Monday, June 21, 2010

The World of 3-D Movies

I remember when I was a kid; for Christmas one year, my dad had given me a View-Master.  I would spend hours looking through the thing watching the stereoscopic pictures.  I also spent a lot of my hard-earned allowance to buy more of the picture disks.  My family found it to be annoying in that I practically had the viewer glued to my head as I watched those pictures.  However, as fads come and go, the View-Master craze faded, as well.  Now in 2010 we live in an age where we expect the best from the films we see, we even demand our films to jump out at us; we want our film experience in 3D.  I must admit that I am no longer a fan of 3D motion pictures.  I have seen too many terrible films shown via the 3D medium, and it has left a sour taste.

The Good Old Days

In the 70s, my dad would take us to see the novelty 3-D films of the period, while the directors of these gems would milk the action to enhance every 3-D effect they could, throwing every thing directly at the audience from fists to daggers to get their 3D monies worth.  However, the stories were awful like, Jaws 3D and Friday the 13th – Part 3 is the ones I can remember.  Also, as when I was a kid, my parents collected, many antiques, and one of the antiques that we had was a wooden stereoscopic viewer from the late 1800's.  This wooden device held a card with two images of the same view taken slightly different angles that the user could view through a pair of glasses that would enhance the layered effect causing the image to appear to jump out at the viewer.  With the invention of motion pictures, a rapid series of images flashing on to a white screen, the stereoscopic aficionados jumped right in a demonstration in 1853 and in 1858 where, "In the classic method, used for monochrome stereo images, the left view in blue (or green) is superimposed on the same image with the right view in red.  This would give the viewer an anaglyph stereo image.  While a W. Rollmann in demonstrated this method in 1853 and J.C. D’Almeida displayed his method in 1858, it was Louis Ducos du Hauron, who in 1891 patented the method.  The idea behind this method was to trick your eyes into seeing the green information reflected with the red filter and vice-versa, your brain combining the information to form an image that appeared to stand out from the screen.

In the Beginning

Near the end of the 19th century, in 1897, C. Grivolas created a camera by which he could expose two reels of film at exactly the right distance apart, which is about 2.5 inches, so that he could project those images back to the viewers.  The audience who would be wearing glasses with one eye filtered for the blue information and the other filtered for the red information.  In 1922 director Harry K. Fairhall, while using the two-projector Fairhall-Elder stereoscopic (3-D) process that he and Robert F. Elder developed, released the film The Power of Love to favorable reviews.  While working to create color motion photography, William Van Doren Kelley, used his Prizmacolor to create his own 3D film titled, Movies of the Future, which was images of Time Square and areas around New York.  Based on the success of that film Kelly and in 1923, he tried another called Through the Trees which, although technically a better film, musical director Hugo Riesenfeld rejected the film because it did not have any of the "gimmicks" that we know 3D films to have today.

And Then There Was Color

In 1922, the 27 year-old inventor of the Hammond Organ, Laurens Hammond and William F. Cassidy created Televue.  Telavue is a complicated process where alternate-frame sequencing allowed the filmmaker to film with two cameras and playback with two projectors, one projector one frame behind the other.  The viewer utilizing a "televiewer" with its rotating shutter would once again trick the brain into processing an image that appeared to be popping out of the screen.  Director Roy William Neill used the process in the filming of Radio Mania aka M.A.R.S., which was a science fiction story about an absent-minded scientist, Arthur Wyman, working to invent a radio that can communicate with Mars.  However, due to the cost of the “televiewers” caused the system's immediate death.  By the 1930s, 3D moved from the anaglyph to the parallax stereogram invented by Semyon Pavlovich Ivanov which using a fine metal screen that would shield one eye from parts of the image surface and the other shielding the other eye from other parts.  Without the need for glasses, the parallax system is still used today for the novelty items like 3D baseball cards.  Transferring this technique to motion pictures, the Russians had 12 theaters outfitted for the parallax motion picture process; however, the viewer was limited in motion as turning their heads sideways, which would ruin the effect.  The 40s and 50s included many 3D films like The Creature From the Black Lagoon (my dad's favorite).  Issues arose from the cost of filming in 3D, and the rigors of projecting in 3D.  In many cases, people sometimes felt sick, complaining of headaches or sore eyes due to eyestrain.  Talking with folks who went to movies in the fifties, they often complained that the cardboard glasses irritated their ears, or if they wore prescription glasses, the movie was often not viewable.  The fad was fading.

