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Has 3D already failed? The sequel, part 2: RealDsgusted

Tuesday | January 25, 2011   open printable version open printable version

Kristin here–

For part 1, see here.

Darn those quickie conversions!

In past years, 3D proselytizer Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of Dreamworks Animation, has complained about the slow progress of the conversation of theaters to digital and 3D projection. By September, 2010, faced with a growing backlash against the technology, he was more concerned about the conversion of films shot in 2D to 3D. The 3D Hollywood in Hi Def site reported:

Jeffrey Katzenberg opened the 3D Entertainment Summit with his usual provocative verbal flare [sic], defending 3D successes against the recent growing tide of critics claiming it is already dying — “It seems there are some in Hollywood who are determined to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. Six of the top 10 movies this year are 3D; I guess we have to have 10 of 10.” — and lambasting filmmakers and studios who convert movies to 3D after they are produced in 2D, calling them “downright ugly” and claiming they are endangering the technology that is single-handedly responsible for the industry’s growth in the past year.

On the whole the media were hardly sympathetic, perhaps because Katzenberg has been largely responsible for making 3D–including those 3D-ized films–so profitable. Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times called his speech a “desperation plea” and gleefully linked to several anti-3D articles, including some of the ones I’ve linked to in this and last week’s entries.

What Katzenberg didn’t point out was that some of the six films in the top ten were the same retrofitted ones that he was attacking: Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender. Alice in Wonderland was shot in 2D, but planned with the knowledge that it would be converted to 3D. (Gulliver’s Travels had not yet demonstrated that retrofitted 3D doesn’t always make for big domestic BO.)

Yet about a month later, in an interview with the New York Times, the other most influential figure in the push toward 3D, James Cameron, was discussing converting a film released in 1997 and not planned with 3D in mind: Titanic. (He plans to release it for the 100th anniversary of the ship’s 1912 sinking.) For Cameron, conversion is a problem when it is done hastily and carelessly. Of the retrofitting of Clash of the Titans he remarked, “It was just being applied like a layer, purely for profit motive.”

One problem with converting a 2D film to 3D comes from the fact that the process is far from an exact science (or art). Cameron commented on his search for a company to handle Titanic:

These conversions are so painstaking to complete correctly, Mr. Cameron said, because “there’s no magic-wand software solution for this.”

He added: “It really boils down to a human, in the loop, sitting and watching a screen, saying, ‘O.K., this guy is closer than that guy, this table is in front of that chair.’ ”

For his 3-D “Titanic” rerelease, Mr. Cameron said he had approached seven companies about working on the film, testing each by asking it to convert about a minute of movie footage before he chose the best two or three efforts.

“All seven of the vendors came back with a different idea of where they thought things were, spatially,” he said. “So it’s very subjective.”

He also points out that studios will inevitably search their vaults for films to convert.

How does 3D conversion work? An invaluable issue of Screen International, “European 3D Special 2010,” explains in terms reasonably comprehensible to the lay person:

While each company goes about it slightly differently, the requirements are broadly the same: the creation of a second identical version (to obtain a second eye view) and the isolation of foreground from background elements by rotoscoping, adding depth and then painting or animating in the gaps. “When you move an image in this way to create two views, the biggest problem is filling in and cleaning up the area left behind,” says Vision3 post-production supervisor Angus Cameron. (From “Conversion: 2D to 3D,” p. 9)

(This issue, by the way, shows that studios doing conversion are popping up in Europe as well as in the U.S.)

As Cameron’s statements and this description suggest, the process is a painstaking, lengthy one. Many in the industry praised Warner Bros.’ decision not to release Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part l in a 3D conversion. The studio cited insufficient time before the release date as its reason. Cameron remarked, “You can’t do conversion as part of a postproduction process on a big movie, because no one is willing to insert the two or three or four months necessary to do it well.”  (Of course, some foes of 3D may have suspected that the real reason for Deathly Hallows I being released only in 2D may have been that WB saw the declining share of the box office going to 3D and decided it just wasn’t worth it.)

