3-D Movies Piggyback On Digital-Cinema Supply Chain

But does it mark a major advance in film technology, or is it just the next "Sensurround"?

Laurie Sullivan, Contributor

October 3, 2005

5 Min Read

A quiet resurgence in a long underdeveloped technology called 3-D is creating a buzz throughout Hollywood--only this time in digital. It's been building since Walt Disney Studios approached George Lucas' visual-effects house, Industrial Light and Magic, earlier this year to convert the animated film Chicken Little into 3-D. The movie opens on Nov. 4 at nearly 100 screens nationwide with a little help from some costly high-tech digital projection equipment, servers, and goofy glasses.

Making it possible is digital technology from Christie/AIX, a subsidiary formed by movie distributor Access Integrated Technology Inc. Christie Digital Systems USA, a projector maker, agreed to support the subsidiary and become a contributor to the project. The theaters are using Doremi Labs Inc.'s duel-stream servers. Access IT and Christie extended their relationship Monday, committing to installing 4,000 systems at theaters, up from 2,500 screens announced in June.

It's all part of Hollywood's ramp-up to digital 3-D that will see, among other releases, Monster House released on July 1, 2006, and Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope in 2007. That's according to Marty Shindler, who founded The Shindler Perspective Inc., an entertainment technology and business-consulting firm.

Shindler moderated an industry panel of executives from the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, Cobalt Entertainment, Digital Cinema Initiative, In-Three, QuVIS, Real D, and Texas Instruments last week at the ETC-USC on Hollywood Boulevard. The topic: "Digital Cinema And 3-D--Business, Production, And Distribution Trends." The Los Angeles chapter of The Association for Computing Machinery Siggraph in cooperation with ETC-USC hosted the event.

Directors George Cameron and Lucas, among others, are prodding 3-D adoption. No standards exist, but the technology is piggybacking on the supply-chain coattails of specifications designed for digital cinema, a method to create and distribute movies to theaters in bits and bytes rather than on celluloid. The specs were completed and released in July by Digital Cinema Initiative LLC, a venture formed in 2002 by many of the large movie studios.

Today, 3-D is more advanced than anything audiences will remember from the 1950s and '60s. This time there are new tools available. In-Three Inc., for example, developed and introduced in January a process called dimensionalization that allows artists to convert standard 2-D feature films into 3-D during postproduction. It also gives movie studios the option to pull archival films out or storage and re-release them in 3-D, something Lucas is expected to do with the Star Wars saga.

Several companies have introduced methods to display 3-D in theaters. "We've been down this path before with sound, color, and widescreen technologies," says Charles Swartz, executive director and CEO for the ETC-USC. "That's the challenge for creative people to use the technology to tell compelling stories."

Josh Greer predicts that about 1,000 screens will have the capability to run 3-D movies within 18 months. "That's assuming we can get enough projectors," says the co-founder and CEO at Real D, a privately held Los Angeles company that provides visualization technologies for entertainment, marketing, science, research, and other industries.

Digital 3-D uses a single, standard digital light processing (DLP) cinema projector and single server if it has duel-streaming capability. Theaters also can use two servers linked together. QuVIS, Dolby, and Doremi all make cinema servers that offer these capabilities. In-Three says it doesn't produce eye fatigue, which is critical for watching a full-length 3-D movie comfortably. Some movies recently released in 3-D include Spy Kids and The Adventures Of Sharkboy And Lavagirl.

But the plastic glasses with LCD battery inside the frame used to demonstrate the technology at the combined ETC-USC and Siggraph meeting were cumbersome and a bit bulky--too heavy to rest on someone's nose for two hours, the typical length of a feature film. The glasses, at a cost of about $200 each, are used in design simulation. "There are efforts under way to develop light-weight, low-cost glasses for cinema that potentially could cut the cost by a factor of 10," says Glenn Kennel, director of technology development, DLP Cinema, Texas Instruments Inc. "Another approach is to use a silver screen, which costs a bit more money to install."

Real D, an optics company that developed the equipment and eyewear to bring Chicken Little to theaters in 3-D this month, is a proprietary method that uses Z-Screen technology. It puts the active polarizer mounted on the front of the projection lens that polarizes each alternating image so it can only be seen through the lens on Real D's cheap disposable glasses--possibly less than $1.

Will 3-D catch on or is it an elaborate plot to lure audiences back to the box office? Walt Disney Co. in September said its movie studio division would post a loss of up to $300 million in the current quarter, hurt by weak box office ticket sales and higher marketing expenses.

Hollywood attributes the slowdown, in part, to the shrinking amount of time between a movie's release and when it becomes available on DVD. The potential business impact is fewer film productions or lower budgets if less money is flowing to the studios.

Overall growth for the home entertainment industry is slowing too, up a mere 1.1% to $11.4 billion in the first six months of 2005, compared with the same six months in 2004, according to Shindler. "For an industry that saw double-digit growth in prior years, that's fairly dramatic," he says. Movie rentals are down 2.3% to $3.9 billion for the first six months in 2005 compared with the same period last year.

The potential impact on the movie industry is huge. To produce a digital 3-D film isn't cheap: It costs between $20,000 and $25,000 to produce a copy of a 2-D film and between $35,000 and $50,000 for a 3-D film, Shindler says. But the potential for higher box office sales is there, too. Last year's Polar Express in 3-D from Warner Bros., in limited release at IMAX Theaters, brought in $45 million, demonstrating consumer hunger for something new.

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