A 3D Revival

But 3D wasn't ready for the grave quite yet. A second wave in the 80s fed off Hollywood's fear of the new VCR and the public's desire for Lucas/Spielberg-style spectacle. The technology had matured; polarised lenses and filters were back, but now the film could be shown on a single projector, with the 35mm frame divided in half and the left-eye's frame placed above the right-eye frame on the screen. Sadly, the likes of Jaws 3D, Friday the 13th Part 3 3D and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone were still obsessed with 'spear through the screen' gimmicks, and many viewers still found the effect unrealistic or - worse - uncomfortable. Again, 3D looked like a non-starter.

Yet in the last few years the winds have changed. Family friendly 3D movies, like Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3D and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, have proved that 3D can pull a younger audience into the cinema. Digital projection systems, more precise and able to run at faster frame rates than the old analogue equivalents, take some of the hard work out of showing and distributing 3D. The rise of CG animation, meanwhile, has been a real boon for 3D. Not only is it easier to render a stereoscopic image than it is to shoot it, but the high resolution and stable lighting of CG makes it ideal for 3D projection.

Crucially, the combination of 3D and CGI has proved a major draw with audiences. The standard 2D version of Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express made an average of $3,332 per screen in its opening weekend in the US, but the IMAX 3D version racked up over $35,000 per screen - over ten times the box-office take. It seems that cinemagoers were willing to pay extra for the big 3D experience, and an underperforming Christmas hit became an annual phenomenon as a result. Subsequent 3D movies, including Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and the adult-oriented Beowulf have only confirmed 3D's appeal.

There are other technical improvements, most to do with the shift to an all-digital production cycle. Filming in 3D used to be difficult, and - in pure film costs - prohibitively expensive. Even the dual 70mm analogue cameras that have been used to shoot IMAX 3D movies are huge, noisy and unwieldy. As the industry increasingly standardises around 2K (2048 x 1152) and 4K (4520 x 2540) digital video cameras, these problems disappear. You can shoot 3D digital video using a handheld device and the main expense becomes the additional time and effort taken to process two sets of high-resolution images in post-production. And while it was impossible to check the 3D effect with film until the negatives had been developed, digital techniques allow the director to see the effects in real-time, even while they're shooting.

Above all else, 3D fits in well with the current Hollywood agenda. First, it gives us something we can't currently get on our new 42in, 1080p LCD and plasma TVs and HD sound systems in the home. We have a reason to leave the house and go back to the cinema once more. Secondly, it's a technology that works hand in hand with new digital projection and distribution methods. If you're upgrading a cinema to digital, it's not a huge additional investment to upgrade some auditoria to 3D. Thirdly, and this is crucial - 3D films are hard to pirate. The majority of dodgy DVDs still begin with a guy in a cinema with a camcorder. Because a 3D film consists of two images which need lenses and a brain to process, it's difficult, if not impossible, to turn that camcorder footage into something usable. Given the choice, most of us would rather watch a stunning cinematic presentation of a movie than a poor-quality torrent or dodgy DVD, but 3D means there isn't a choice. If you want to see the movie, the cinema will be the only place where you can do so.

comments powered by Disqus