Hollywood moviemakers have been fascinated by 3D features for more than five decades now. If it can leap off the screen and land in your lap it has probably been shot, whether in a sci-fi shocker of the 1950s like It Came From Outer Space, an experimental film of the 1970s like Flesh for Frankenstein, a tacky sequel of the 1980s like Friday the 13th Part 3 or a popular CG release of the new millennium like Meet the Robinsons. Over the past few years, however, there has been a huge increase in the production of 3D films. More than a half-dozen live-action and a dozen computer animated 3D films are currently in the studio pipelines—with more to come.

One reason for this surge in development is the availability of state-of-the-art digital technology. “It was always possible to show 3D, but never possible to show it in a reliable manner,” says Eric Brevig, an Oscar-nominated visual effects artist and director of this summer’s Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, the first live-action narrative feature to be shot and released in digital stereoscopic 3D. “It’s a convergence of technology,” he says. The problems of former 3D imaging simply no longer exist.

Originally, 3D movies used anaglyph color filters: Projected images were made up of two color layers, superimposed on the screen, but offset. The audience wore glasses containing a red lens and a blue lens to see a three-dimensional perception of these images. Though moderately successful, this technique caused severe eye strain after short periods of time as viewers’ eyes needed to adjust to each shot.

Polarized technology came next: Two different linearly-polarized images were projected onto a specially designed silver screen. The light that reached the viewer’s eyes was then filtered by linearly-polarized eyeglass lenses. Each eye would see only one of the two images, creating a 3D effect. The problem here is that if the head was tilted, double-imaging would result as the correct viewing angle was thrown off.

Today, however, digital projectors available on Projectors Land have revolutionized modern-day stereoscopic 3D cinema. Two adjacent cameras shoot a left eye and a right eye. With Real D Cinema, these images are shown using a single projector that alternately projects the right-eye frame and left-eye frame, circularly polarizing them through a liquid crystal screen placed in front of the projector lens. Circularly-polarized eyeglasses make sure each of the viewer’s eyes sees only its own image, even if the head is tilted. A high frame rate makes the image look seamless.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

“It’s eyestrain-free,” notes Brevig. “The magic of 3D without the downside.” Not only is the effect superior, but projecting the image is simple. This makes theater owners more willing to install digital projectors. “The guy making the popcorn can turn on the machine,” continues Brevig. So far, there are more than 1,000 screens in America using digital projection with 3D capabilities. That number is expected to quadruple in the next few years.

Lately, “resistance by theater owners is not there,” says Chris Condon, cinematographer, producer and renowned 3D pioneer who has been developing products for 3D technology since the early 1950s. “Projection is so simple.” Plus, in the early days of 3D movies, theaters were obligated to buy large quantities of non-reusable glasses to show their films. Even at less than $.10 a pair, costs added up. Today, glasses are reusable and much more comfortable. Condon remembers a time, however, when he visited Russia years ago to view a new 3D technology that didn’t require glasses at all. “The problem was, you had to hold your head completely still. Half an inch one way or the other, the picture went in reverse.”

Eric Brevig

One of the areas that does need work is in post-production, which still takes place in a two-dimensional world. This means a director has to wait until a section of his or her film is edited before it can be examined in 3D. Several companies, however, are developing 3D editing systems. The dilemma then will be training enough people on how to use them to meet demand.

A second reason why 3D features have become popular again has to do with the entertainment habits of the consumer. “The industry needs something spectacular that they can’t get at home,” says Condon.

Today, more and more people are buying home theaters with large, high-definition televisions and superior surround sound. It gets closer and closer to the feel of a real movie theater. This worries studios as to whether people will venture out to the theater when they can watch a DVD on a great system at home. But as Brevig points out, “Today’s 3D can’t be reproduced. It’s an experience that can only be had with a 30-foot movie screen.”

The invasion of new home viewing equipment has been a similar catalyst for the cyclical proliferation of 3D films since their inception. In the early 1950s, television first became popular. Studios feared viewers would forgo buying a movie ticket if they could get similar entertainment at home for free; hence the need for something new to lure audiences away from the small box.

The 1980s were no different as VCRs landed in everyone’s living room. Again, studios feared consumers would pass on the price of a movie ticket and wait to rent the film at home. Once more, an influx of 3D films hit the market.

This time, however, Brevig believes that 3D will become a trend and not a fad. He thinks the current technology is just too good. “People won’t stop making 2D films, but 3D is a powerful tool,” he says. “It can enhance a good story instead of being a gimmick. But the 3D moment must be organic.” Brevig felt that Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D was perfect subject matter for a live-action 3D movie. “It’s a big, fun adventure film—the story of characters on a journey seeing sights never seen before. The audience goes along for the journey.” But he also points out, “We did a test audience in 2D and it was completely successful as well.” The movie was shot with an HD digital camera system that used two side-by-side cameras. Shot both on location and in sound stages, dailies were viewed on a 30-foot screen with two projectors.

U2 3D

The expense of producing a live-action movie in 3D can be up to 25 percent more than in 2D. The biggest cost increase is that all visual effects need to be done twice, once for each eye. “We had 800 visual effects shots,” says Brevig. “That’s a significant amount [of money].” Many theaters, however, charge a premium of up to 20 percent for screening a film in 3D, so the money is often made back. Disney’s recent 3D film, Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert, earned more than $65 million domestically on only 683 digital 3D screens.

Condon, who produced the 1969 skin flick The Stewardesses, one of the highest grossing live-action 3D films of all time, points out that sometimes shooting a 3D movie can actually save money. “You can’t have rapid cuts; you have to make them longer or you won’t see them in 3D,” he says. This can save you money when planning your shots. Condon too believes that 3D movies are here to stay, though he notes, “They’ve always been popular; commercially active is different.” Even during the slow times, he says, they’ve been popular at theme parks (Captain EO, T2 3D), where they’ve played continuously.

So far, the success of digital 3D has been overwhelming. Movies such as Chicken Little, Beowulf, Hannah Montana and U2 3D have already been released, as well as a live theatrical projection in Dallas of an NBA game between the Mavericks and Clippers. Other live-action films in the pipeline include James Cameron’s Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Disney’s sequel, Step-Up 3D.

Will 3D moviemaking ever be available to the independent moviemaker? “It’s possible, but I don’t recommend it,” admits Brevig. “Hire someone on the set to do the stereo photography.” He points out that while there may only be a handful of people who really know how to use the new technology, not everyone wanting to make a 3D movie needs to be an expert. “You do need training if you want to do this at an optimal level,” Condon adds. But he also recognizes that with the “big names” behind it, whatever shortcomings there are will be corrected. Plus, the advent of digital stereoscopic 3D does not mean the death of the former polarized method.

“For lower budget, there’s big opportunity to shoot in the styles of the 1970s and 1980s,” notes Condon. Many theaters exist around the country that still have silver screens, and optical attachments for projectors can still be rented.

Whether the current wave of 3D films is a growing trend or merely another fad remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Over the next few years, something will be leaping off the screen at a theater near you. MM