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Monday, August 18, 2008

3-D Movies: Coming Back at You

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein for TIME

The brick road wasn't just yellow. It was school-bus-parked-on-the-surface-of-the-sun yellow. That's because when The Wizard of Oz premiered in 1939, Hollywood was still testing its newest toy, three-color Technicolor, and studios wanted to astonish audiences with supersaturated hues.

Today Hollywood is looking to 3-D movies--now enjoying a digitally fueled renaissance--to make an impression as lasting as Dorothy's ruby slippers. The first feature films shot and shown in digital 3-D--bugs-in-space toon Fly Me to the Moon, Brendan Fraser's volcano-diving Journey to the Center of the Earth and concert movies by U2 and Miley Cyrus--leaped into moviegoers' laps this year. In 2009 at least 10 more 3-D movies will arrive, including James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar, DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens and Pixar's Up.

"Over the next couple of years, we'll get our Gone With the Wind and our Citizen Kane," says Michael Lewis, CEO of Real D, a company that equips movie theaters with digital 3-D technology.

Techno-impresarios like Lewis have been trying to push 3-D movies beyond newfangledness virtually since the beginning of cinema (see box). But there's good reason to believe that today's audiences will enjoy 3-D as a quality that's essential to any blockbuster, like color and sound, even if it does require those retro glasses.

Making a 3-D movie involves filming an image from two perspectives: one representing the left eye, the other the right. When synchronized and watched through glasses that allow each eye to see only its own movie, the two films create an illusion of depth. Until recently, perfect synchronization was nearly impossible, and production and exhibition were cumbersome. Digitization has eliminated many of the flaws of old 3-D movies--like nausea and headaches brought on by poor synch ing--and has motivated studios to push the format on exhibitors and filmmakers. "It's an important part of our business going forward," says Alan Bergman, president of Walt Disney Studios, which will release an animated canine-superhero movie, Bolt, in 3-D in November, as well as all its future Pixar films.

Studios have plenty of reasons to back the format. Screenings in 3-D create an experience that audiences can't get on their sofas--or pirate. (At least not yet.) The 3-D-capable home-entertainment systems widely available in three to five years won't replicate theaters either, because giant screen size is the key to creating the sense of depth. The first batch of films released in both regular format and 3-D made nearly three times as much money on 3-D screens, thanks to higher demand and ticket prices (3-D movies cost $1 to $5 more). However, only about 1,000 U.S. screens are currently equipped to show digital 3-D movies, not nearly enough to fuel a blockbuster like The Dark Knight, which opened on more than 9,000 screens. By 2010, industry analysts expect more than 7,000 digital 3-D screens in the U.S. To persuade more cinema owners to make the switch, studios are relying on an early crop of films to show the medium's potential.

The New Pioneers

Today's digital 3-D directors are flaunting what they've got, which is the power to make a bodily, almost primal impact on audiences. "You react to a film intellectually with your head and emotionally with your heart," says Ben Stassen, director of Fly Me to the Moon, a tale of three tween-age houseflies who hitch a ride on Apollo 11. "But in a 3-D film, you have a very strong physical component: you can actually make your audience duck." When Stassen's houseflies buzz over a field, it's like riding in a bug-size roller coaster, weaving between giant blades of grass.

Playing to those expectations, Journey to the Center of the Earth director Eric Brevig booby-trapped his movie with zooming yo-yos, flying fish and skittering bugs. "I felt I had to do things I wouldn't do if I were making the same film in five years," says Brevig, whose experience creating films for theme-park rides reveals itself here. "People putting on 3-D glasses or paying a little extra to see a movie in 3-D at this point in cinema are expecting to have things blatantly launched into the audience." But in a scene in which incandescent birds appear to flutter out of the screen, Brevig shows 3-D's subtler potential: the effect transplants viewers from their theater seats to the lush core of Jules Verne's earth.

Such transporting moments make it tempting to imagine what directors outside the action and animation genres might do with 3-D. Would the Parisian courtesans in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! cancan off the screen? Could the leaves of Terrence Malick's Edenic New World brush our cheeks? "3-D can be intimate, scary, claustrophobic, expansive," says Charlotte Huggins, who produced both Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fly Me to the Moon. So far, most 3-D-movie makers agree on one criterion: "If the movie takes you somewhere that you dream about going to and probably aren't going to get to, it belongs in 3-D," says Greg Foster, president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment, which transfers regular-format movies like Polar Express into 3-D and is rolling out a new digital 3-D system this year.

On the other hand, says Foster, "If someone decides they want to do My Dinner with Andre in 3-D, it's not for us." It's estimated that 3-D increases a film's below-the-line production costs 25% to 30%, and for some actors, the notion of wrinkles and love handles in 3-D adds considerable anxiety. Then, too, at this point only a small niche of Hollywood has the technical know-how for the process.

What worries some 3-D trailblazers is that studios might see the format as a way to punch up a mediocre story. That shortcut may work for a while, but eventually the hope is that 3-D will become just another weapon in a filmmaker's arsenal, as useful and unremarkable as the color yellow.

With reporting by RICHARD CORLISS