By Josh Quittner
Cameron, center, revolutionized the 3-D business with his Fusion high-definition video cameras.
The lights dim in the screening room. Suddenly, the doomed Titanic fills the screen--but not the way I remember in the movie. The luxury liner is nearly vertical, starting its slide into the black Atlantic, and Leonardo DiCaprio is hanging on for life, just like always. But this time, I am too. The camera pans to the icy water far below, pulling me into the scene--the sensation reminds me of jerking awake from a dream--and I grip the sides of my seat to keep from falling into the drink.
Most of us have seen the top-grossing film of all time. But not like this. The new version, still in production, was remade in digital 3-D, a technology that's finally bringing a true third dimension to movies. Without giving you a headache. (See the 100 best movies of all time.)
Had digital 3-D been available a dozen or so years ago when he shot Titanic, he'd have used it, director James Cameron tells me later. "But I didn't have it at the time," he says ruefully. "Certainly every film I'm planning to do will be in 3-D."
Digital 3-D, which has slowly been gaining steam over the past few years, is finally ready for its closeup. Just about every top director and major studio is doing it--a dozen movies are slated to arrive this year, with dozens more in the works for 2010 and beyond. These are not just animations but live-action films, comedies, dramas and documentaries. Cameron is currently shooting a live-action drama, Avatar, for Fox in 3-D. Disney and its Pixar studio are releasing five 3-D movies this year alone, including a 3-D-ified version of Toy Story. George Lucas hopes to rerelease his Star Wars movies in 3-D. And Steven Spielberg is currently shooting Tintin in it, with Peter Jackson doing the 3-D sequel next year. Live sports and rock concerts in 3-D have been showing up at digital theaters around the U.S. nearly every week.
With the release on March 27 of Monsters vs. Aliens, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks Animation SKG, is betting the future of his studio on digital 3-D. While he's not the first to embrace the technology, he has become its most vocal evangelist, asserting that digital 3-D is now good enough to make it--after sound and color--the third sea change to affect movies. "This really is a revolution," he says.
Over the past few years, Katzenberg has repositioned DreamWorks as a 3-D-animation company. From Monsters on, all its movies will be made, natively, in 3-D. (Many animation studios create the 3-D effect in postproduction.) That's a pretty big commitment since 3-D involves even more computer power than usual. The DreamWorks crew invokes "Shrek's law," which holds that every sequel takes about twice as long to render--create a final image from models--as the movie that preceded it. Authoring the movie in 3-D effectively doubles the time called for by Shrek's law.
That requires an extreme amount of horsepower--the computational power of DreamWorks' render farm puts it roughly among the 15 fastest supercomputers on the planet. The studio partnered with Hewlett-Packard and Intel and built an enormous test bed on more than 17,500 sq. ft. in California. The Silicon Valley companies are hot on 3-D because they believe it's how people will navigate the Web and the desktops of their PCs and that it will be standard on computers and HDTVs.
At DreamWorks, I watched a Monsters filmmaker peer through an elaborate camera rig that allowed him to "previsualize" a scene before shooting it. As he panned across the room we were standing in, he flew over a computer-generated 3-D image of the White House war room--the set for a scene in which the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) meets with his staff to discuss an alien invasion. The camera let the director precisely manage the z-axis and decide which elements in the background, midground and foreground needed to be lit and focused.
Katzenberg says going 3-D adds about 15% to his costs--which is nothing compared with the profits studios anticipate as the digital transformation takes hold. Digital 3-D movies usually gross at least three times as much as their flat-world counterparts--thanks in part to the higher ticket prices and longer runs they garner. Another benefit: 3-D films are far more difficult for digital-camera-toting moviegoers to pirate. (See pictures of movie costumes.)
Beyond the venal, however, filmmakers say that 3-D, like sound and color, really breaks down the barrier between audience and movie. "At some level, I believe that almost any movie benefits from 3-D," Lord of the Rings director Jackson says. "As a filmmaker, I want you to suspend disbelief and get lost in the film--participate in the film rather than just observe it. On that level, 3-D can only help."
3-D Movies, Take 8
If the return of the 3-D movie sounds like a rerun, that's because it is. By some counts, this is 3-D's eighth incarnation, and to date, it hasn't exactly revolutionized the industry. The first stereoscopic movies appeared in the U.S. before the last Great Depression, disappeared, then enjoyed a schmaltzy revival in the 1950s with such blockbusters as House of Wax (1953). They've cropped up intermittently ever since, typically attached to high-camp vehicles like Andy Warhol's Frankenstein (1973).
