I am not afraid to admit it: I’m a fan of 3-D movies. At its best, 3-D can add a texture and layering to the visual narrative that a skilled director and editor can spin into magic. At its worst, though, 3-D is annoying and painful. I admit that I have seen some horridly bad 3-D movies recently, but the technology is still growing, and getting better all the time. After a recent tour of 3-D cinema equipment manufacturer 3ality Technica’s headquarters and an interview with their CEO Steve Schklair, I’ve seen where that future of 3-D is headed, and it’s looking very bright.
With the coming 2012 summer blockbuster movies, 3-D movies are rising as the standard for more and more moviegoers. Although once a fad you had to actively seek out (assuming you even liked it), 3-D movies are progressively becoming the norm, and not just for superhero movies like the radically popular The Avengers movie and the forthcoming Batman: The Dark Knight Rises either.
3ality Techica is in the business of creating the equipment to capture three-dimensional images for movies, sports and live events. Their high-end equipment is being used on everything from horror sci-fi flicks like the highly anticipated Prometheus to the fantasy classic The Hobbit to the literary drama of The Great Gatsby, bringing a more textured feel to the moving images, adding nuances not possible in a mere two dimensions.
During my tour of 3ality Technica’s facilities, I was give the opportunity to preview some impressive new footage of U2 performing on stage, using the very best in projection technology. I was totally blown away. I have never been particularly impressed by 3-D that claimed to “jump off the screen,” but there were moments that I swear I forgot that Bono was not in fact in the room with us.
3-D technology has a dubious past. I remember the first 3-D movie I saw in a movie theater was the unremarkable Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, which used the same blue/red technology that had been around for decades. The 3-D effects were as flat and unconvincing as the acting by Peter Strauss and Molly Ringwald. However, 3-D technology has come a long way since the 20th century, although attitudes about it may not have.
Modern 3-D movies do not have a particularly good reputation on the United States. This is true even among geeks — especially among geeks — who you might think would naturally be attracted to any new technology that promises to bring about a more virtual reality. Instead, the consistent opinion I hear from most of my friends is that 3-D is just a cheap parlor trick by the movie industry to get butts into theater seats again. They argue that it adds little to the movie experience, and often detracts from it by reducing the brightness of picture. Even more compellingly, they argue there are people who can’t even see the 3-D effect (around 6 to 7 percent). New technology on the horizon will fix the projection issue and while the second issue is true, around the same percentage of people suffer from some form of color blindness, but no one would suggest that we shouldn’t make color movies.
I have to admit, 3-D can be hit or miss. Some 3-D I have seen was uninspired, or just didn’t seem to work. Despite the fact that it was a post-process 3-D job, I enjoyed the last Harry Potter far more in 3-D than I did in 2-D. The claymation in The Pirates! Band of Misfits defiantly benefited from the 3-D effects. However, the 3-D effects in John Carter were atrocious — no jokes here, I actually liked the movie itself — and, although it added some interesting effects to The Avengers, the 3-D gave me a bit of a headache.
What I learned during my tour of 3ality Technica, though, enlightened me as to why some movies work with 3-D while others (excuse the pun) fall flat. It comes down to two different factors: how the film was created (filmed in 3-D or converted) and how it’s projected (active or passive).
Projection is the front line of 3-D technology. Most theaters are still using light bulb based technology, but new and much brighter laser-based projectors are available. According to Schklair the new laser projectors will be cheaper to upgrade to than buying new bulbs over an older projector’s lifetime. This not only solves the the brightness issue, the brighter projectors will increase the 3-D quality and reduce eyestrain-inducing flicker.
Additionally, the new projectors will allow theaters to move away from active 3-D projection and use passive 3-D technology instead. What’s the big difference? With active 3-D, the heavy lifting of rendering the 3-D effect is with the glasses. They are much bulkier, much more expensive, and much more likely to go out of sync than passive 3-D, thus ruining the stereo effect. With passive 3-D, on the other hand, the work is done by the projector, and simple polarized lenses like sunglasses are all that have to be worn by the viewer. These glasses are cheaper and cause less eye strain than their active counterparts.
Which system you are viewing, though, has nothing to do with the film print, but on the technology used by the specific theater you are sitting in. I saw Harry Potter with passive glasses and enjoyed it greatly. I saw John Carter and The Avengers in active, and was less than impressed.
“My opinion … active is on the way out,” says Schklair. “Many of the manufacturers are dropping it, because the heavy lifting of 3-D is done by the glasses and not the projector or TV. If you want your friends over to watch TV, you have to buy more of those very expensive glasses.” By comparison, glasses for passive technology are relatively inexpensive to buy, much lighter, and don’t have the syncing problem.
So, the projection problem will soon be solved. But many of the films that are put out as “3-D” today have been converted from 2-D — their dimensionality added in post-production. From a filming standpoint, this has made sense: filming in 3-D was not only costly, but added a whole new level of complexity to the already complex filming process. However, this is, in effect, like colorizing a black and white film — you are adding information to the image that was not captured live. No matter how skillfully the post-production is done, it simply can never be as realistic as if it were captured during the original event. It might add some depth, but most of the complaints I hear about flat 3-D are about movies that were converted.
The big problem with filming in 3-D was needing to constantly sync the 3-D cameras and then being able to view the 3-D picture on set. It’s like filming in color, but only previewing it in black and white. To fix this problem, 3ality Technica developed the Stereo Imaging Processor (SIP) technology that adjusts every frame in real time, keeping them in sync and aligned, so that manual realignment is faster and needed less frequently. More importantly, the 3-D can be viewed in real time, without needing post-production to adjust the stereo image. This takes a lot of the pain and expense out of filming directly in 3-D.
Schklair notes that while shooting The Great Gatsby, “the Director, Baz Luhrmann, was determined to use [3-D] to help tell a story. You can’t do that in 2-D, even if you know you are going to convert, because he was looking at the 3-D monitor on set and re-staging to make a better story in 3-D.”
This also means that the technology is here to allow us to broadcast live events in 3-D. The majority of TVs being shipped today are 3-D ready, using the preferable passive technology. In fact, that was the biggest surprise to me during my tour: 3ality Technica’s work is now being used in live broadcast of events, coming down in glorious 3-D. All you need is the glasses. Oh, and, of course, the programming.
In the United States, 3-D TV programming is a novelty at best. In the United Kingdom, however, BSkyB is experimenting with live 3-D sporting events, and broadcasting them in the pubs of London. They have sponsored 3-D nights, with free glasses provided, and according the Schklair, they are constantly sold out: “They even have an iPhone app that lets you locate the closest three pubs playing your game in 3-D based on the GPS data.”
There are still a lot of 3-D haters out there, and I’m not saying they have no reason to distrust 3-D. It’s off to a shaky start, mostly because the technology needed to properly render it has lagged behind the medium’s true capabilities. But the point of 3-D is not just to bring a sense of depth, but to bring us along into the movie, to feel a part of it in us. Bad 3-D makes this feel like a hollow goal, but when you get the good stuff, you’ll never forget it. I’m looking to a summer full of the good stuff.
Learn more about 3Ality Technica at 3alitytechnica.com.