3D Cinema seems to have come and gone once again, it seems it was yet another passing fad, sadly. I still feel it has a good place in cinema but the directors never fully grasped how to use it. We have had so many attempts at this format in many guises and every time it is championed as 'new' but actually how new is it? When you look at the history of 3D or stereoscope, it is as old as film itself.
The stereoscopic era of motion pictures began as far back as the late 1890s when British film pioneer William Friese Greene filed a patent for a 3D movie process. In his patent, two films were projected side by side on screen. The viewer looked through a stereoscope to converge the two images, because of the obtrusive mechanics behind this method, theatrical use was not practical but it did set precedence. (Friese Green is mainly celebrated for his pioneering work in creating colour in film.)
Many different formats and ideas have been tried and tested for 3D over the years. The early 50s was a time where it was championed extravagantly, alongside many other new and elaborate projection formats such as Cinerama, which needed no less than three projectors in synch to project a single film. The point is, early pioneering ideas were difficult to manage, not least because of the expense. For original 3D screenings, you needed two prints, two optical projectors and possibly two projectionists running them, or it could be disastrous. The drawbacks were many, many of them sound all too familiar:
Short lived Revival - 80s: The early 80s also saw a revival, although bizarrely it seemed to be very much a horror led ambush. I remember seeing Jaws 3-D with a pair of disposable polarized cardboard red and blue anaglyph glasses at the local cinema. From memory it was rather an uneventful film, even the climax was a little disappointing.
Jaws utilised new technology, it was shot using the Arrivision 3D system. This used filmed 3D movies in normal colour, with a single camera and single strip of film - the Arrivision 3D technique uses a special twin lens adapter fitted to the film camera, and divides the 35 mm film frame in half along the middle. Capturing the left eye image in the upper half of the frame and the right eye image in the lower half - this is known as over/under (2Perf). This allows filming to proceed as for any standard 2D movie, without the considerable additional expense of having to double up on cameras and film stock for every shot. It was assumed back then this would pioneer the way forward for 3D cinema.
When the resultant film is projected through a normal projector (albeit one requiring a special lens that combines the upper and lower images), a true polarised 3D image is produced. This system allowed 3D films to be shown in almost any cinema since it does not require two projectors running simultaneously throughout the presentation - something most cinemas are not equipped to handle. It will also always remain in synch, if there was a problem.
The only requirement of the theatre is both the special projection lens and a reflective silver screen. This enabled the polarized images to reflect back to the viewer, with an appropriate filter on each eye blocking out the wrong image, thus leaving the viewer to see the movie from two angles as our eyes naturally see the world.
Could a severed arm save 3D? Not in the 80s.
Present: As technology has progressed I suppose it was inevitable 3D made resurgence. Digital projectors are not hindered by mechanics, moving parts, a limitation on frame speed or something as fragile as the film itself, so they certainly lend themselves to 3D or stereoscope. Also a 3D digital presentation does not require two projectors, unlike some older 3D stereoscopic projection technology. It can be projected with a single projector.
How Does It Work: Audiences viewing a film presented in 3D are given a pair of plastic glasses. Unfortunately we still can't escape the glasses. The glasses have circular polarized lenses, each polarized differently. Circular polarization allows much greater head movement than linear polarization without loss of 3D effect or ghost images. This increases audience comfort and helps to subdue the 3D headache complained about in previous incarnations.
The movie is projected digitally, with a single DLP projector at 144 frames per second, six times faster than a normal movie. Every 1/24 of a second (the frame rate for normal film) the two scene views referred to as the right eye and left eye are each shown 3 times (6 flashes of image on the screen matching the 6 times higher projection rate). Due to persistence of vision, the 72 image frames and 72 black frames fed to each eye in a given second should be perceived as a relatively flicker-free image.
