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3-D: The Future of Cinema

Feb 10th, 2009
First sound. Then color. Then widescreen. Now 3-D.

The end of the motion-picture theater has been trumpeted time and time again and each time motion pictures have managed to pull through, albeit with some changes. Movie houses survived the advent of television by going color. Then when television went color motion pictures went widescreen… which eventually caused television to go widescreen too. And after more than a decade of battling against home-video for consumers content to “wait until it comes out on DVD”, cinema’s challenge has made stronger with the 1080p resolution of Blu-ray Disc and that new large-screen HDTV in your family room. But movie theaters are about to fight back: in order to motivate consumers to pay exorbitant ticket prices to find parking and fight the crowds at their local Cineplex, the film industry has a new trick up its sleeve: 3-D.

An interesting read is this article in Newsweek which goes into detail about the current movement towards 3-D within the film industry and quotes Jeffrey Katzenberg saying, “I've seen the future of cinema, and it is 3-D”. Disney is already routinely producing animated titles for 3-D and they are have been joined by several other major studios. But even if the industry push for 3-D is a given, many of you might be saying to yourself “But who would care? I don’t care about seeing movies in 3-D.” If that’s you, then my guess is that your experience of 3-D conjures up memories of red/blue glasses and blurry, artificial-looking effects. Things have changed.

This isn’t your dad’s 3-D...

This time around it’s a whole new deal. This time around it really works without any of the annoying side effects you’ve come to hate with those 3-D commercials and Saturday afternoon horror films on television. But before we jump into the technical advances that make today’s 3-D so superior to what’s been tried before, a quick summary of how we see in 3-D would help to lay the groundwork.

How Does 3-D Work?

The way your brain sees depth (3-D) in real life is by the slightly different angle that your left and right eye see the world. The principle for seeing depth is very similar to the way you hear it, and so it’s not surprising that 3-D photography is also called stereoscopic photography. Making a picture appear 3-D follows the same pattern of making a stereo audio recording: instead of one “mono” photograph you take two photographs, one for the right eye and one for the left. Both cameras (or “viewpoints” if you’re talking about digital animation) are taking the same picture but from a slightly different angle… as subtle as the difference in angle by looking out your right eye versus your left. By letting the right eye see the right picture, and the left eye see the left picture, your brain perceives 3-D as it would from slightly different angle your two eyes see what’s in front of you in real life. Many people would be surprised to learn that stereoscopic photography has been around for over 100 years: if you want to blow your mind, next time you’re at an antique shop, check out some stereoscope cards on an old stereoscopic viewer and you’ll be shocked to find that even before the invention of radio Victorian households were enjoying 3-D pictures of the ancient pyramids and Roman ruins.

It's easy to see 3-D from a viewer that only lets each eye see its own picture. But how do you do the same thing with a motion picture on a movie screen or television?

IMAX 3-D films take the highest quality approach for analog film by running two projectors that literally project the left and right eye’s pictures onto the screen at the same time. Take off your glasses and you’ll see the blurry result of the two images overlapping on the screen, but put your glasses on and each eye is privy to only the one image it’s supposed to see. The way this works is by using polarized light, which is light that is filtered to move only in one direction. The simplest way to explain it is that one “eye” of the movie is projected through a filter for up-and-down waves of light, and the other “eye” is of the film is projected through a filter that limits it to side-to-side light. Without glasses the polarized light looks like normal light and so you see both images as a blurry overlapping mess on the screen. But when you put on your glasses, the secret is that they are also polarized filters: one side only lets in up-and-down light, and the other side only lets in side-to-side light. By wearing these glasses each eye only sees its one image from the two that are projected on the screen.

This solution with polarized light produces a high quality result, but it requires two images being projected in sync by two projectors and so it’s more costly for the theater to project than a regular film. Thanks to Mark and Phil who wrote in to alert me to my original error, I’m pleased to now correctly state that the 50 or so 3-D films that were professionally projected up through the 1950s were in fact projected via this high quality synchronized/polarized method allowing audiences to see them at their best (Kiss Me Kate pictured at the right, a classic 3-D icon of the past. More on the history of 3-D at http://www.3dfilmpf.org/).