"To me, 3-D has always been the circus coming to town," says Daniel Symmes, a 3-D historian and film-industry veteran. Symmes worked on the soft-core 3-D hit The Stewardesses, which was produced in 1969 for around $100,000. It grossed more than $27 million, making it the most profitable 3-D movie ever. Symmes scoffs at today's digital 3-D and its big budgets and says it's déjà vu. "Does the circus stay around?" he says. "No. If it does, attendance drops off, the novelty is gone and the circus goes away."
But proponents say digital 3-D is a different animal from the analog stuff that came before 2005. Viewers often wore cardboard glasses with red and cyan cellophane lenses (similar to but somewhat different from what you see in this magazine). As just about everyone knows, old-school 3-D was less than awesome. Colors looked washed out. Some viewers got headaches. A few vomited. "Making your customers sick is not a recipe for success," Katzenberg likes to say.
It was cumbersome to produce too. In the old days, two 65-mm, 150-lb. film cameras--each shooting the same scene in sync--were used to make a 3-D picture. The gap between the lenses simulates the space between our eyes, adding space perception. But with film, you never knew how the shot would turn out until later.
The birth of high-definition, digital filmmaking changed all that. Cameron and an associate, Vince Pace, developed the 3-D-capable Fusion camera system, which is cheaper, smaller--13 lb. each--and way more versatile than the old film rigs. "Every movie I made, up until Tintin, I always kept one eye closed when I've been framing a shot," Spielberg told me. That's because he wanted to see the movie in 2-D, the way moviegoers would. "On Tintin, I have both of my eyes open."
A Beverly Hills company called Real D took the lead on the theater side. It leases out a kind of digital shutter system that sits in front of digital projectors, alternating the two views of each frame 144 times per sec.--fast enough to achieve stereovision. The new system uses polarization, rather than color-coding. Gone are the completely cheesy cardboard glasses, replaced with slightly less cheesy disposable plastic-frame glasses that have gray lenses. "Someday," predicts Katzenberg, "people will buy their own movie glasses, which they'll take to the movies--like people have their own tennis rackets."
Even if you're willing to grant him the glasses, there's still one problem. For digital 3-D to work, the movie theater must first convert from analog to digital--that is, from reels of film to data feeds. Theaters have been slow to do it, citing the expense and security. Disney chairman Dick Cook is credited with breaking the initial logjam with Chicken Little in 2005. About 75 theaters converted to digital to show the film, and a surprising thing happened: 3-D theaters reported three to four times the box-office gross as those that showed the 2-D version. (All 3-D movies can easily be stepped down to 2-D and are typically shown in both forms.) That was the jump start digital 3-D needed. Katzenberg predicts that more than 2,000 theaters will be 3-D-ready by this week. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)
But in this economy, will people spend as much as $15 a ticket for a movie? Katzenberg is optimistic, pointing out that consumers are cutting back on everything but cheap entertainment. "The movies have been the greatest beneficiary of this," he says. "So to offer a new, exciting premium version of a bargain will be a big winner."
The Future of 3-D
Cameron's Avatar, due in December, could be the thing that forces theaters to convert to digital. Spielberg predicts it will be the biggest 3-D live-action film ever. More than a thousand people have worked on it, at a cost in excess of $200 million, and it represents digital filmmaking's bleeding edge. Cameron wrote the treatment for it in 1995 as a way to push his digital-production company to its limits. ("We can't do this," he recalled his crew saying. "We'll die.") He worked for years to build the tools he needed to realize his vision. The movie pioneers two unrelated technologies--e-motion capture, which uses images from tiny cameras rigged to actors' heads to replicate their expressions, and digital 3-D.
Avatar is filmed in the old "Spruce Goose" hangar, the 16,000-sq.-ft. space where Howard Hughes built his wooden airplane. The film is set in the future, and most of the action takes place on a mythical planet, Pandora. The actors work in an empty studio; Pandora's lush jungle-aquatic environment is computer-generated in New Zealand by Jackson's special-effects company, Weta Digital, and added later.
I couldn't tell what was real and what was animated--even knowing that the 9-ft.-tall blue, dappled dude couldn't possibly be real. The scenes were so startling and absorbing that the following morning, I had the peculiar sensation of wanting to return there, as if Pandora were real.
Cameron wasn't surprised. One theory, he says, is that 3-D viewing "is so close to a real experience that it actually triggers memory creation in a way that 2-D viewing doesn't." His own theory is that stereoscopic viewing uses more neurons. That's possible. After watching all that 3-D, I was a bit wiped out. I was also totally entertained.
The original version of this story misstated the cost of the film Avatar as being in excess of $300 million. The correct figure is in excess of $200 million.