsert scenes we'd cut out of the 2D version and did the same thing with the trailer. A trailer will typically have several dozen cuts but in 3D there need to be far fewer. We want to give the viewer time to soak up the image rather than bombarding them with images." A lengthening of attention spans? Now that really does sound like a revolution.

Off the wall
A brief history of 3D

Film in 3D is as old as cinema itself, although the technical difficulties it poses have always prevented its triumph. As far back as the 1890s, the British film pioneer William Friese-Greene was working on a process, but the earliest known commercial 3D film was The Power of Love in 1922, which used the notoriously unreliable dual-strip projection and introduced the dastardly red and green anaglyph glasses.

The 1950s ushered in a prolific spate of film-making as the studios, besieged by the advent of television, threw themselves into the new format in a bid to bring back audiences. For a while it worked, as Vincent Price starred in House of Wax and other schlocky genre pieces, while MGM released Kiss Me Kate in 3D, John Wayne starred in Hondo and Richard Carlson and Julia Adams headlined Creature from the Black Lagoon, the 1954 title that is arguably the most famous 3D release of them all.

As widescreen 2D cinema became more popular, 3D died out, returning in the 1970s and 1980s with Jaws 3-D and a rash of genre finery such as Amityville 3-D, Comin' At Ya!, Friday the 13th Part III and Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

In recent years, film-makers have combined 3D with the giant-screen Imax format in a series of documentary releases, and since then Hollywood has enjoyed moderate success converting 2D hits into 3D using polarised glasses. Notable titles from this most recent wave include The Polar Express, Chicken Little, Beowulf and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

  11/04/2008. The Guardian.