Graham Clark, the head of stereography for the Stereo D company, claims that the conversion process can be done well as long as enough time is allotted for it:

“The main thing is this is an artistic process,” he said of conversion. “Composing things in 3D space is every bit as artistic as composing things in 2D space.” [...]

“Because there are so many factors that go into deciding how to compose a shot, you need interaction with the producer, director, cinematographer—so you are not, at the eleventh hour changing things,” he said. “Also, visual effects studios are used to handing off [VFX elements] at the eleventh hour. Conversion is new in the film pipeline, and people aren’t used to having to hand stuff off earlier.”

Clark points out some of the ways that conversion could be used to enhance a film. If a 3D camera can’t be fitted into a certain space, a shot can be done in 2D and converted. If after a scene is shot the filmmakers want to shift the spatial relations of elements within it, they can do so—eventually, at any rate, since the techniques for doing that are still being developed. As Clark points out, films shot in 3D usually have some shots that are converted. Even Avatar included some. (See Carolyn Giardina’s “The art of the 3D conversion,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 29, 2010, pp. 6, 87. The same article, retitled “Expert: The Biggest Challenge in 3D Conversion,” is available here for subscribers.)

Given that most effects-heavy films these days face a major crunch to make their release dates and have to employ multiple effects houses to do the job, a quality 3D conversion can only add to the headache. Not to mention more work for the conscientious director and cinematographer who have to sit in on the decision-making to prevent the quality of their work from being diminished.

All in all, it looks as though 3D will not die out completely. But will there come a time when every screen in the world’s major markets will have the capacity to show 3D films? That was Katzenberg and Cameron’s original ideal, or so they said. Others had the same vision. Katzenberg has committed Dreamworks Animation to making only 3D films. Does he plan eventually to eliminate 2D prints altogether? Cameron claimed he would do that with Avatar, but he had to give in on that one.

Maybe Katzenberg and Cameron would object that they didn’t mean that literally every screen would be 3D. Yet advocates for 3D often compare it to sound or color or widescreen, all processes which did fully penetrate theatrical exhibition. In major markets sound took about three years (though places like Japan and Russia still made a few silent films into the mid-1930s). Widescreen took about six years. The most apt comparison is perhaps color, which didn’t become really viable until the mid-1930s; it remained somewhat rare into the 1940s and didn’t really become dominant until the late 1960s. But in our era of fast-moving technology, perhaps three decades from now 3D, at least in its current form, requiring glasses, will be a dead technology.

In my first entry on 3D, I mentioned that not very many producers or directors have been proselytizing for the process nearly as much as Katzenberg and Cameron have. Lucas is converting the Star Wars series, but he doesn’t promote the process with the fervor he once devoted to digital cinematography and projection and Dolby sound. Spielberg’s first 3D film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, is coming out in December, but he’s not making the round of the trade fairs singing the praises of the process. The same is true of Scorsese and his 3D debut, Hugo Cabret, also coming in December.

Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro had originally stated that The Hobbit would be 2D, so as to keep a unified look alongside the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But when Warner Bros. finally greenlit the film in October of last year, the press release included the news that the two parts will be shot in 3D. Peter Jackson is a big booster of the Red brand digital cameras (used on The Lovely Bones and District 9), and he enthused briefly in the Red press release about using the new Epic 3D model for The Hobbit. His Weta Digital facility did most of the effects for Avatar. Still, he’s not out on the stump, urging theaters to convert and warning filmmakers not to retrofit their films, and many fans wonder whether Warner Bros. left him any choice in the matter of using 3D. (Vague statements have been made about the trilogy being released in 3D eventually, but there’s no firm news about that.)

