Correction Appended: March 20, 2009
The lights dim in the screening room. Suddenly, the doomed Titanic fills the screen--but not the way I remember in the movie. The luxury liner is nearly vertical, starting its slide into the black Atlantic, and Leonardo DiCaprio is hanging on for life, just like always. But this time, I am too. The camera pans to the icy water far below, pulling me into the scene--the sensation reminds me of jerking awake from a dream--and I grip the sides of my seat to keep from falling into the drink.
Most of us have seen the top-grossing film of all time. But not like this. The new version, still in production, was remade in digital 3-D, a technology that's finally bringing a true third dimension to movies. Without giving you a headache. (See the 100 best movies of all time.)
Had digital 3-D been available a dozen or so years ago when he shot Titanic, he'd have used it, director James Cameron tells me later. "But I didn't have it at the time," he says ruefully. "Certainly every film I'm planning to do will be in 3-D."
Digital 3-D, which has slowly been gaining steam over the past few years, is finally ready for its closeup. Just about every top director and major studio is doing it--a dozen movies are slated to arrive this year, with dozens more in the works for 2010 and beyond. These are not just animations but live-action films, comedies, dramas and documentaries. Cameron is currently shooting a live-action drama, Avatar, for Fox in 3-D. Disney and its Pixar studio are releasing five 3-D movies this year alone, including a 3-D-ified version of Toy Story. George Lucas hopes to rerelease his Star Wars movies in 3-D. And Steven Spielberg is currently shooting Tintin in it, with Peter Jackson doing the 3-D sequel next year. Live sports and rock concerts in 3-D have been showing up at digital theaters around the U.S. nearly every week.
With the release on March 27 of Monsters vs. Aliens, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks Animation SKG, is betting the future of his studio on digital 3-D. While he's not the first to embrace the technology, he has become its most vocal evangelist, asserting that digital 3-D is now good enough to make it--after sound and color--the third sea change to affect movies. "This really is a revolution," he says.
Over the past few years, Katzenberg has repositioned DreamWorks as a 3-D-animation company. From Monsters on, all its movies will be made, natively, in 3-D. (Many animation studios create the 3-D effect in postproduction.) That's a pretty big commitment since 3-D involves even more computer power than usual. The DreamWorks crew invokes "Shrek's law," which holds that every sequel takes about twice as long to render--create a final image from models--as the movie that preceded it. Authoring the movie in 3-D effectively doubles the time called for by Shrek's law.
That requires an extreme amount of horsepower--the computational power of DreamWorks' render farm puts it roughly among the 15 fastest supercomputers on the planet. The studio partnered with Hewlett-Packard and Intel and built an enormous test bed on more than 17,500 sq. ft. in California. The Silicon Valley companies are hot on 3-D because they believe it's how people will navigate the Web and the desktops of their PCs and that it will be standard on computers and HDTVs.