Do not adjust your sets

Ian Robertson and Leon Weber report on the past, present and future of 3D technology in cinema

What do Japanese citizen Tomoji Tanabe and cinema have in common? They were both born in 1895 and are still going strong. It has been 114 years since the French Lumière brothers made the first ever film, and since then the technology of cinema has evolved dramatically, from the advent of the colour feature length in 1918, to the first use of synchronised sound in 1927’s The Jazz Singer. The 1950s brought widescreen technology, and 1990s achieved significant advances in computer-generated effects.

The biggest technological innovations in recent times have been in 3D cinema. Surprisingly, 3D technology was invented in the 1920s by Britain’s William Friese Green, but like widescreen and colour, was not commonly introduced until the industry saw a profitable market for it.

It’s history and popularity has certainly been hesitant. In the 1920s, 3D was mainly used in B-movie production, and merely considered a gimmick. The technology itself was underdeveloped, with washed out colours, and it had a nauseating effect on some audiences, causing headaches and vomiting.

However, modern 3D runs much faster, at 144 frames per second, and has a much smoother image through the use of ‘triple flash technique’, which shows each frame three times, rather than once. New three-dimensional technology is therefore less likely to create nausea — but nevertheless, this still ultimately depends on an individual’s tolerance for the technology.

In general, it could be said that these recent technological improvements have made 3D cinema more popular than ever. The 90s saw nature documentaries and short animated films capitalising from the 3D experience and theme parks and museums screened 3D films on IMAX screens reaching a gigantic eight stories high, but whilst these exhibitions offer an impressive spectacle, the emphasis is not on the film’s narrative.

At the turn of the century a number of feature length narrative films attempted to integrate 3D technology into the storyline. The 3D IMAX versions of Beowulf and The Polar Express are examples of such; the latter earning more than fourteen times the box office revenue compared to its 2D counterpart. Bolt and Monsters vs Aliens are recent examples of fully computer generated 3D films that have drawn in large audiences.

This year My Bloody Valentine took another technological step forward by being one of the first successful live action 3D films. The film was poorly written and executed, but it was a big box office success, grossing seven million pounds in the UK, only one million less than the Oscar Winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. My Bloody Valentine may have lacked an engaging story, but it proved that 3D cinema makes for a lucrative market.

The film industry is sensing this extraordinary demand for 3D cinema, and is investing large sums of money into the technology. Cineworld has installed many 3D film projector in their cinemas across the UK, and during this year’s Superbowl, 150 million Americans where given 3D glasses to watch the Monsters vs Alien trailer on TV. Do the advantages offered by 3D justify Hollywood going to such great lengths?

Not only are ticket prices higher than for regular 2D films, but increasing problems involving movie piracy mean three dimensional images also serve as a convenient protection against illegal recording. 3D movies need to be watched with 3D glasses and cannot be recorded by a camera without blurring the image considerably. And, cynicism aside, there remains the romantic idea of Hollywood’s everlasting pursuit for a more entertaining cinema experience.

While 3D is popular with Hollywood and audiences alike, what if its technology and popularity has already reached its peak? Director James Cameron sees 3D as a format for the future rather than a fleeting novelty. He has already set a technological milestone in 1991, when Terminator 2 revolutionised special effects and he believes that he can do it again, in 3D. Cameron’s new film Avatar — his first since Titanic, in 1997 — will be released worldwide at the end of 2009 and is considered one of the most anticipated films of this year, not only because of the twelve years since his work was last seen on screen, but also thanks to the film’s 300 million dollar budget; money largely spent investing in creating an allegedly new and overwhelming 3D experience.

Set 200 years in the future, Avatar tells the story of an ex-marine sent on a mission to exploit the resources of an exotic planet, where he encounters its hostile inhabitants who fear for their survival. Cameron seems keener on revealing information about the film’s technology rather than its story: not only will the boundaries between CGI and actual footage be blurred entirely, to create one seemingly real universe, but the director also developed his own 3D camera which will, apparently, take the three dimensional images to another level of realism.

While the prospect of these new technological advances and the trend cinema is taking towards a three-dimensional future is certainly exciting, it is uncertain how exactly people will react. A main concern is whether 3D will complement the narrative in a shared effort to draw the audience into the film, or whether the accentuation of the technology will alienate us from it.

Supposing that 3D will be widely popular among filmgoers, will we have to get accustomed to wearing glasses on every trip to the cinema, even to see a romantic comedy? For the answer to this question, and the question of 3D’s future, we’ll have to wait for the release of the biggest three-dimensional venture to date. At 1.2 million dollars per minute to build, render and execute Avatar, it could either be a major financial debacle or the advent of a new cinema-going experience. Either way it will mark a pivotal moment in the long history of 3D cinema.


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