3-D Film Goes Mainstream

Animated characters Russell, left, and Carl Fredricksen are shown in a scene from the film "Up."
AP Photo/Disney/Pixar
The rise of 3-D technology for movies and television will force a change in how directors tell stories.

Say goodbye to gut-wrenching drops off cliffs and swoops through asteroid fields to call attention to 3-D effects. Be prepared for directors to use slower pans, less cutting, and more deliberate camera moves to blend the technology into the story. These new 3-D movies may look boring in 3-D, but they'll end up feeling more engaging when seen in three dimensions.

Think 3-D is a gimmick and that professional cinematographers and television directors don't take it seriously? Financials dispute this. 3-D films in 3-D theaters gross two to five times what the 3-D versions of those films do, according to people in the 3-D business, like Sandy Climan, CEO of 3ality. Commercials in 3-D also yield better recall rates. And it's not just the novelty factor. If so, the trend would have faded. Grosses for 3-D films are growing.

"The family movie business has largely moved to 3-D," Climan continues, pointing to films like "Journey to the Center of the Earth," "Coraline," and "Up" - the last two having being taken far more seriously than standard 3-D matinee fare. On the grownup front, Climan says that for sports and concerts, there's nothing like the 3-D movie or TV experience. The upcoming James Cameron film, "Avatar" is a 3-D production and is expected to be a watershed for mainstream 3-D entertainment.

How do you zoom?

If you accept that 3-D on-screen entertainment is a growth market, how do you create the content for it? Companies like 3ality and another 3-D video technology company, 3DTV Solutions, will deliver camera systems for you, but they don't direct your shows. Using the technology effectively requires a new art.

Isabelle de Montagu of 3DTV told me, "If you are looking at 3-D it is because you want to be as close to reality as possible." That means, she said, you need to write more realistic shooting scripts. Using 3-D primarily for special effects is counterproductive. "The brain doesn't get it," de Montagu says.

The purpose of 3-D has to be to render reality. You can push a viewer's willing suspension of disbelief quite far in a 3-D show, since we've been trained to "read" movies and accept unreal conventions, like zooming and cutting. But in 3-D, if you push it too far, you break the illusion. The viewer has to feel like they're in real life.

And that means no reliance on many standard cinematic methods, including zooming and cutting back and forth between people talking to each other. The viewer can get confused, even physically sick if you immerse them in a world that's constantly shifting. "You don't zoom in real life," says Tuyen Pham, CEO of the 3-D sounds company A-Volute's. And if you do rapid-fire cuts and move the sound stage around the audience with the visuals, he says, plainly, "You will get sick."

Climan says, "In 3-D, you move the camera to create a sense of motion. In 3-D, you leave the camera since the audience is in the middle of things. You need to have many fewer camera moves. In sports, you just leave the camera in a low position, and you feel like you're on the field. You have a much more clear view of the players in 3-D due to the dimensionality."

Climan also says that educating a film crew to shoot for 3-D is not terribly difficult. To turn out an episode of "Chuck," in 3-D, he says, it took about one and a half days to get "the 3-D crew" adjusted to the new medium. "They didn't miss a beat."

However, while a film shot for 3-D might play fine on 3-D equipment, it clearly won't feel as engaging if displayed in 3-D as a show shot for the old-fashioned flat medium, with its jump cuts and zooms and sweeping pans. So directors will have to make a choice of primary format or shoot things twice. In big sports events, Climan says, "there will be a director for 3-D and a director for 3-D."

(Personally, I hope no video, movie, or game ever gets released without a 3-D version alongside it, since I'm one of the small percentage of people - about 7 percent, I'm told - whose eyes and brain don't process true 3-D correctly. Every 3-D demo I have ever seen either looks like double vision to me, makes me queasy, or both.)

Anyone who's watched 3-D content knows that the technology to play it is evolving, to put it kindly.

"The good stuff requires glasses," Climan says, which makes the at-home experience troubling. Who wants to walk to the fridge wearing glass that make the real world look odd (which they do)? But there are technologies coming out that get us part of the way there without it.

The 3DTV team showed me a demo using another company's monitor with a lenticular grating on it ("It puts the glasses on the screen," CEO Didier Debons said) that gave what appeared to me a decent 3-D experience without requiring that I wear glasses. However, to support this and all the other 3-D technologies, the company's camera system has eight lenses on a horizontal mount, not the usual two lenses most people think of when they imagine a steroscopic camera rig.

The 3-D audio technology by A-Volute does not require any special equipment at the listener's location, and is quite remarkable. Using signal processing and a model of how the inner ear, outer ear, and a person's head changes the shape of the sound the ear hears and that the brain translates into positional information, it can play, over ordinary stereo speakers and without relying on bouncing sounds off walls, sounds that you will swear are coming from behind you or above you.

The demo I heard made my jaw drop. The technology can add positional cues to sounds in real-time, making it useful not just for movies and TV shows, but for games and for military and transportation applications as well.

3-D is still seen as gimmick by most consumers, but it's becoming more mainstream. That means content producers and artists will be thinking about 3-D content more in the near future: Not just how to have it call attention to itself, but rather how to have 3-D fade, as it were, into the background of the storytelling.
By Rafe Needleman