The Here and Now

Today the processes are similar, more advanced, easier for the filmmaker, yet cumbersome for the viewer.  With the digital revolution come new breakthroughs and some old problems.  A videographer friend of mine tells me that when he shoots for 3D he uses two regular cameras, and that one does everything else in postproduction.  The advantage of this method is that afterwards one isn't tied to a specific type of 3D output.  When filming with digital cameras, he found that it is necessary to keep the width or the camera housing narrow enough so that when the cameras are put side to side so that the lenses should be exactly the same width, center-to-center, as the human eyes, roughly around 2.5 inches.  Then using postproduction trans-coding software, like Tri-Def, which analyzes the video for you, and then creates two tracks of images, which the software converts the two tracks into an anaglyph stereo video.  Still problems remain, as any motion blur in the perceived depth of field can ruin the illusion, and you still have to wear glasses, which is still a significant hassle for those with prescription glasses.  Another tactic used for mobile technologies is to use a product designed and sold by Spatial View in Germany.  The 3Dee Slide is a lens that you slide over your iPod and iPod Touch and allows one to view any digitally captured content in 3D.  Once again, quality degrades with the size of the screen and the resolution of the picture.  Another option is ColorCode, and their software-encoding package along with their proprietary 3D viewing glasses.  The best reason for using ColorCode is that viewing the encoded images without the glasses, the image is still viewable with out the funky red and green or red and blue out-of-phased images.  The software ranges from $50.00 US or up to several hundred if you buy bundled software encoding packages.

The War Begins

The battle lines are forming with big-name directors like James Cameron for 3D technology, and director Christopher Nolan who has openly admitted in a SlashFilm article, Nolan saying, “I’m not a huge fan of 3D.”  Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron in a recent CBS News interview said, "Quite simply, where they had a choice, the audience was selecting for the best possible way to see the movie."  Director Robert Zemeckis, in an interview with, posted on YouTube, Zemeckis indicates that he will do 3D films as long as the material lends itself to that medium.  Otherwise, he says, if a great screenplay doesn't seem right for 3D, he ill film it in traditional 2D.  Movie Critic Roger Ebert writes in Newsweek while listing his reasons notes that, "It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness."  The plastic 3D glasses themselves are issues as well, in a recent article I wrote, I quoted a Reuters news article calling in to question how sanitary are the glasses that they sell you.  Not being able to bring my own 3D glasses into the theater and avoid the extra charge for a pair that the theater was selling which according to the Reuters article may contain Staphylococcus aureus, I paid for the glasses but used my own.

In My Perfect World

Although directing a 3D film should be like directing any other film, where the story and character development should be the first priority, the director’s choice of filming in 3D should be a secondary concern.  I know that somewhere around the corner, a technology breakthrough will happen where I can turn on my television screen and with a click of a button on my remote control; I can select 2D or 3D modes of viewing.  When I go to a theater, I can walk in to watch a 3D movie without having to don glasses.  However, until that day does arrive, I want to be able to make up my own mind which films I select to watch in 3D or not.  While doing my own unscientific polling, (asking friends what they think of 3D) I found an almost even split, with those younger than age 25 for 3D, while those over the age of 25 seem to be either ambivalent or not liking the 3D presentation.  So the next time you go to watch a film in 3D, at least take some wipes with you, and wipe off those glasses before you enjoy your popcorn, and hopefully the movie.

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