Of course, assuming 3D is here to stay, there will always be bad conversions because there are bad instances of anything. There are shoddy-looking 2D movies and always have been. Still, the studios didn’t charge extra for them. There are and will be movies originally shot in 3D that are bad. People will have to pay extra for them, too, at least in the near future. Somehow, paying that premium 3D price seems to make people more indignant about bad movies than paying the regular price does. Studios are not likely to heed Katzenberg’s plea that they not crank out cheap 3D-izations. If such sloppy jobs as Clash of the Titans continue to come out and sour people on paying premiums, the studios may have to lower those premiums until they just cover the extra costs of production and of the glasses. If 3D ceases to generate any significant extra profit, will the studios bother with it?

Or will they take the more sensible approach that I mentioned at the beginning of the first part of this entry, settling for multiplexes converting two or three screens for 3D capacity and showing either special-event films like Avatar or cheap genre films like Piranha 3D? Part of that approach would include continuing to make 2D prints of films. There are quite a few viewers who would prefer that option.

At least one studio chief agrees. Last summer Home Media Magazine‘s article on Toy Story 3 reported: “Disney CEO Bob Iger, in a recent financial call, cautioned flooding the market in 3D releases, opting instead that earmarked titles in the format should be done strategically, and not as an afterthought.”

Before moving on to vociferous 3D opponents, I’ll mention a couple of intriguing, possibly significant things that I’ve noticed that may indicate a short life (or possibly a marginalized long life) for 3D.

First, on January 10, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its scientific and technical awards. (Those are the ones that are given out at a separate ceremony and are given a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it acknowledgment during the Oscar ceremony.) These awards are often given for developments that occurred years earlier. On the other hand, major innovations tend to get honored fairly soon. The two technical awards given for special-effects programs for The Lord of the Rings were given in 2004, the same year that The Return of the King swept the Oscars.

This year’s awards include none relating to 3D. (For Variety subscribers, the complete list is here; so far they don’t seem to be listed on the Academy’s website.) Instead, they relate to such inventions as a new winch for flying heavy props like cars, a new suspended-camera mount, systems for queuing special effects for rendering, a method for facial-expression capture, and an innovative way of using bounce lighting in computer animation. Maybe it’s not significant, but it may give a clue as to the professional motion-picture technicians’ view of 3D.

Second, this past summer David and I were able to attend a trade demonstration at a local theater. The Technicolor firm had innovated a 3D add-on lens for  35mm projectors. Technicolor had seven Hollywood studios signed on, agreeing to provide analog 3D prints formatted in the system. (13 of the 19 films released in 3D in 2010, beginning with How to Train Your Dragon, were available on 35mm 3D prints.) The main appeal of the system was that distributors don’t buy it; they rent it by the year. The special silver screen needed for the technology would cost around $4000 to $6000 to install (and could be used for some digital 3D systems, including RealD), and the lens would be rented at $2000 per 3D film exhibited, with a maximum of $12,000 per year. In contrast, a digital 3D conversion costs at least $75,000 per house.

Some small-town exhibitors from the surrounding area were obviously intrigued. They couldn’t afford to convert to digital/3D, but this offered a cheaper option. Nobody mentioned it during the demo, but the other obvious implication seemed to be, if you just rent your equipment, you won’t lose out if the 3D craze fizzles out. The firm anticipated having over 500 systems installed in the U.S. by the end of 2010. (For a case of a theater in Decatur, Illinois that canceled its deal with Technicolor, see here; the management failed to understand that one has to charge higher admission for 3D tickets because the print rental fees and 3D system cost more, and the projectionist keeps referring to the 3D lens as a “camera.” On the whole, one can’t feel that in this case the Technicolor system itself was to blame. The 25 equipped screens out of the 150 in the Bow Tie Cinemas chain in California presumably have fared better.)

[Added later the same day: Skip Huston, who run Huston's Avon Theater 3 in Decatur, tells me that the reporter was the one who called the lens a "camera." (Knowing what it is to be misquoted by a reporter, I can well believe it.) The owners tried to avoid raising ticket prices for their customers, but that just doesn't work with 3D. Mr. Huston's theater is a mom-and-pop establishment competing with two Carmike multiplexes. Those wishing to avoid 3D have the option of 100% 2D at the Avon.]