The systems all offer a variation on a theme but the principal is the same, both projecting the right and left eye - however the technology employed during projection and re-combining of the right and left eye images require the viewer to wear specialized glasses. Independently viewing the two different images from the right and left eye, you will see the same view but slightly shifted version of the frame. During projection the brain knits together the alternating left-right perspectives into a seamless 3D view of the movie scene. The single projector setup has a number of advantages over previous 3D systems:
Expense: Interestingly I do think 3D, if given the opportunity and the industry used it properly would help cinema to regain notoriety. The costs involved for 3D to an individual cinema have already been incurred, so why would the film industry abandon it yet again? Every cinema had to invest to replace the screen and projector within each auditorium, which is just not cheap at all. The digital projectors they have now invested in, need upgrading constantly with software updates at an additional cost to the cinema itself. It will ultimately be reflected in the cost of admission which I believe is way over priced now. The cinema is no longer an attractive or cheap night out. Independents run on a shoe string presently, so how does this help dropping the format after only a few years. What happens when film invents something new, will the cinemas adopt it. Having yet again to invest and spend more money, or will they hold back investing next time? Once bitten. Nobody wins, certainly not the audience who are faced with forever spiralling ticket prices and let’s face it, the actual projection of 3D was pretty shocking across the entire spectrum of cinemas. The art of the projectionist is long since dead.
Passing the buck$: Many cinemaphiles are a little perplexed at the cost of the admission ticket but what the cinema going public do not seem to acknowledge is the percentage the distributors skim off the top. For instance in the opening week, upwards of 60% may be taken, even as much as 90%! This is daylight robbery. Leaving the measly remainder for the establishment to pay massive council rates (with such big buildings), water, electric, gas, staff and other sundries. It is certainly not a cheap business to be in. Marilyn, now retired, having been in the business for four decades or more managing countless cinemas, often quoted "we are a sweet shop that happens to present film!"
The Royalty Cinema's Circle, Bowness on Windermere - Independent Cinema, Charles Morris Proprietor
Many of our 600 or so independents that are trying to survive in the UK are finding the costs way too expensive. The initial costs for converting standard 35mm theatres to digital are high: up to £80,000 per screen or more. While a theatre could purchase a film projector for £25,000 and expect a lifetime of 30–40 years, a digital system including server and projector can cost 3–4 times as much, and is at higher risk for component failures and technological obsolescence. You will see many of the independents closing their doors for the very last time if the trend continues, which personally I believe is a real shame. Many independents are turning redundant screens to bars and restaurants, which brings a far more profitable revenue stream.
The point is, if the distributors continued greed force too much of the takings into their own coffers without little concession to the theatre itself, they will have very few cinemas to exhibit in. I fear this is simply biting the hand that feeds them. Ultimately our cinemas have become bland, generic and uninspired, looking something akin to a factory than a place of entertainment. I for one hate them, especially the cost.
The Future: There are very few films being green lit in 3D presently. They now seem to be turning to post production processes which uses software to process the 2D plates into 3D. This is great on older films, such as the Wizard of Oz or the Terminator 2. The biggest problem I see is that we are now faced with is the age old concern of content. Is it worth the extra cost, when a purely story driven narrative may not benefit at all from 3D. Or an already over bloated, expensive FX driven film will cost more to produce and ultimately push budgets further using 3D?
3D does cost more to post produce, so it certainly is and will be a factor for budgets on smaller productions. The dilemma will always continue as technology evolves. Investment has been huge for either party. I guess my hopes are pinned on the future Avatar films in production, will this bring back an interest in 3D, and it certainly pushed the envelope originally. Using 3D for 3Ds sake, does not make a seat worth the considerably over inflated ticket price. It is indeed a great tool for storytelling and great visuals, if only the old school directors would go back to school and start using them properly. In my humble opinion it should be used sparingly and only when it enhances a film. It certainly should not be used in only a few sequences throughout a film just so the production can charge the extra 3D premium, something I have noticed. Personally I feel that kind of profiteering is scandalous and they should be ashamed.