However, by the 1970s as projection became less of an art and more of a commodity, to save time and money theaters tried to “cheat” by faking 3-D out of one projected image by overlaying onto one image the left eye’s content with one color and the right eye’s content with another (a process called “anaglyph”) and by viewing the image through red/blue glasses each eye sees the left/right image it’s supposed to. This method is the cheapest of all but it’s also gives the poorest quality (crap, actually) and gives viewers a headache as the brain struggles to put back together a 3-dimensional image from two differently-colored pictures in each eye, not to mention that the resulting image has severely screwed up color fidelity. But because the system can be used on any traditional display (as long as viewers wear the glasses), it’s the compromised way we’ve seen 3-D on television, DVD and Blu-ray Disc (though that will be changing soon). But perhaps the biggest problem with this “anaglyph” red/blue half-baked method of delivering a compromised 3-D experience is that for many people it represents the only 3-D experience they’ve ever had which causes them to form a prejudice against 3-D as a gimmick that can’t really deliver.

Another solution that preserves the fidelity of the discrete nature of using polarized light but from a single video display is using LCD Shutter-glasses. With this approach, rather than show the left and right image on the screen at the same time, the left and right image alternate: one fraction of a second the picture is that of the right eye, then the left, then the right etc. The way that each eye is kept from seeing the wrong eye’s picture is by electronically timed LCD glasses that are synchronized with the 3-D video: the left eye blacks out when the right eye’s picture is on the screen, and then the right eye of the glasses blacks out when the left eye’s picture is on the screen. With an image alternating fast enough the flicker isn’t a problem (it certainly wouldn’t be a problem with 120 Hz televisions), and you get a great quality 3-D picture just like with polarized light without any skewed colors or detail.

The benefit of LCD shutter glasses over using polarized light is that everyone can watch the 3-D image from a single display device or projector (making it well suited to home-video delivery, remember, polarized takes two projected images rather than one single video stream). There are some downsides: electronic LCD shutter glasses are more expensive than simple polarized filters and some video processing equipment (even the video processing built into some TVs and projectors) can cause time-delays which throw the glasses out of sync with the left-right video. Also, because the images are alternating rather than being synchronized at the same time for each eye, some argue that polarized projection will always deliver the best visual result (but both polarized and LCD-shutter methods are 10 times better than the red/blue anaglyph approach).

Enough with the History, What makes 3-D more likely to make it today than the failed attempts we’ve seen before?

Remember how in the 1970s theaters didn’t want to pay for two projectors to show 3-D movies and so instead opted for the crappy red/blue glasses idea? Well, another reason they went with colored glasses was because to do polarized projection, in addition to dual projectors, they’d have needed to synchronize two film-prints at the same time down to the actual frame. Can you imagine a projectionist trying to seamlessly change film reels throughout the movie and keep that synchronization? That would have been far more expensive and far more complicated to manage than what comercial movie houses were willing to tackle with analog film. In fact, it’s more complicated than what movie houses are willing to tackle today. What’s changed is the technology to make it happen.

Digital projection solves the problem of having to carefully time dual-film prints by abandoning film in favor of a digital bitstream. Now the movie house only has the one-time overhead cost of the 3-D projector equipment. The only added challenge is collecting the polarized glasses at the end of each show. In fact, the same 3-D digital HD video stream could also be used to drive both polarized light and LCD systems. Either way, digital projection simplifies putting on the show, and the cost of digital projectors is getting cheaper and the image quality is getting better with each new generation.

But will people care?

They cared about color. The cared about widescreen. The only reason we think anything differently about 3-D is because most of us can’t shake the association with those crappy red/blue glasses that the industry has tried to pass off as “3-D!!!” Well now that's changing, and believable high-quality, hi-def 3-D movies are the next big thing to really bring something to the party and get people excited about seeing movies in a whole new way. Don’t feel that way about it yourself? Take this weekend to go see a 3-D digital projection of Coraline (great review here at www.comingsoon.net ) to see how artful, meaningful, and astounding the proper use of 3-D photography can be. If after that you’re not amazed and excited about the new era of 3-D cinema that’s knocking on your door, then you have my apologies for having given you the distraction of reading this optimistic article. But if you’re as excited about the prospect of 3-D as I am after getting a taste for how it can revolutionize our motion picture experience (thinking about seeing a film like The Hobbit in 3-D makes me absolutely drool), then stay tuned next time as we take this discussion to Blu-ray and its 3-D future that lies in store.

To Be Continued...

Comments (1)

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