Cinema has already been through two major revolutions in its relatively short life. First there was the transition from silent to talkie, then from black and white to colour. Now Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, believes "3D is the next revolution in the cinema-going experience".
A bold statement, and one tinged with a distinct bias as DreamWorks is one of several Hollywood studios set to release their forthcoming animation projects in the new, digitised 3D format. Titles set to hit our screens include Monsters vs Aliens (2009), A Christmas Carol (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), Shrek Goes Fourth (2010), and Avatar, due for release in December next year, which is hotly tipped to be the turning point in the 3D revolution.
It is important to point out that 3D is, of course, nothing new. It was first experimented with back in the 1950s and Imax cinemas have been showing films in 3D for the past 30 years. But now, with the advent of digital 3D technology being installed in cinemas worldwide, and the fact that the choice of films in 3D is not only broader but much better, audiences need only head to a multiplex and put on the glasses to immerse themselves in what is proving to be a wholly new way to enjoy the latest studio blockbuster.
"This is digital stereoscopic 3D. It is a far cry from the 3D experience of the 1950s. There is no ghosting and no headaches. It is pin-sharp, laser-sharp, crystal-clear 3D imagery," says Mark Batey, chief executive of the Film Distributors' Association. It's a view supported by Phil Clapp, chief executive of the Cinema Exhibitors' Association. "I have seen excerpts from the upcoming Monsters vs Aliens film and it is incredible. You actually feel immersed in the film, like the action is taking place around you, rather than in front of you, as it is in 2D."
There are currently 65 digital 3D screens in the UK, and more than 2,000 worldwide. Industry experts predict there will be at least 10,000 by 2012. This rapid expansion and advancement in 3D technology is seen by some as a response to the decline in cinema attendance and the rise in alternative viewing platforms such as the internet, PlayStation and cable television.
"Just as it was in the 1950s when the advent of television shook the cinema world to its bones, so in today's world of rapid digital communication, 3D is the cinemas' response to say we are bigger, brighter, bolder and better than anything you will experience at home," Batey says. Unlike the cumbersome, labour-intensive 3D systems of the 1950s, which required two cameras projecting on to the same screen, making synchronisation difficult, the new digital projectors, of which there are three different models – RealD, Dolby Digital Cinema and Imax 3D – require just the one projector run through a computer.
"The projection element is the same in terms of the lens and the lamp, but you have a server into which you plug hard drives with the film on, and that is then unscrambled and played through to the computer on the back of the projection unit," explains Clapp.
By simultaneously selecting two viewpoints, or a left eye and right eye, the technologies enable the brain to converge or fuse the images. By wearing the special glasses, the watcher prevents the image from bleeding over from the left to the right, or vice versa. "These projectors provide a much higher refresh rate between the two complementary eye images because it is stereo so the film producers are recording one version to the right eye and one to the left eye, and the projectors are then able to convert these into a high frame rate. So it is a really seamless effect," says Charlotte Jones, senior analyst of film and cinema at Screen Digest.
Also, unlike the heavy 35mm film reels, 3D digital films are stored on a hard disk, which means it is much easier to transport them from one cinema to the next. "These digital disks are essentially the right-eye and left-eye versions of the film together, and can be taken by bike or van to another site and inserted into a server and played through the digital projector, which is normally positioned alongside a 35mm projector," Batey says.
But the reason so many exhibitors are still holding back from installing the projectors is the expense. One digital projector alone for a single screen costs £40,000 to £50,000, and then to add a 3D upgrade would cost another £10,000 or even £20,000 on top of that.
"In the US, the studios are helping to finance the transition to digital and 3D by subsidising the projectors through the savings they are making as a result of using the cheaper digital prints as opposed to the expensive 35mm reels," Jones says. But outside of America, production companies working on 3D films are less inclined to contribute to the enormous costs, and take-up by the cinemas of the 3D projectors has so far been slow.
However, the potential revenue benefits of 3D are already being proven. The 3D release of films such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Fly Me to the Moon and Chicken Little have taken at least two times, and in some cases three times, as much as their 2D releases.
This is partly due to the higher ticket costs of seeing the films in 3D. "To produce an animation film in 3D, you are probably looking at adding another 15 per cent on to the film budget, for a live action you are looking at another 30 per cent, which is why the studios are having to hike up the prices by as much as $5 in the US to recoup costs," Jones says.
Global revenue from 3D ticket sales in 2008 amounted to $240m, approximately 70 per cent of which, or $166m, came from North America. That figure of $166m accounted for roughly 1.8 per cent of total projected North American box-office takings for 2008, and Jones expects the share to climb to approximately 15% in 2009.
The realms of possibility and potential revenue with the new 3D technology are also not just limited to film. Some cinemas are experimenting with beaming live events via satellite into cinemas in 3D. Last week, RealD and 3ality Digital staged the world's first live 3D broadcast of an American football game, at the Mann Chinese 6 theatre in Hollywood.
"That could be really significant. In Europe, for example, they could show the Fifa World Cup live in 3D. That would be incredible," says Jones, adding that "in the near future it will potentially be possible to beam 3D images to mobile phones and into the home. The only problem would be wearing those 3D glasses at home, where you could be playing video games for four or five hours, or watching a few films over the course of an evening." So, in actual fact, while the cinemas are hoping the new 3D experience will draw the young crowd back to their screens, it looks like it could keep them at home even longer.
Big-screen action: The power of Imax
* 'The Dark Knight' director Christopher Nolan filmed six of the film's major action sequences using Imax cameras. As a result, Imax box offices were inundated for weeks with filmgoers intent on seeing Batman and the Joker on the even bigger screen. The film made £360,000 with a single print on a single Imax screen in Manchester – with the aid, it should be noted, of Imax's inflated ticket prices.
* The Imax system was first developed in Canada in the 1970s. Imax can screen films in a much larger format, and with much greater resolution, than a conventional cinema screen. Modern Imax theatres are also equipped with super-sophisticated sound systems.
* Until now, there have been only a handful of Imax screens in the UK, and only one in London – at the BFI in Waterloo. All that will soon change, however, with the introduction of the Imax digital projection system to Europe. Far cheaper to instal and run than its predecessor, digital will allow Imax to roll out across the continent.
As well as screening live sports events and concerts, theatres have a full slate of Imax Hollywood blockbusters lined up for 2009, including 'Watchmen', 'Transformers 2', 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince', and 'Avatar'.