3D cinema: A giant leap forward

Forget those flimsy red and green glasses 3D cinema is back, but this time it actually works. At a preview of the new U2 film, Rebecca Armstrong glimpses the future
Click to follow
The Independent Tech

It's a cold winter's morning, yet everyone around me is wearing dark glasses, including U2's lead singer a man who is, after all, almost as famous for his love of specs as he is for his singing. In fact, Bono is just a few feet away, and during one song, as he reaches out, I fear he might have my eye out if it weren't for the shades I'm sporting.

The atmosphere is electric. I'm watching a concert from the Latin-American leg of U2's Vertigo tour, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of fans. It's hard to remember that, in reality, I'm sitting in a cinema in central London. So this may not be a live performance, but one thing's for sure: the future of 3D cinema beats anything you may have seen in the 1980s.

U2 3D is the first of a series of big-budget films that are due for release in the next two years, made using digital 3D technology and designed to entice film fans back into the cinema and away from their DVD players.

For anyone who last saw a 3D film 25 years ago, when the 3D medium was last dubbed the next big thing, watching U2 3D will come as something of a shock. Beautifully shot in crystal-clear high-definition, it's genuinely easy to forget you are watching a concert on screen rather than being there in person. The experience is totally convincing and, best of all, the geeky cardboard glasses of old have gone. Instead of watching Bono and the gang through a haze of red and green, viewers look through polarised glasses and the 3D eyewear of the future is slick, black and reminiscent of a pair of classic Ray-Bans.

"The only thing that makes any of this possible is digital technology," explains Steve Schklair of 3ality Digital, the film company that created U2 3D. "We use digital image processing in real time as we capture images and we shoot digitally, not on film as would have been done 30 years ago. We use zoom lenses which back then would have been impossible to use because you didn't have the real-time feedback to make sure that each image matched, pixel for pixel."

Back in 3D's 1980s heyday, cinema-goers would regularly suffer from headaches and even nausea brought on by watching images projected by two separate projectors. "It caused dozens of problems the projectors could be out of sync, colours wouldn't match, the focus would be out," says Schklair.

And this had artistic as well as physical repercussions. "The biggest problem in the past was that because watching 3D movies gave people headaches, the 3D gags were very gratuitous because the thinking was that if there were enough visual gags, people would put up with the headaches," he continues. "The other problem was that it was incredibly expensive to make films in 3D so the business didn't work, the presentation didn't work and ultimately the experience wasn't all that satisfying."

Now, though, the business side of 3D is looking a lot healthier. Towards the end of last year, the animated adventure film Beowulf gave audiences and cinema owners a taste of the power of 3D. Although the film was on general release as a standard two-dimensional film, about 50 UK venues screened the film in digital 3D, and the response was impressive. The 400 cinemas that showed Beowulf in its regular format took on average about 11,000 by the start of December. By contrast, the 50 screens showing the epic in 3D grossed on average 29,000, and the four dedicated Imax cinemas that showed it made 110,000 each. Disney has had similar success with 3D releases of its films Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, while screenings of the 3D version of Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas are guaranteed every year for as

long as tickets keep selling. It's good news for cinemas, says Olly Richards, the news editor of Empire film magazine.

"Home cinema has become so successful because televisions can be as big as you want, stereo sound is fantastic and HD-DVD film quality is as good as you can see in the cinema, so there needs to be something new that the cinema can offer that home viewing can't. 3D could be that thing." It could be, provided that cinemas are willing to buy 3D-ready digital projectors and given the figure above, it seems that this investment could be well worth making despite recent advances in making 3D work on televisions designed for our homes.

The interest from Hollywood should also convince cinemas that digital 3D is likely to be more than just a passing fad. DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man behind Shrek, Madagascar and the recent Bee Movie, has given 3D his backing, calling it "the single greatest innovation in film-making in 70 years." So enamoured is he with 3D that he has announced that every release from his studio from next year will be in 3D.

"Now that DreamWorks has committed to doing all their animation in 3D, other people will follow suit. As soon as it catches on, cinemas are going to have to switch to be able to show 3D, because that's what the big films are doing and that's where they'll make their money," says Richards.

The biggest 3D film in production at the moment is Avatar, James Cameron's first feature film since Titanic, and Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are currently working on a 3D Tintin trilogy. "We have a steady flow of the world's top film-makers coming into our facility to try and understand what we do," says Sandy Climan, CEO of 3ality Digital and executive producer of U2 3D.

But making 3D films can be a cumbersome business requiring massive amounts of equipment. During the U2 3D shoot there were two cameras for every camera position encased in computerised motion-controlled equipment that means a tripling or quadrupling of the amount of equipment normally used, plus extra film-crew members to work it all. Despite this, says Schklair, "we're able to shoot a 3D movie on the same schedule as if it were being shot in 2D".

Enticing people back to the cinema with 3D blockbusters is one thing, but are multi-dimensional films likely to become the norm anytime soon?

"Any film can be shot in 3D so it becomes a creative question is it worth making every film 3D?" asks Schklair. "We shot some dialogue scenes recently that were much more interesting in 3D because we could accentuate the intimacy of the characters having the dialogue or the distance between them. It used to be that 3D was only good for big-budget action-adventure movies but I don't agree with that. In almost every case, it's a more interesting way to look at a movie if the depth is used by a film-maker who knows what they're doing."

The only problem at the moment is the speed of uptake by British cinemas. "There are limitations to 3D, in that the screening capabilities haven't quite caught up with what can be done filming-wise, but that's because it's relatively young technology," explains Richards. "If you have directors like Spielberg, Jackson and Cameron, who are arguably the three biggest directors in the world, doing it, everyone else is going to start catching on. If those films prove to be hits, then 3D could well become the norm within the next decade."

Coming soon

U2 3D
The cheapest way to get a front-row seat at a U2 concert. U2 3D opens at the Imax in Waterloo, London, on 21 February and will be shown at digital 3D cinemas across the UK from 22 February.

Journey 3D
3D adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne that will be released exclusively in digital 3D format. It is scheduled for release on 8 August.

Final Destination 4
After three instalments of the horror series, Final Destination 4 is set to be a 3D title and is scheduled for release in late 2008 or early 2009.

Based on Neil Gaiman's novella, Coraline is the first stop-motion animation to be shot stereoscopically with a dual digital camera rig for digital 3D. It's due to hit cinemas in January 2009.

Monsters vs Aliens
A 1950s-style sci-fi adventure featuring loveable monsters and evil alien overlords told in computer-animated 3D. Made by DreamWorks Animation, Monsters Vs Aliens is due out in March 2009.

A trilogy from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Each will make one film, then the word is that the two will collaborate on the third. The first part is rumoured to be released in 2009.

Rumoured to be costing $195m to make, James Cameron's sci-fi blockbuster is due to be released in December 2009.