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2-D or not 2-D: Bringing back the 3rd dimension

Created date

March 19th, 2010

When theater managers hung out the posters for Arch Oboler's 3-D feature Bwana Devil in 1952, it ' was as though a new age of cinema had dawned. "A LION in your lap! A Lover in your arms!" Its tag lines leapt from the lobby cards the way the images did from the screen. Film scholars credit the picture as the first color 3-D feature. But it also marked the beginning of the end for mainstream stereoscopic cinema, leading a long line of movies seen more as kitsch than craft. As 3-D entered the realm of motion pictures, the attempts at creating a practical viewing technology proved varied and largely unsuccessful. In the 1890s, British inventor William Friese-Greene patented a system that projected two images alongside each other. The audience used viewers called "stereoscopes," which joined the pictures ' to form ' a single ' three-dimensional image. Other inventors like Edwin S. Porter and Frederick Eugene Ives dabbled in 3-D in the early 1900s; still it wasn't until ' the '20s and '30s that it ' evolved commercially with studios such as MGM. ' The real ' boom hit in the early '50s to sooth the sting of a new rival called television. United Artists responded with its distribution of Bwana Devil. It was a critical disaster. Time called it "a dog." New York Times critic Bosley Crowther dismissed it as "a clumsy try at an African adventure film, photographed in very poor color in what appear to be the California hills." He further described the 3-D experience as "an illusion that fluctuates greatly and is crudely and artlessly used." This "artless" use was one of the reasons for 3-D's rapid commercial demise. The boom that started in 1952 had ' fizzled out ' by 1953. With today's digital projection, however, 3-D is making a comeback, and it's attracting the attention of A-list studios, filmmakers, and audiences. Indeed, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) recently ' drew a staggering $116 million in ' its opening weekend, ' besting James Cameron's Avatar (2009), which earned ' an impressive $77 million. Such figures should come as little surprise to anyone who's ever experienced the new 3-D and, ' in 2007, I had the distinct pleasure of talking with the man largely responsible for bringing ' it to ' theaters around the world Lenny Lipton of RealD. In light of ' their recent success, I thought I'd revisit our conversation, during which ' Lipton ' talked about the formation of the company, how its patented projection system works, and what sets it apart from earlier attempts at three-dimensional cinema. How did RealD come about? The founders of RealD Josh Greer and Michael Lewis both believed there was an opportunity for stereoscopic projection in the theatrical cinema. Lewis had . . . produced IMAX movies in stereo [3-D], and he said they did very well as a return on investment. He realized people liked looking at stereo movies. Josh Greer had been at Walden Media, and he was working with Jim Cameron on ' [his] two IMAX movies [one of which was Ghosts of the Abyss]. About five years ago [around 2002], they began to promote the idea that stereoscopic movies were viable in the theatrical cinema, but they had no technology. They were just promoting the idea out of an office in Beverly Hills. Then they researched the technology, decided that I was the key inventor in the field and that my company, StereoGraphics Corporation, owned the important intellectual property in the field. So we negotiated a licensing agreement for technology that would allow them to use a single digital projector. Five years ago, I wrote an article that appeared in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Journal, which described in complete detail the system that we are presently shipping. It used a component called the ZScreen that I had invented many years ago. I founded the company in 1980 [and] ' created the electronic stereoscopic display industry. Over the years, we sold over 200,000 systems to people in molecular modeling, aerial mapping, CAD, medicine, and in something we called industrial virtual reality, which ' were presentations for managers. We used an electro-optical modulator that I invented in the projection of these presentations. It's called the ZScreen. That's what Greer and Lewis licensed from StereoGraphics to use with RealD. What exactly does the ZScreen do? The ZScreen is an electro-optical modulator that changes the characteristics of projected light. It switches between the left and right images 144 times a second, so you no longer need two projectors to create a stereoscopic picture. I talked to RealD about a business combination because I believed in the stereoscopic cinema, and they found a way to buy StereoGraphics. The sale was contingent upon my becoming a part of RealD, so I'm here now as chief technology officer. Where does RealD fit into the cinema industry? We're a projection company. What we do is make deals with theaters. Our relationships are directly with the exhibitors. We also have a very close relationship with the studios and the filmmakers because it's necessary to get their support. ' One of my jobs is working with their technical teams to make sure that the images they create will look good in our theaters. What is the visual difference that moviegoers notice between RealD and older 3-D? RealD uses polarized light for image selection, so there won't be any retinal rivalry [when the retinas are simultaneously focused on two different images]. When you have the red and blue glasses, you're really looking for trouble. The perception of strain or discomfort when using the red and blue glasses, or anaglyph glasses, is something that some people don't mind and others can't stand. Looking through a red filter with one eye and a blue filter with the other can produce retinal rivalry. For most people, it's not a pleasant experience. I think that the darnedest thing about it is that, in the popular press, the anaglyph glasses are cemented into the consciousness of reporters as the way stereo projection takes place. There's a very deep association with those glasses and the stereoscopic projection medium.  