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Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 12:58 UK

3D cinema makes a fresh comeback

By Spencer Kelly
Presenter, BBC Click


How our eyes see 3D

This year is seeing a comeback for 3D cinema, with every major film studio releasing a title in the format.

Even the Cannes Film Festival showed its support to the industry by allowing a 3D feature to open the event for the first time.

The film selected was Disney and Pixar's latest release called Up, which is just one of 15 movies in 3D coming out in 2009.

It is the story of a widower who ties a thousand balloons to his house and flies away on an adventure.

The House Of Wax
The House Of Wax released in 1953 was the first major studio film in 3D

Other forthcoming releases cover genres from family friendly animations such as Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs to adult horror in My Bloody Valentine.

But the most anticipated 3D release is due at the end of the year from Titanic director James Cameron.

Avatar is expected to be the most expensive movie ever made - Cameron has spent much of the past decade researching and experimenting with the technique.

"You can look at a 2D version of a 3D film and see all the dumb gags that were fun in 3D but look stupid in 2D.

"Before we spent hundreds of millions of dollars making a movie, we had to say is this movie going to be in any way compromised in its 2D presentation. Because the reality is that in the short-tem DVDs are still going to be in 2D.

Hollywood is starting to catch up now that the technology is finally right for a third era of 3D.

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

The technique has come a long way since the first experiments in 1915. Although, it was not until the 1950s that Hollywood tried it out on audiences threatening to be kept away by their televisions.

The horror film The House Of Wax released in 1953 was the first major studio 3D feature ever to come out.

It was shown using two separate projectors to create one double image, and by running two separate rolls of film.

But audiences were put off by wobbly images which caused motion sickness and made them feel ill.

The technique made a comeback in the 70s and 80s, possibly as a reaction to falling audiences at the time when home video was becoming popular.

Why James Cameron took a gamble on 3D

People donned red and blue anaglyph glasses to watch the shark in Jaws burst out of the screen.

Despite the depth with anaglyph being good, the colour was severely compromised, so more technological development was needed.

Today 3D is trying to combat a more modern threat to box office takings posed by illegal movie downloads.

But the technology is much more sophisticated than in the past - the installation of digital projectors in cinemas means sharper and steadier images.

Also, animated movies in the format are not made with real cameras - the technique can be achieved simply by telling a computer to create each shot from two different angles.

While live action features can be filmed in 3D thanks to new dual-lens digital cameras that capture two viewpoints.

American company 3ality Digital has developed this technology to film commercials, music concerts and sporting events.

Dual-lens camera
New dual-lens digital cameras are able to capture two viewpoints

The cameras also link to specially-developed software, which corrects any small variation between the lenses on the fly to minimise audience discomfort.

Steve Schklair, the CEO of 3ality Digital Systems, explained that 21st Century 3D is about using subtle and immersive techniques, rather than eye-popping gimmicks.

"We use colour to help tell a story, we use shape, and we use line. We do a lot of things when we are making movies to make the audience feel certain ways," he said.

He added that associating characters with certain depths could be a new way of bringing stories to life in 3D.

But David Cohen, associate editor of features at Variety, highlights that filmmakers are very conscious about making movies that work in both formats.

"One of the risks we have at this moment of transition is that movies made for both formats won't be ideal in either one," he said.

However, he believes there are financial benefits in continuing to develop the technique if studios can make their numbers work.

David Cohen, associate editor of features at Variety
David Cohen explained that 3D is still entirely limited to cinemas

"The revenue for 3D movies is limited entirely to theatres," he pointed out.

"That works if you're talking about the extra $15m (£9m) it took to make 3D picture Monsters vs Aliens. But if you're talking about a live action picture where the 3D investment could be much greater, the numbers become much more difficult."

He added that the format's success in the long-run will depend on the emergence of 3D television which he described is at the "drawing board" stage.

The 3D version of Monsters vs Aliens took more money than the 2D version, despite being shown on fewer screens.

This may be partly to do with cinema tickets for 3D films costing 20% to 40% more than 2D.

But to show these 3D movies, cinemas need to upgrade a screen to digital and install a digital projector at a cost of $70,000 (£43,000).

So far this has only happened at 1774 cinemas in UK and 6882 worldwide, so the 3D revolution has some way to go still.

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