3D Cinema is nothing new - It's been around in various shapes and forms since the late 1800s with stereoscopes and multiple projectors - but 2009 is the year that we'll really start to see films being released in 3D on a large scale, rather than just special feature events down at IMAX.
But is it the revolution that cinema seems to so desperately need, or just a not-so-cheap gimmick that is more about raising revenue and lessening piracy for the internet age?About three and a half years ago, Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenburg went to see The Polar Express in 3D at IMAX. Walking out of the theatre, he had an epiphany moment that could prove to be a defining moment for 3D cinema around the globe.
"It was just about as exciting a visceral feeling that I've had in a movie theatre before. It just felt so immersive and it sort of amplified the fun and excitement and the visual... it was just a very, very stimulating way to experience a movie, that I had never felt before. I walked out of there and said, 'You know, I think this is the future for us'."
Since then, Dreamworks animation has announced that every animated feature film they create for the big screen will be created in 3D, starting with Monsters Vs Aliens, which opened in cinemas yesterday. And they're not alone: Pixar are releasing their upcoming film Up, plus Toy Story 3 next year, in 3D. Disney's animated retelling of Dickens' A Christmas Carol later this year will be in 3D, as will James Cameron's upcoming live action Sci-Fi blockbuster Avatar. This sudden push into 3D has come from a desire to drive people back to the movies, according to Monsters Vs Aliens director Conrad Vernon.
"There's a large number of people who are now getting home theatres put into their house. And they have the giant flatscreen TVs, they've got the Dolby Digital 5.1 and it just keeps getting better; Blu-ray is out now... I mean, you can get a great movie experience in your own home. What's going to get people back in the theatres? What kind of experience can we give people that they can only get in the theatres and get them to leave the comfort of their own homes and come out and see a movie again. And 3D was the answer to that."
But it's a difficult proposition. About a month ago there were only 35 screens capable of showing a 3D movie in all of Australia, although that number has risen to between 50-60 screens now. That growth is in part due to Dreamworks actively encouraging cinemas to adopt technology to make their cinema screens 3D capable, but with factors like the current financiapocalypse and the high costs of implementing a 3D are holding back the rollout.
Another hurdle 3D cinema needs to overcome is the need for glasses to enjoy the 3D effects. According to Vernon, about two per cent of people can't actually handle watching 3D on the screen. So if you've had laser eye surgery, or have weaker vision in one eye, wearing the glasses can cause eye strain which results in a rather unpleasant viewing experience, and sadly there isn't anything that can be done about it. But even those who don't end up leaving the cinema with the feeling that their head has just been squeezed by a giant robot have to battle distractions like aisle lighting reflecting off the inside of the glasses' frames. And while Dreamworks are researching and following the development of 3D technologies that don't require glasses, that's still a way off.
"It's called auto-stereo, which can accomplish [3D]without glasses. Right now, today, we can do it on very, very small sized devices. The larger the image becomes, the less effective auto-stereo is." Katzenburg tells us. "But we'll get there" he adds.
Monsters Vs Aliens though, as the first Dreamworks film to be created in 3D from the ground up, has been a huge learning experience for the film studio, despite potential distribution and eyewear problems. Not only has it added another dimension to the visual appeal of the film, it's improved the 2D version as well.
According to Vernon, "There are a lot of companies out there that are just taking their final film and running it through a 3D machine at the end. It's the equivalent of shooting a movie in black and white, and then running it through a colouriser at the end. Even if the colours are beautiful, you don't have control of those colours. It's exactly the same with 3D, especially since it's not a very subtle thing. Colour isn't subtle, sound isn't subtle, music isn't subtle - it's something that impacts the emotion of the movie. 3D I think, is big enough and obvious enough that it's going to impact the emotion of the movie.
"So we would make the film in 2D - make sure the story's working, make sure the jokes are working, make sure the characters are strong - and then, as we go into the actual production of the movie, we start looking at all these shots not only in 2D for screen composition, lighting and colour, but we also throw on the glasses and make sure it's all working in 3D. So we're doing everything simultaneously."
Katzenburg adds: "What we found is, when authoring in 3D, our filmakers now spend a significant amount of time and resource on how dimensionally we photograph and move through those environments. And the outcome of that is the 2D version of the movie actually now looks better also. So because of how much time and focus is being devoted to the cinematography of this - which is greater than we used to do before. It's not like we didn't care about the cinematography before, but it's now much, much richer and more complex.
What we thought would be the case would be that we'd take the 3D version of the movie and have to make some changes and edits of that in order to make that play the best in 2D. It was actually the opposite of that - it actually enhanced the 2D version of it."
That extra level of control in the 3D authoring allowed them to tone down certain elements of the 3D that were too strong as well, so instead of a nauseating experience that just feels wrong, the overall effect is both obvious and noticeable, but not such a gimmick that it detracts from the film. And having a solid 2D version of the film is equally important when it comes to the home cinema release, because you're not likely to see 3D home cinema releases any time soon, despite the new 3D plasmas from the likes of Samsung and Panasonic according to Katzenburg.
"For 3D to be effective, there are two things that are essential if you want the highest end quality. The first is that it needs to hit your peripheral vision. What that means is that if you have a TV of about 42-inches, you need to sit about 40 inches away from it. Nobody watches TV in their home that way. In a typical way of watching TV, you'd get a good 3D image out of it, but it would not be the immersive experience that you can get in a movie theatre.
"The second thing is that any light, any light source, actually diminishes the effectiveness of 3D and you get various different glares and things that go on. You'd get a 3D image in a brightly lit room, but it wouldn't have the resilience, it wouldn't have the power and it would not have the immersiveness. It's going to happen in the home, but the place that will drive it will be gaming and sports".
So where does this leave us, the average moviegoer? Well, if you're one of the two percent (like me), you'll end up a firm believer that 3D isn't going to be the thing that saves cinema. Good films is going to save cinema. I mean think about it - last year was one of the biggest years for films ever, off the back of some great movies like Iron Man, Wall-E, and The Dark Knight. Even Katzenburg admitted that "3D won't make an average movie good".
Fortunately for Dreamworks (this time around at least), Monsters Vs Aliens is a good movie, regardless of whether you see it in 3D or not. Entertainment Geekly is your weekly location for the latest in geek-relevant entertainment news, reviews, trailers and features.