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The Sunday Times (23/Sep/2007) - Reach out and touch

(c) The Sunday Times (23/Sep/2007)

Digital 3-D is the great green and red hope for cinema's future - but haven't we seen it all before, asks Christopher Goodwin

Earlier this year, four titans of cinema swooped into Las Vegas for the annual ShoWest convention of American cinema owners and managers. The four -- George Lucas, director of Star Wars; James Cameron, director of Titanic; Robert Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump; and Robert Rodriguez, director of Sin City and Once upon a Time in Mexico -- were there to tub-thump for a technology most thought had died around the time the Russians put dogs in space: 3-D.

These directors -- dubbed "digital cinema's Fantastic Four" by the film trade paper Variety -- were later joined in their proselytising for the revived technology by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation. Katzenberg announced that, in the future, all the studio's animated films, including its first, highly anticipated 3-D blockbuster, Monsters vs Aliens, would be made and released in 3-D. Katzenberg also predicted that "a significant percentage of mainstream films will be made and exhibited in this format" by 2009. Monsters vs Aliens will be out in May 2009 -a big month in the 3-D calendar, as it also sees the release of the $200m sci-fi adventure Avatar, Cameron's first feature since Titanic became the highest-grossing film of all time and won 11 Oscars a decade ago. Cameron said that watching films in 3-D was an "incredibly powerful experience", and that he believed Hollywood should make "more digital 3-D movies as a way of luring people back into cinemas and reducing piracy".

"As the public's home television and sound systems get better and better, what is the reason they have to go to the movies?" asks Jon Landau, Cameron's producing partner. "3-D is one of those things people will come out in droves to see. From the big scale to the small: if you have somebody on their deathbed, and an intimate moment, you are much better off dropping the barrier of the screen and putting the audience in that moment, putting it in 3-D."

Since then, two more of the world's biggest film-makers -- Steven Spielberg, director of ET and Schindler's List, and Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, have announced that they are joining forces in 3-D. They will bring three of Herge's Tintin comic books to the screen in 3-D. To convince Spielberg that the new technology would work, Jackson's New Zealand-based digital studio produced a 20-minute show reel that apparently stunned the veteran director.

"Herge's characters have been reborn as living beings, expressing emotion and a soul, which goes far beyond anything we've seen to date with computer-animated characters," Spielberg says. "We want Tintin's adventures to have the reality of a live-action film, yet Peter and I felt that shooting them in a traditional live-action format would simply not honour the distinctive look of the characters and world that Herge created."

By using full digital 3-D performance-capture technology, the film-makers hope to stay true to the original drawings without making the characters look cartoonish.

"We're making them look photorealistic -- the fibres of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair,"

Jackson explains. "They look exactly like real people, but real Herge people."

Although several films using the new technology have been put out in recent years, including Monster House, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the first of the new breed of 3-D films to have anything like a huge release will be the animated epic Beowulf, directed by Zemeckis, which will be released worldwide from the middle of November. A number of other big-budget 3-D movies in production will also be released between now and 2009, including a live-action film, a remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Even by the end of this year, however, only about 1,000 cinemas worldwide will have been converted to screen 3-D, and few of them will be in Britain. By 2009, it is expected that 5,000 screens worldwide will have gone over to 3-D, most in the USA, with a couple of hundred in the UK. It won't be cheap: it can cost as much as $100,000 to install the digital projectors and apply a special coating to the screen.

The first 3-D movies were released in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1950s that the industry briefly looked to 3-D for its salvation. Hollywood was desperate to find something, anything, to fight back against television, which had stolen half its audience in less than a decade. But the films produced in 3-D weren't hits.

They included action adventures such as Bwana Devil (1952), the first colour 3-D movie, about man-eating lions attacking the builders of the East Africa railway; horrors such as House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price; and the sci-fi adventure It Came from Outer Space (1953).

Yet some serious film-makers, including Alfred Hitchcock, who was always looking for interesting technical challenges, also tried 3-D. He used it in [[Dial M for Murder[[ (1954). The film has lots of low-angle shots, with lamps and other objects placed between the audience and the characters to highlight the intense depth of field of 3-D. The film provided perhaps the most effective use of 3-D in any movie, in the famous scissor scene, when Grace Kelly desperately reaches back -- apparently right back into the audience -- trying to grasp a pair of scissors that is just out of her reach, as she fends off her would-be murderer.

There were 3-D revivals, the most significant coming in the early 1980s, with horrors such as Amityville 3-D and Friday the 13th Part III. Andy Warhol experimented with 3-D in Flesh for Frankenstein, directed by Paul Morrissey. And a number of 3-D porn films also came out, some of which, such as The Stewardesses, were relatively successful.

Yet 3-D was never more than a gimmick, and the technology was not perfected. The most common problem was that because two prints had to be projected simultaneously, they were often out of sync, which made the films unwatchable.

Audiences also found wearing the flimsy red and green cardboard spectacles that allowed 3-D simulation annoying and tiring on the eyes.

The new digital 3-D technology is different. Images are captured in much the same way -two cameras film the same shot -- but they are projected differently. The old way was to project the two films from the separate projectors simultaneously, so that, through the glasses, each eye would see a different set of moving images. The brain would merge these stereoscopic pictures, giving the illusion of 3-D depth. Digital technology developed by Real D, the most important company behind the 3-D explosion, merges the two films so they can be screened with just one projector.

That projector shifts between images for the left and right eyes so quickly -- 144 times a second -- that the brain can't detect the motion. The new polarising glasses look and feel much more like ordinary sunglasses, too. Spielberg is even patenting a 3-D system, based on plasma screens, that will not require people to wear glasses at all.

So, has 3-D's time finally come? Hollywood's biggest players are convinced it has, putting their reputations on the line for a technology once written off as being as gimmicky as Smell-O-Vision. As Katzenberg says: "I believe 3-D is the single greatest opportunity for the movie-going experience since the advent of colour."