Naysayers galore

The more I see of the process, the more I think of it as a way to charge extra for a dim picture.

Roger Ebert

Roger’s remark sums up the two beefs people have with 3D. Not surprisingly, when 3D was a novelty and only major films had it, people were willing to pay extra. Now that any multiplex will be likely to have one or two screens devoted to 3D movies at any given time, the premium has begun to seem onerous. And yes, the glasses do cut out a noticeable part of the light coming from the screen.

According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (quoted in The Hollywood Reporter), “a $5 premium per ticket is too much to expect audiences to pay for 3D. That survey indicated that 77% of Americans will not pay a premium of more than $4.” In terms of the industry’s attitude, the report adds, “Many people are over-excited by it. The danger is that industry players risk killing a golden goose by overselling and, in some cases, overpricing the 3D experience—and by providing too much mediocre content that doesn’t do justice to the technology.”

Putting aside the high price, there are those who actively dislike the process. Others admit that there are a few films that justify the use of 3D but that most films using the process released so far have been attempts on the parts of the studio to jack up the ticket prices. If these people are entertainment journalists, they use the forum of their reviews or columns to air their complaints. If they are ticket-buying audience members, they search out the 2D screens or stay home. Some of them blog about their complaints, others write letters to the editor, and others carp about 3D around the water cooler.

Roger Ebert probably has the highest profile of the anti-3D naysayers, as least among the general public. In an article in Newsweek (May 10), he laid out his objections:

3-D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches. It is driven largely to sell expensive projection equipment and add a $5 to $7.50 surcharge on already expensive movie tickets. Its image is noticeably darker than standard 2-D. It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose. For moviegoers in the PG-13 and R ranges, it only rarely provides an experience worth paying a premium for.

Roger goes through each of these reasons in more detail. He writes with conviction, and the studios would be wrong to think that he stands alone. I wonder how many other websites have linked to the online version of the essay. I see it quoted and linked a lot, even eight months after it appeared.

Movie City News critic David Poland, also far from being a fan of 3-D, recently posted an entry called “Will 2011 Be A 3D Car Wreck?” He assesses many of the roughly 30 3D films announced for this year. As he points out, similar films will be competing with each other during the key release seasons, as with Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret, the third in the “Chipmunks” franchise, and Spielberg’s Tintin movie, which are coming out within a short period. He concludes:

But the problem remains… 3D is a tool, not an answer. The problem that I expect next December, for instance, will be a parade of high quality films of a similar tone all piled up in on month. Same with the load of animation in November. And whichever films pay the price – and some films will – it won’t be 3D’s fault, but rather, overloading the marketplace. The franchises are franchises and the product that isn’t franchise will need to be sold smartly and heavily… just as in a world without any 3D at all.

This is an interesting variant on the view of 3D as a symptom of the film industry’s problems. Often popular commentaries link 3D mainly to the loss of audiences to TV, video games, and other new media sources of entertainment. But Poland sees the problem as more related to the increasing dependence on franchises and big event films. When other methods of luring patrons into theaters fails (Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie together for the first time!), 3D remains a lure–except when it doesn’t, as with Gulliver’s Travels.

These days Entertainment Weekly seems to be mounting a campaign against 3D. Lisa Schwarzbaum makes no bones about her increasing disenchantment with the format. About a quarter of the prose in her December 15 review of The Chronicles of Narnia:Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C rating) is devoted to it:

And that includes the option of watching The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in undistinguished, unnecessary 3-D. I’m more and more frustrated these days by movies that sell the 3-D movie experience as a kind of turbo-charged event, yet the greatest extra we see through plastic movie-theater goggles is the ”dimensionality” of a sword or a boot or the imaginary fur on a CGI mouse. I’m confounded by the fact that, aside from the Pevensie siblings and their nicely obnoxious cousin, absolutely everything and everyone aboard the Dawn Treader looks one-dimensional, no matter how closely I peer through special specs.

