Digital technology rescues filmgoers in new 3-D film

[24 July 2008]

By Robert Philpot

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

(Kyle Alcott/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

(Kyle Alcott/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

Although they get a lot of hype, movies shot in 3-D have historically been a bit of a headache. You’d put on a pair of flimsy cardboard glasses with red-and-blue gel lenses that looked like they might rip during a strong sneeze, and then watch murky visuals just for the thrill of having some blurrily realistic-looking thing jump off the screen at you.
 
Lately, though, things have changed. If you go to see “Journey to the Center of the Earth” in 3D, you’ll receive a plastic pair of dark glasses that might give you memories of “Risky Business.” They’re large enough to fit comfortably over a regular pair of eyeglasses, and solid enough to survive, say, any movement of your head. The movie’s 3-D visuals are striking, as well an audience went ewwww when star Brendan Fraser rinsed out his mouth and spat the water right “into” their faces, and screamed when some ugly piranha-looking fish flew through one subterranean scene.
 
The movie is based on Jules Verne’ 1864 novel, but updated to the 21st century, in which Fraser plays an eccentric scientist who takes his nephew (Josh Hutcherson) and an Icelandic mountain guide (Anita Briem) on a quest that unexpectedly leads them on a waaaay underground trip. During a recent Dallas interview, Fraser and Eric Brevig, the movie’s effusive director, had some things to say about the movie and its “Real D” effects.
 
WHY ‘JOURNEY’ LOOKS BETTER THAN PREVIOUS 3-D FEATURE FILMS
 
Brevig: The problem that has always been plaguing 3-D for mass theater release is that you had no control over the exhibition. That will kill you if it’s uncomfortable to watch. The colored-glasses version and the process they had for years there is just no fun. You can’t have an audience sit with something that’s sort of bothering them for very long, where you get eyestrain and they take off the glasses and they go, “I hate 3-D.”
 
With digital projection reaching a plateau, there are now enough digital projectors out there that you can actually have a wide release. With a small modification that allows it to project 3D through the same projector, the problem has been solved. Any theater in the land can buy one of these projectors and put the modification on it. You can see it in any theater as well as we would see it when we were making it.

WHY IT’S FUN TO WATCH OTHER PEOPLE WATCH THE MOVIE

Fraser: One of my favorite things to do is to watch the audience watch this film, because they’re immersed in it. They’re drawn into it, whether they want to be or not. They’re brought into the world of it, and it comes to them, also because of these all-new technical innovations ... that have in themselves become a new art form.

It’s also a new social form, because you must go to the theater to experience this. How many ways can we watch movies? At home, DVD, on-demand, all these different ways. But this it at the cinema. It’s a cinema experience. You actually go there and see it with the kids and Grandma and Grandpa, stepdads, strangers. Everyone is forgetting who they are. Some sort of phenomenon takes place where everyone just goes along for the ride.

Brevig: It’s more like a great day at a theme park than at a theater.

HOW FILMING WAS LIKE A DAY AT A THEME PARK

Brevig: The stunts that you see the (cast) doing, that’s all real. (In one scene, Fraser hangs upside down over boiling lava while trying to throw lit flares into a small crevice.) I was looking at the outtakes just recently, and I forgot this, but we used a real road flare. The smoke from those is toxic.

Fraser: It’s horrible.

Brevig: And if you hang upside down and do this, which is what he had to do, the smoke goes right in (your) face. And he’s literally almost asphyxiating, trying to hold his breath and do the scene (pants heavily) like that. You wouldn’t know, watching the movie, that that’s the most dangerous part of it.

Fraser: (The flares have) sparks that don’t go out, even in water.

Brevig: We had a bucket of water, so that when you threw it, it would quickly put out the fire. It didn’t put it out. It just kept catching the wooden set on fire.

Fraser: You want to tell him the set burned down?

Brevig: (Laughs) It’s a wooden set, completely covered in this fireproof material, and he throws (the flare) and he manages to find a crack between the two pieces of the set that weren’t covered. And it goes under the set, where we can’t get to it, because we put fireproof material everywhere. We hear it fizzing as the plywood underneath catches fire.

Fraser: Crackle, crackle, crackle (laughs).

HOW FILMING WAS LIKE ‘REALLY EXPENSIVE STUDENT FILMMAKING’

Brevig (who was quoted saying that on World Entertainment News Network): It turns out the studio didn’t like me saying that. What I meant was, you have to use ingenuity that goes back to when I didn’t have the right tools as a student filmmaker, and you make do with what you have. Well, the tools didn’t exist. We had to figure it out while we were out there, with equipment that had never been designed for what we were using it for. Every day was a head-scratcher.

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF 3-D TECHNOLOGY

1838 (some sources say 1833): Sir Charles Wheatstone invents the stereoscope, a device for seeing pictures in three dimensions. (In “Journey to the Center of the Earth” in 3D, Brendan Fraser’s character finds a similar device and says he doesn’t know what it is).

1903 (some sources say 1905): Auguste and Louis Lumiere shoot “L’Arrivee du Train,” a one-minute film. Presented at the World Fair of 1903 in Paris, it is believed to be the first publicly exhibited 3-D film. See it at www.stereoscopy.com.

1922: “The Power of Love” is filmed in the “anaglyph process,” an early version of 3-D that involved shooting two views of the same scene, printing the film in different colors, then layering the film on one reel.

1952: Battling upstart TV, studios begin producing films that can only be appreciated in theaters. “Bwana Devil,” hyped as the first commercially released 3-D movie, begins a wave of ‘50s 3-D films.

1953: “House of Wax,” starring Vincent Price, is released, and becomes the most popular of the 1950s 3-D films. (It is remade in 2005 in a standard format, although Paris Hilton is in the cast, so you could consider it a 1-D film.)

1955: The 3-D craze begins to wane. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film, “Dial M for Murder,” is shot in 3-D but is barely released in that format (it does well in the standard 2-D format). Arguably the last major 3-D release of the decade is 1955’s “Revenge of the Creature,” Clint Eastwood’s first film.

1960s: According to the Internet Movie Database, 10 3-D films are released during the entire decade, as opposed to 74 3-D features and shorts during the 1950s. “The Stewardesses,” released in 1969, uses a new and more economical single-camera 3-D system, but it is probably the dimensions of the actresses of this then-X-rated film that made this one of the most profitable movies of all time.

1981-83: 3-D movies go through a brief revival with “Comin’ at Ya!,” a spaghetti Western that “threw” all manner of objects (except a good story) at the audience, and “Friday the 13th Part III.” Movies such as “Jaws 3-D” and “Amityville 3-D” help put a damper on the short-lived revival.

1985: IMAX develops its first 3-D feature, “We Are Born of Stars.” Two years later, the first permanent IMAX 3-D feature opens in Vancouver, B.C.

1986: Michael Jackson stars in “Captain EO,” a 3-D short screened at Disney theme parks.

1997: Previous attempts at 3-D TV were misfires, but “3rd Rock From the Sun” scores with dream sequences filmed in 3-D.

2007: Pop stars get in on the act with such concert films as “U23D” and a 3-D version of the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert movie.

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SOURCES: Stereoscopy.com; Kansas City Star; Internet Movie Database (imdb.com); Leonard Maltin’s 2008 Movie Guide; www.imax.com

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/digital-technology-rescues-filmgoers-in-new-3-d-film/