New Depth For 3d

As technology improves, filmakers see more than just a passing gimmick in visuals that literally jump off the screen

June 29, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

For years, 3-D movies have been the Rodney Dangerfields of cinema: amusing, intriguing but certainly not to be taken seriously.

They were OK for 1950s-film revivals, or as amusement-park attractions, or for big-screen IMAX presentations where audiences could oooh and ahhh over whales presented life-size and the water from their blowholes practically spraying you in the face.

But now the cheap thrills of 3-D are evolving into something smarter and maybe even a little more subtle. Increasingly movies - including two out next month - are banking on a level of 3-D depth that promises to go beyond gimmicky and become a new way of storytelling.

In Journey to the Center of the Earth, based on Jules Verne's 1864 intra-terrestrial adventure, star Brendan Fraser races across cracking lava fields that extend right up to the edge of the audience, while co-star Josh Hutcherson dangles from an improvised kite that seems to be soaring directly overhead.

In Fly Me to Moon, animated dragonflies hover just inches from the viewer's nose, and Apollo rocket ships roaring into the heavens are so close, one could almost reach out and hitch a ride.

"3-D allows you to have a more emotional experience, triggering sensory perceptions that you've just never had before," says Cary Granat, co-CEO of Walden Media, whose 3-D live-action version of Journey opens July 11. "We're not talking about the pop-out 3-D from horror films in the 1950s. We're talking about immersing you in a frame."

Adds director Ben Stassen, whose animated flies-in-space adventure, Fly Me to the Moon, opens Aug. 8, "I think that 3-D will be the new language of cinema."

The depth-defining process, with its promise of characters that almost literally jump off the screen, "is nothing less than the greatest adventure that has happened to all of us in the movie business since the advent of color 70 years ago," Dreamworks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg told a meeting of national and international theater owners in May.

In fact, Katzenberg is so sold on 3-D, he has decreed that all his studio's features will be released with the added dimension, beginning with March 2009's Monsters vs. Aliens and including 2010's Shrek 4. Disney has made a similar commitment for its computer-animated films, beginning with November's Bolt.

Other prominent filmmakers share Katzenberg's enthusiasm. Director James Cameron, who hasn't made a feature film since breaking every box office record in the universe with 1997's Titanic, is set to return to theaters in 2009 with a 3-D sci-fi extravaganza called Avatar. And Tim Burton is working on a 3-D version of Alice In Wonderland, set for a 2010 release.

"People have a real desire for 3-D product, to see things differently, in a more unique way," Granat says. "It's a whole different experience."

Whereas old-time 3-D was meant to impress audiences, proponents of the new technology say, the idea now is to involve them.

When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Dial M for Murder in 3-D in 1954, he, almost alone among his peers, saw the process not as a gimmick, but a tool. He used obvious 3-D sparingly - only twice in the entire film, really, including when Grace Kelly thrusts her hand out while being attacked, as if imploring the audience for help. Such restraint added to the scenes' power by not allowing the audience to grow weary of the effect. For much of the film, the added dimension was used simply to add depth to the scene, to increase the viewer's sense of involvement, to enrich.

Filmmakers like Stassen and Journey director Erik Brevig are trying to follow Hitchcock's example.

"Not only am I blocking a scene so that it's interesting in 2D," says Brevig, "but I'm actually using depth, having things in the distant background, having things in the mid-ground and foreground, that will be aesthetically pleasing or delightful or surprising or shocking to the audience. I can use depth as one of my storytelling tools."

But 3-D movies, whose origins go back more than 80 years and which enjoyed their heyday more than a half-century ago, have never been more than curiosities.

Until now.

In recent years, a handful of films have been released in 3-D, beginning with 2003's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and extending to last year's Beowulf. Improved technology has made the 3-D effects more realistic, and made the movies themselves easier on the eyes. Even though audiences still have to wear the funny glasses, they're less likely to suffer from eye strain than moviegoers of the 1950s.

More important, the movies made money. Spy Kids 3-D, with a budget of less than $40 million, grossed $111.8 million when it was released in the U.S. Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express, which had a limited 3-D release, brought in $45 million on just 64 screens, says Stassen - a substantial chunk of the $162.8 million it realized during its initial U.S. release in 2004-2005.

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