It’s not just that one film, either. Schwarzbaum called Tangled (B rating) “Disney’s new (yet not quite novel), musical (yet not quite memorable), 3-D (yet so what) animated retelling of the Grimm brothers’ Rapunzel.” Of The Green Hornet (C-), she remarked, “In a last-minute tweak, the production has also been meaninglessly 3-d-ified–never mind that there’s nothing whatsoever 3-D-ish going on. Maybe those clumsy 3-D glasses are meant to let moviegoers mimic the superhero mask-wearing experience? At any rate, they let moviegoers pay more for a ticket.”

OK, she’s one critic. But note EW‘s back-page “Bullseye,” which shows what one or more people on the staff think of as recent hits and misses in the sphere of popular culture. For the week of November 11, , there was an arrow fairly close to the center with the caption: “Good news for 2012: Batman gets a title (The Dark Knight Rises). Better news for 2012: He won’t be rising in 3-D.” For the year-end Bullseye from the undated last issue of 2010, an arrow on the outer rim had a distinctly unsympathetic caption (see above). The January 21 issue places an arrow near the outer ring, labeled “All that talk of making The Great Gatsby in 3-D.”

Lest anyone think that EW has some hidden agenda in knocking 3D, we should note that the magazine belongs to Time Warner, whose Warner Bros. studio is deeply invested in the success of the format.

There’s also a great deal of anecdotal material about how parents are tired of paying multiple 3D surcharges when taking a whole family—and tired of finding that the kids won’t wear the glasses through the whole show. Dorothy Pomerantz is one parent with a soapbox from which to state her case, in the form of her “The Biz Blog” for Forbes. On July 13 she wrote:

We went to an 11 a.m. showing (for matinee prices) of Despicable Me and it cost us $41 for a family of four. If we had decided to see the film in 3-D, it would have cost us $55 for tickets alone. In my mind, that’s too much money.

For one thing, my kids are scared of the 3-D effects and wiggle so much in their seats it’s hard to tell if they’re seeing the image clearly at all (and my daughter has a very hard time wearing the glasses over her normal glasses for 90 minutes at a time). I find the glasses sit very uncomfortably on my face and that the movie image is often dim. For some reason my husband doesn’t see the 3-D well and ends up with a horrible headache.

People seem to think that children’s animation is ideal for 3D—but if a lot of young children don’t like the glasses or can’t keep them on, maybe that’s not true. (The image above right is not a warning against such problems but a promotional item for watching 3D Blu-ray on PlayStation 3. Apparently children will be seen and be heard.)

Apart from journalists, ticket-buyers are complaining. Back to EW, where the January 14 edition’s letters page (p. 10) had this from Courtney Holcomb of Grand Prairie, Texas:

I’ve read many articles discussing the trend that Avatar started … yet most of them miss a simple point. The film was available in both 3-D and standard formats. The customer had to decide “Do I want to see it in 3-D or not?” More recent 3-D movies have changed the question to “Is it worth it to see the movie in 3-D?” Many of the ones on the “Bad!” end of your “Ranking 3-D Movies” chart might have done better if the standard version had been available as well.

Actually the chart (see left) was by quality, not income, but Ms Holcomb’s point could apply to box-office hits and disasters alike. People who had no access to 2D versions of any film on the list might have decided to go. A friend of mine told me he didn’t see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, despite wanting to, because it was only showing in 3D.

On the same letters page, Stephen Wohlleb of Sayville, New York, wrote:

While studio execs scurry to push out any film they can in 3-D, they must keep in mind that 3-D should be used to enhance the story, not replace it. The “other Avatar,” The Last Airbender, was so poorly received because story still comes first; 3-D does not a film make.

I have not ventured too far into the depths of chat rooms and comments on the internet for the purpose of writing this blog, but of course, there one can find vociferous pro and con statements on 3D.

I have a friend with vision problems and frequent headaches, and she actually finds the 3D glasses improve her viewing of films. That doesn’t seem to be common, though. Mostly the headaches and the kids-having-trouble-with-glasses complaints seem to be shared by many.

