3-D or not 3-D? Cash is the question

[5 June 2009]

By Joe Williams

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

Hollywood executives and filmmakers have been waiting for the “killer app” that will change 3-D movies from a novelty to a necessity. Now some are saying that the app is “Up.”

The new animated movie about a widower who ties balloons to his house and floats away to a land of adventure is the first 3-D release from the trendsetters at Pixar.

It opened the prestigious Cannes Film Festival this month and is widely expected to be one of the highest grossing films of the year.

Although another three-dimensional ‘toon, Dreamworks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens,” was the biggest hit of the spring, “Up” may be the movie that pushes the technology past the tipping point.

The equipment that theaters must purchase in order to screen a 3-D movie — an all-purpose digital projection system that could cost as much as $100,000 and special 3-D attachments that run $5,000 to $15,000 — has been the stumbling block to widespread adoption of the technology. Filmmakers and the public, however, are already aboard.

In 2004, hit-making directors including Steven Spielberg (“E.T.”), Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and James Cameron (“Titanic”) touted digital 3-D at ShoWest, an annual convention of theater owners. Since then, there’s been a steady increase in the number and profile of 3-D movies, which have gone through cycles of fashionability since the 1930s.

Last year, theaters made an unexpected fortune from the short run of the 3-D performance film “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Movie.” Cameron’s long-delayed sci-film “Avatar,” on which he used dozens of cameras for every 3-D shot, is one of the most anticipated movies of the decade.

But “Up” will be the next measure of 3-D. All of Pixar’s previous nine movies have been commercial and artistic successes. When “Up” opened Cannes, it was the first animated movie to be accorded that honor, and it was rewarded with a standing ovation and rave reviews.

Pete Docter, who directed “Up” (as well as Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.”) said during a promotional visit to St. Louis last week that filmmakers can no longer treat 3-D as a gimmick.

“John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, is such a fan of 3-D that he used it for his wedding photos,” Docter said. “So when he announced that all future Pixar movies would be 3-D, we went back and watched the classics, like ‘Dial M for Murder.’

“Yet even Hitchcock would have shots where some object is shoved toward the camera, just to take advantage of the effect. It was gimmicky, like those old stereo-demonstration records where bongos would be on one channel and cellos would be on the other. Our feeling is that a strongly composed shot should look good in 2-D, and then 3-D is the cherry on top.”

One influential pair of eyes that prefers 2-D belongs to critic Roger Ebert. In his laudatory review of “Up,” he advised audiences to see the film in the traditional “flat” format, without the polarized 3-D glasses that tend to darken the images.

Docter said he was sympathetic to Ebert’s concerns.

“I can’t disagree with him,” he said. “Some nighttime sections of the movie — like the campfire scene or when (the villain) first comes out of the cave — required us to do an extra step of color correction to make it work in both formats.

“That’s something that 3-D filmmakers are going to have to be sensitive to, along with sudden shifts in the depth of field that movie audiences aren’t accustomed to processing.”

Docter added that both our brains and our business models are going to evolve.

“Theaters have a love-hate relationship with 3-D technology,” he said. “It’s forcing their hand and making them buy digital projectors. But it’s also a big draw, and they can charge extra for the experience.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/94570-3-d-or-not-3-d-cash-is-the-question/