With RealD, we use polarized light, which is neutral. The filters in polarizing glasses are neutral gray. What we're doing is very comfortable. For one thing, ours is the only commercially viable projection system that uses a single projector. You have to understand that throughout the history of motion pictures, there has been no technology that has prevailed in the projection booth that used more than one machine. The RealD projection system depends on only one projector, and it's no harder to project a RealD movie than it is to project a normal movie. Projectionists are scarce in the theatrical motion picture business, so the kid at the candy counter has to be able to work the RealD system. And how does it work? It's easy to set up. It only takes about 45 minutes to convert a conventional theater to a RealD theater. The projector is an existing digital projector. You add the ZScreen, which is mounted to the front of the projector lens and can swing out of the way for conventional 2-D movies. It's a very simple mount. The ZScreen looks like a big, flat filter about six by nine inches. It just rotates out of the way or into the optical path. Then there's an electronics box about the size of a hi-fi tuner. It drives the ZScreen in synchrony with the video field rate. When did RealD take off in terms of theatrical cinema? The first film was Chicken Little in November 2005. We had 89 theaters 85 in the United States, two in Mexico, and two in Canada. Right now, for Meet the Robinsons, we have 704 theaters in 14 countries. There's a U2 concert coming out in September, and for that I think we'll have well over 1,000. In November, there will be Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf. This film is motion-capture CGI [computer-generated imagery] that's photo realistic. No one's ever really seen anything like it, and in 3-D no less. With this technology, are filmmakers still able to shoot on standard Panavision and Arriflex camera systems? They are because something incredible has happened. There are several companies now that can take a 2-D movie and turn it into a 3-D movie. It's labor intensive, and these guys are doing a decent job. One studio is going to be using this sort of production pipeline. They're shooting a movie that's going to be release in 3-D, but they're shooting a lot of it in 2-D. There's a company in Canada called Conversion Works. There's a company near L.A. called In-Three, and another called Sassoon. How do filmmakers produce a 3-D movie? The main way to produce stereoscopic movies that's been used with Monster House, Meet the Robinsons, and Chicken Little is computer-generated imagery (CGI). This is because CGI productions intrinsically use a 3-D database. Ultimately, the entire filmmaking pipeline will have to undergo changes and modifications for stereo from production design to projection. Actually, the most perfected parts of it are projection and CGI production. Up until now, the movies that have been released on RealD screens have primarily been planar [2-D] movies. The stereo has been an afterthought. There's been a paradigm shift in the business over the past few months. People are now articulating the following thought: "Let's make a 3-D movie from the get-go, and that will be the primary mission. The 2-D version will come out of that." That's what DreamWorks is doing. All of their future movies are going to be in 3-D, and they're designing them to be in 3-D from the start. They're creating a 3-D pipeline. How much does it cost? It can cost millions of dollars to convert a feature, but if you've got something like Titanic that you want to release in 3-D, what's $20 million if you think you're going to make hundreds of millions at the box office. The studios are going back and looking at their libraries. They're going to look at it in terms of the present audience and cherry pick. Just imagine Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones. Do you think the days of 2-D films are numbered? The only way to answer that question and not look like a fool is to look at historical precedent. There are certain characteristics of the introduction of technology that give you ' a handle on what's going on. The introduction of sound and the introduction of wide screen are interesting. You have to look at what happened financially and what happened creatively. When sound was introduced, there was a period of confusion and experimentation. The silent cinema had created an art form that consisted of pantomime, montage, and the reading of title cards. It was universal in the sense that language was almost irrelevant because title cards could be inserted for different markets. The theaters were able to charge more with the introduction of sound. They had made a capital investment in sound equipment, which in those days was very costly. This took a few years to unfold and required a significant investment on the part of the studios and the exhibitors. There's still one theater that shows silent movies just a couple of miles from here, but this is Hollywood. Out of the 135,000 screens in the world, who would go to a silent movie? People don't do it. Maybe that argues that with the introduction of the stereoscopic cinema, it will prevail and become ubiquitous. With the introduction of sound, color, and wide-screen, that's what happened. You can't go to the movies and see anything in the Edison aspect ration, and you can't go to the movies and see black-and-white movies, and if you do, it's rare. I think there's a strong likelihood that the same thing will happen for the stereoscopic cinema. I think you can argue ' based on historical precedent that ' the stereoscopic cinema will ascend and, in a matter of a few years, take the place of the conventional theater. The movies in our theaters do three times better than 2-D movies. These are industry figures. Meet the Robinsons, which was released about six weeks ago, immediately reestablished that pattern. Out of 3,500 theaters, 600 in the United States were stereo and those theaters all did about three times better than the planar theaters. [By 2009 estimates, there are about 8,000 RealD screens in theaters worldwide.] How have theaters responded to RealD? They're happy. They've learned that the system is dependable and reliable, and it produces very good results. People can tip their heads any way and still see a good picture.