Industry commentators don’t seem to mention the novelty effect of 3D much any more. Surely they never really thought that audiences will be dazzled forever. I think we reached the ho-hum point some time last year. I’ve mentioned that people began to resent the $3+ price hikes and to pick and choose more carefully among 3D releases, wanting the movie to be good enough to warrant paying more. But others perhaps decided 3D in general wasn’t worth it and that they would rather see a film the old fashioned way, seeing a flat image undimmed by glasses.

For me it was Toy Story 3. In 2009, David and I saw Up in 3D and enjoyed it. But we enjoyed it because it was another great Pixar film. As I said in my 2009 entry, I have remembered the film in 2D. We went to Toy Story 3 in 2D and enjoyed it. I have yet to see a film in both 3D and 2D to make a comparison, but my suspicion is that I would usually prefer the 2D version. I suppose the basic problem is that if the 3D is used for flashy depth effects with things flying out at the audience, it becomes too distracting and obtrusive. But if it’s used simply to make, say, jungle plants look closer to the viewer than Carl and Russell, then it’s unobtrusive—and hence not very interesting. Given that we have other mental tools besides binocular vision for grasping the spatial relations in an image, the jungle plants look closer in 2D as well.

A final thought on disaffected audiences. Currently there is a sector of the moviegoing public that loves 3D, will pay extra to see almost anything in 3D, and hopes the process expands. That part of the public is probably as big as it’s going to get. (Yes, new kids will grow up, but others will mature out of their adolescent obsessions with such things.) In the U.S. at any rate, right now there aren’t a lot of people suddenly discovering the joys of this wonderful new format. (It’s really just getting going in the major Asian markets.) But the proportion of the getting fed up by the process’ drawbacks—its higher cost, the growing numbers of mediocre and bad films in 3D, the glasses—is probably growing.

Just in time for inclusion in this entry, Roger has posted a new article, “Why 3D doesn’t work and never will. Case closed.” It includes a letter from Walter Murch, who is about as well-respected an expert on film technology as you could find. The letter explains how 3D systems work in ways that are contrary to the ways that our eyes and brains actually function. He deals with strobing, the convergence/focus issue (“So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another.” That’s where people’s headaches come from in watching 3D movies.) Murch concludes: “So: dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: how long will it take people to realize and get fed up?”

Perhaps not very long. I was expecting that in the wake of last week’s post I would receive indignant email and get flamed on message boards. So far I have seen no indignation. One thread on imdb that linked to the entry led to about ten comments, all expressing dislike of or indifference to 3D. Of course, that entry was on the “advantages of 3D” (such as they are) for the industry. Maybe this one will rouse more ire.

A 3D film even a naysayer can love

There’s one 3D film that even 3D disparagers eagerly want to see: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It’s the one where Herzog got exclusive access to film in the Chauvet cave, which contains one of the largest and oldest sets of prehistoric paintings. I would love to see the cave, but it isn’t open to the public. So naturally I would love to see Herzog’s film. (He’s not exactly a bad filmmaker, either, whatever the topic). It seems the perfect use for 3D: showing people exciting places they will never get to see on their own. I could imagine a similar film being made in the tomb of Sety I in the Valley of the Kings, a very deep tomb full of paintings considered among the best that survive from ancient Egypt. It will almost certainly never be open to the public either.

IFC acquired the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. They don’t seem to be trying to publicize it very much. No announcement on their site of when it’s going to be released, and the Google link to the official trailer comes up with a “Page not found.” I had to go to The Documentary Blog to find out that the release date is March 25, but the author had no information about how many theaters would get it in 3D. I should think IFC would make more of a big deal about this film as a real “event” movie. Maybe they will, closer to the release date. With operas and sporting events playing in multiplexes, I would think that there’s a considerable audience for 3D films that bring special events to a far-flung audience. Every kid whose imagine was kindled by learning about prehistoric cave paintings in school, every art lover, plus every cinephile, would attend Cave of Forgotten Dreams if it came to a theater near them.

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