July 11, 2008

Yes, You Are Seeing Things: 3-D Movies Are Back, and Better Than Ever

DALLAS _ 3-D is having a moment.

Of course, it's had other moments, from the golden age of the early 1950s to one-off sensations such as 1983's "Jaws 3-D." But 2008 has already seen perhaps the world's biggest band release a concert film in 3-D ("U2 3D"), while another 3-D film opened at No. 1 ("Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour"). And in the next few weeks, two more such films will be hitting screens: "Journey to the Center of the Earth," which opens today, and the animated "Fly Me to the Moon," opening Aug. 8.

The question that moviegoers may be wondering is: Why now? The answer, according to those involved with the upcoming projects, is simple: Because we can.

"Technology has reached a point to where you can actually have flawlessly projected, no-eye-strain 3-D in any cinema that puts in this equipment. Mankind has never been there before," says Eric Brevig, the Oscar-nominated visual affects ace for such films as "Men and Black" and "Total Recall" who makes his directorial debut with "Journey to the Center of the Earth.""The ability to take the element of depth and apply that to what would otherwise be a traditional motion-picture experience just makes it that much more immersive for the audience."

Brevig and the film's star, Brendan Fraser, stressed during a recent visit to Dallas that only now are filmmakers conceiving and shooting films as 3-D projects. Traditionally, films have been shot in 2-D with the depth added in post-production. But Brevig says he was able to get a truer image by using a camera that "Titanic" director James Cameron developed to shoot his underwater documentary "Ghosts of the Abyss." After making a few modifications to the camera for "Journey," Cameron will then use the device to shoot his own 3-D film, next year's "Avatar."

The effect of these technological advancements is to put the audience even closer to the action. "You don't just go see this movie, you experience it," Fraser says. So rather than watching as a passive bystander, "Journey" viewers may feel the need to help fight off a school of fanged flying fish or duck the advances of a menacing T-Rex.

But the new crop of 3-D fare is about more than just dodging the occasional screen projectile. As "Fly Me to the Moon" shows to great effect, it is possible for the action to take place almost around the viewer. Ben Stassen, the film's director, says he tries to "simply get rid of the frame around the picture and create a space and bring the audience into the film space."

"In a (2-D) film and TV program, you react intellectually, rationally and emotionally, but the physical component you don't have," Stassen says by phone from his home in Brussels. "That's unique to 3-D filmmaking, and I really think that's the foundation of the new language _ the positioning of the viewer is built differently."

Stassen is a veteran of dozens of 3-D projects, making everything from theme-park visuals to Imax nature documentaries to his current animated film. He got hooked on the format in the aftermath of one of his first projects, 1999's "Encounter in the Third Dimension." In the film, a professor talks directly to the audience, seeking their help with a task.

"And all the kids in the theater got up and raised their hands. Why? Because they feel physically present in the theater. And that to me is the magic of 3-D," Stassen says. "Sure, getting an in-your-face effect is fun. But this is even more powerful."

"Fly Me to the Moon" provides multiple chances for the audience to feel that physical presence. The story focuses on a group of young flies determined to take part in the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, a plotline that even the director concedes would be boring without the 3-D element. But once they board the shuttle, the combination of three dimensions and weightlessness proves magical as drops of spilled orange juice gently float past the young adventurers and out into the audience. When a test tube shatters, its dangerous shards float harmlessly by the viewer's head.

Stassen points to a pair of recent movies that have returned 3-D to the filmmaking forefront: 2003's "Spy Kids 3D" and 2004's "The Polar Express.""Spy Kids 3D" used what Stassen calls "substandard technique" in employing the decades-old red and blue filters in creating its effects, but it went on to become the highest grossing 3-D film of all time, pocketing nearly $200 million worldwide. A year later, the more advanced "Polar Express" earned more than one quarter of its $179 million domestic gross from just 60 Imax venues showing it in 3-D, according to boxofficemojo.com, compared with the more than 3,600 theaters showing the film in traditional 2-D. On average, theaters can charge about $3 more per ticket for 3-D films.

Those numbers have made Hollywood's ears perk up as movie screens compete with increasingly souped-up home theaters for viewers. More than a dozen 3-D films are slated for 2009, and DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg has said that all of his company's future movies will be made in the format.

On the exhibition front, RealD, the country's largest provider of 3-D technology, signed a pact in May with the Regal theater chain to add 1,500 more 3-D-ready screens to its theaters. About 1,000 screens worldwide currently have 3-D systems.

"Studios are finding 3-D gives them a lot of bang for their buck," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Media By Numbers. "The 3-D presentation opens up a whole new revenue stream and can increase their overall box office. So it's kind of a win-win for everybody."

For now, the challenge falls to the filmmakers to take full advantage of 3-D's possibilities.

"I truly see 3-D as the second revolution in the history of cinema, the first one being the transition from silent films to the talkies," Stassen says. "That's the only time before in the history of cinema where a technical innovation _ sound _ drastically changed cinema."


(c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News.

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