Filmmaker examines the future in 3D

Thomas Lee
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Melissa Butts has seen the future, and it looks startlingly clear and lifelike.

Butts is a filmmaker who specializes in 3D digital movies, an emerging market that is increasingly drawing the interest of major Hollywood studios, theater chains, and top directors like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.

Butts' company, Minneapolis-based Melrae Pictures, has already produced "3D Sun" for NASA and is working with the Minneapolis Heart Institute and Abbott Northwestern Hospital on a 3D movie about the heart and cardiovascular disease.

Once the staple of cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, 3D is enjoying a renaissance thanks to advancements in digital technology, which allows for high-resolution, eye-friendly images that are further enhanced by the wall-to-wall screen format of IMAX theaters.

"There has been a real surge in the 3D digital cinema marketplace and the key word is digital," Butts said. "We didn't have digital in the 1950s. (Back then, 3D) was much more of a novelty. Now you have very sophisticated high-resolution projection systems that give the viewers a unique viewing experience. It's very easy on the eyes."

Renewed interest in 3D films couldn't come at a better time for Hollywood and theater chains, which have struggled to compete against a wave of new technologies. Consumers today can view content on everything from laptops and large-screen televisions to cell phones and iPods.

The top 12 movies grossed $51.6 million this Labor Day weekend, the lowest total since 2003, according to Media By Numbers, which tracks box office performance. From May to Labor Day weekend, theaters sold 586.9 million tickets, a 3.5 percent drop from 2007.

What 3D films can provide audiences is an experience they can only get from going to the theater, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst with Media By Numbers.

"Like IMAX, 3D is trying to differentiate itself from home theater," Dergarabedian said. "We have something to offer that's different. 3D is a totally viable technology. I think audiences for some films are willing to pay more for a ticket. Would ("Journey to the Center of the Earth") have done $100 million without 3D? I doubt it."

The box office success of movies like "Journey," "Beowulf" and "Hannah Montana 3D" have sent Hollywood scrambling to embrace 3D. Beginning next year, Dreamworks Studios will release all of its animation films in 3D, starting with "Monsters Vs. Aliens" slated for next March. Last week, RealD reached a deal with a group of independent theater owners to equip 1,000 screens with 3D digital technology.

Butts, a Des Moines, Iowa, native whose career began with Twin Cities Public Television shows like "Newton's Apple," first got interested in 3D while working on a documentary about a NASA mission to Mars. Butts says she was impressed with the images of the Red Planet taken by a robot equipped with high-resolution 3D cameras.

"I was sold on 3D cinema as a emerging market," Butts said. "As a filmmaker, we are always looking for new ways to tell stories. It's such a wonderful, immersive learning opportunity yet it has such a wonderful entertainment value."

Butts' one-person studio is located in south Minneapolis.

In 2006, Butts partnered with NASA to produce a documentary about the agency's mission to study heliophysics or how the sun affects planetary atmospheres. The resulting movie, "3D Sun," combines images taken by a space shuttle's 3D cameras with interviews of NASA scientists. "3D Sun" is currently playing at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and will be screened at the inaugural 3D International Film Festival in Singapore in November.

"3D Sun" "has been very well received," said Cheryl Bauer, manager of the museum's IMAX theater. "3D really enhanced (the movie). It was the perfect venue for seeing that imagery."

Butts is currently developing "3D Body Odyssey" with the Minneapolis Heart Institute and Abbott Northwestern. The film, scheduled for release next year, will document the hospital's efforts to treat a patient with cardiovascular disease, using advanced 3D images of the heart taken by MRI machines and CT scanners.

"People will see the body the way it really is, how the heart works," said Dr. Robert Schwartz, a cardiologist who is working with Butts. "We want to tell a story in an exciting way, get a real person and walk the public through the process."

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