Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 11:08 UK

Cinema's third attempt at 3D

Monsters vs Aliens

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

" It comes off the screen right at you! ", screamed the poster for the 1953 schlock-horror film The House Of Wax 3D.

Audiences, filled with anticipation for the first major studio 3D movie, flocked to cinemas to see the ghoulish spectacle of.... a man bouncing a paddleball into their faces.

This gimmicky showboating set a template for 3D cinema which endured through the medium's two big boom periods in the 1950s and 1980s.

Films like Andy Warhol's visceral Frankenstein 3D brought "horror right into your lap", while the sixth instalment of Nightmare On Elm Street splattered viewers with Freddy Kreuger's bloody entrails.

Bwana Devil, released the same year as House Of Wax, went so far as to ask the question: "What do you want? A good picture, or a lion in your lap?"

It turned out to be the former. Audiences dismissed 3D as a cheap parlour trick... if they hadn't already been put off by the poor image quality, headaches or nausea.

It's an experience people can only have in the theatre
Lisa Stewart, producer, Monsters vs Aliens

So why have some of Hollywood's biggest names suddenly gone crazy for the technique?

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are filming the Tintin trilogy in 3D; Animation giant Pixar is retooling Toy Stories 1 & 2 with added depth; and James Cameron is making his first feature film since Titanic in full 3D.

"There's a great pioneering wave of filmmakers who are looking at this technology and saying, 'wow, that's got huge potential,'" says Daniel Glennon of the Odeon cinema chain.

"The advances in the technology are staggering," agrees Mark Dinning, editor of movie magazine Empire. "It's so much more sophisticated now."

The original picture is filmed by two cameras at different angles. A 3D projector projects two images: from one angle... ...and from another angle. The two images are projected sequentially by a digital projector, and overlap on the screen. Polarised light reflects off a specially treated 'silver' screen Special glasses allow only one of the images into each eye as each lens has a different polarisation. The brain interprets the image in 3D

To the audience, the main change is aesthetic - those cheesebucket red-and-green glasses have been replaced by cool, durable Aviator-style shades.

But the real breakthrough has been in digital projection. Cinema staff no longer have the tricky task of positioning and synchronising two projectors - one for each eye.

3D glasses
The old-style glasses (modelled by David Tennant) have been updated

Nowadays, 3D films arrive on a 500GB hard drive while a special adapter fits onto the front of a single projector to separate the left and right images.

The lack of moving parts gives the film extra clarity, and helps to eliminate migraines and motion sickness, explains Nik Blair, technical manager for Odeon Greenwich.

"If you have a traditional 35mm projector, you've got motors running, you've got belts running, there's cogs and there's film being pulled through it - so, with all the good will in the world, you will always get some picture shake.

"But 3D is picture perfect. It's absolutely stable."

The system used by Odeon, Real D, flashes up every frame of film three times for each eye - a total of 144 images per second. The company says this provides "a more comfortable" watch.

And cinemagoers seem to be enticed by the promise of a new, more immersive experience.

Coraline
Fantasy fable Coraline was filmed in 3D using stop-motion models

Animation Monsters vs Aliens, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Hugh Laurie, took $58m (£40m) at the US box office last weekend - the biggest opening of the year to date.

"I think that if you use it wisely, 3D does nothing but enhance your storytelling," says the film's producer, Lisa Stewart.

"In the beginning, we were very nervous and hesitant," admits director Conrad Vernon. "We said: 'Our story deserves more than just to be overrun by a gimmick.'"

"So we went in and we learned how to use it the same way a filmmaker would use colour to create a mood, or sound to create an emotion up on the screen. We used 3D to do that."

Having said that, Monsters vs Aliens does feature a character bouncing - yes, you guessed it - a paddleball into your face.

But a set piece battle on the Golden Gate Bridge gains an epic sense of scale as the monsters clash and debris falls all around the theatre.

'Remarkably real'

Forthcoming stop-motion animation Coraline also uses 3D to great effect, allowing the viewer a greater appreciation of the film's intricately hand-crafted models.

"There's no denying we designed the film so that the best way to see it is in 3D," says director Henry Selick, whose previous work includes the classic Nightmare Before Christmas.

Jeffery Katzenberg
You can't camcorder 3D
Jeffery Katzenberg, president, Dreamworks Animation

"It really shows off the strengths of stop-frame animation. It's remarkably real."

Selick is a complete convert to the process, saying all of his future films will be in 3D - despite the fact it lengthens an already laborious process.

It is impossible to "get the cameras close enough together" to capture two images of his tiny puppets at once, he admits.

"So, we actually shoot one frame, and the camera and lens shift over to shoot the other eye. Left eye first, right eye next. It slows it a little, it costs a little, but it doesn't really add more labour."

At a time when companies around the world are tightening their belts, you might expect studio executives to balk at the extra expenditure (between 5-10%) needed to go 3D - but there are financial benefits to the technology.

Last weekend, Monsters v Aliens was shown on 5,000 regular screens and 2,100 3D ones - yet the 3D cinemas were responsible for 56% of box office receipts.

Higher ticket prices are partly responsible, but the wider implication is that the novelty of 3D persuaded viewers to get off their sofas.

Monsters vs Aliens on the screen
Polarised glasses separate the two images on screen, so the viewer sees a separate picture with each eye

"It's an experience people can only have in the theatre," says Stewart. "A movie like ours is a group experience; it's a fun thing to watch with 300 people."

"In the first shot, when the film burns out and you see all the rocks in space, hearing the whole audience go 'woaaaah!' is fun," chimes in Vernon.

What's more, 3D films pose a challenge to the black market.

"Ninety per cent [of piracy] is due to someone taking a camera into a movie theatre," Jeffery Katzenberg, president of DreamWorks Animation told CNN.

"You can't camcorder 3D. So the by-product of this is that it will have some serious implications about that."

Garnish

However, there are some downsides for the viewer. The polarization process that creates the illusion of 3D results in a darker image on the screen, making films less vibrant.

And some filmgoers - those with monocular vision, for instance - cannot perceive the added dimension. (Ironically, The House Of Wax 3D's director Andre De Toth, was one of them.)

Something like The Reader is just not going to gain anything by being in 3D
Daniel Glennon, Odeon

Even proponents of the technique admit it is a garnish, not the main course.

"We've watched our movie in 2D a thousand times and we've watched in in 3D a thousand times," says Monsters vs Aliens' Lisa Stewart.

"It's a slightly different experience, but the jokes are still funny in 2D and the action is still exciting in 2D and the characters are still engaging in 2D."

"If you look at the biggest film this year," notes Odeon's Daniel Glennon, "it's Slumdog Millionaire, which is not a 3D film.

"And something like The Reader is just not going to gain anything by being in 3D, so I think there'll be room for both side-by-side."

But with more than 30 3D films in the Hollywood pipeline, including Pixar's Up and Disney's Tron 2.0, it will be increasingly hard to escape the journey into the third dimension.

Which can only be good news for actors who play paddleball.



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