Every generation or so, Hollywood has a fling with 3-D. The nation's romance with three-dimensional films began with the 1952 picture Bwana Devil, but by the end of the decade the passion had fizzled to nothing.
The 1980s saw a tiny hiccup of a comeback, though the technology was mostly relegated to being the vehicle of shocks in the horror sequels Jaws 3-D and Ammityville 3-D.
But now digital technology has the potential to advance 3-D cinema beyond anything early viewers saw through their red- and green-tinted glasses. Suddenly, Hollywood is ready to give this romance another try, beginning with this weekend's family flick Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Industry insider Ben Strassen goes so far as to call 3-D "the second revolution in the history of cinema."
"The first one was the transition from silent films to films with sound," Strassen says. "Everything changed: Scripts changed, actors changed, direction changed, everything."
And now the movie industry has to make a similar change to take full advantage of this second "revolution," he says.
"I truly believe that we need to treat 3-D as a totally different experience, an immersive experience," says Strassen, who has been making 3-D movies since the early 1990s.
"The biggest appeal of these films is the fact that people come out of the theater and say, 'Wow, I was not watching a story being told through a window-the screen-but I was actually transported into the filmic environment.'"
Strassen's company, nWave Pictures, began life making films simulating amusement-park rides. The company soon moved on to giant-screen films, like IMAX, and then giant-screen 3-D films.
Strassen's first feature-length directorial effort, the upcoming animated fantasy Fly Me to the Moon, will be one of a slate of new films produced in the digital 3-D format. All of them use complicated technology to re-create the way we experience the world simply by looking at it with two eyes, he notes.
"With the use of our two eyes, we see the reality around us from two slightly different angles," creating depth perception, he explains. "This is called stereopsis. In order to re-create stereopsis, we use two cameras: one for the right eye, one for the left eye."
How has digital technology affected the process?The filmmaker still needs two side-by-side cameras, as in the past, but the final presentation has gotten much easier because the digital format eliminates the need for two perfectly synchronized, side-by-side projectors.
That's a boon for theaters and viewers alike, because the old process was hard to do right. If the twin projectors weren't correctly positioned, viewers could suffer from eye fatigue and headaches, making for a poor movie-going experience.
But there is no film in the digital format. Instead, the movies arrive at theaters in encrypted hard drives.
"For the first time in the history of cinema," says Strassen, "the roll-out of digital theaters nationwide-worldwide, I should say-is making it possible to have a quality 3-D experience at a reasonable cost. All you need is one projector, one server, and you're in business."
"The great thing about digital projectors is that it makes it affordable for exhibitors to introduce the 3-D experience in the multiplex."
Of course, affordability is relative, but the Marcus theater group is ready to dive in. Marcus is in the midst of expanding its 3-D capabilities, adding 12 additional 3-D locations nationwide to coincide with Friday's release of Journey to the Center of the Earth. This expansion includes one Columbus area theater, the Marcus Pickerington UltraScreen.
According to Carlo W. Petrick, Marcus spokesman, the changeover involves a sizeable investment in glasses and technology. "There is a digital cinema projector, there is a server that has the files for the film, and the infrared transmitter that controls the glasses."
That's right, they've come pretty far, but they haven't been able to do away with the glasses. While some films will be sent with glasses to theaters, Marcus Pickerington has invested in its own stock.
The system installed at Pickerington uses "active glasses," run by an infrared transmitter in the auditorium that controls whether the left lens or right lens is open at any given time.
Alan Zetting, general manager of Marcus Pickerington UltraScreen, says the specs alone run about $50 a pair.
"The glasses are battery-powered and more expensive, but you get a much better picture than from the old kind of glasses," he says.
Naturally, the pricey glasses are used over and over, which means each pair must be washed and sanitized between shows-more added expense for the theater to overcome before 3-D films can be considered a viable form of entertainment.
Although not the only theater in the area equipped to handle digital 3-D-AMC Easton Town Center, AMC Lennox Town Center, Cinemark at Valley View and Rave Polaris all can run three-dimensional films-Marcus Pickerington UltraScreen boasts the latest and sharpest technology. Zetting says Marcus chose to modify the Pickerington theater because of the type of audience it attracts.
"Right now they're doing it at the theaters where it will be most profitable. At the Pickerington cinema, we do really well with family movies, kids movies," making it the perfect spot for a test run before the chain commits the funds needed to change over all of its theaters, Zetting says.
As expensive as the new technology is, Petrick predicts a sunny future for 3-D.
"There are a lot of 3-D features in the works," he points out. "It's going to be part of the entertainment experience that people will come to expect at movie theaters in the future."
But Strassen says it won't happen overnight.
"Hollywood's spending money to make 3-D films, but they still need to have enough screens to make their money back, so films will be released for the next year or two both in 2-D and in 3-D. However, in the very near future-I would say starting in 2009, certainly no later than 2010-films will have to be 3-D only, and they will have to be conceived from day one as a 3-D experience."
Along with Journey to the Center of the Earth, due out Friday, and Fly Me to the Moon, which is coming in August, Hollywood has a full slate of 3-D flicks ready to release, including Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs; Toy Story 3; and James Cameron's Avatar.
DreamWorks Animation also recently announced that all of its new films, including Shrek Goes Fourth, will be released in 3-D. And George Lucas, the master of not-leaving-well-enough-alone, has announced plans to remaster all the Star Wars films in digital 3-D.