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At DreamWorks, I watched a Monsters filmmaker peer through an elaborate camera rig that allowed him to "previsualize" a scene before shooting it. As he panned across the room we were standing in, he flew over a computer-generated 3-D image of the White House war room--the set for a scene in which the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) meets with his staff to discuss an alien invasion. The camera let the director precisely manage the z-axis and decide which elements in the background, midground and foreground needed to be lit and focused.
Katzenberg says going 3-D adds about 15% to his costs--which is nothing compared with the profits studios anticipate as the digital transformation takes hold. Digital 3-D movies usually gross at least three times as much as their flat-world counterparts--thanks in part to the higher ticket prices and longer runs they garner. Another benefit: 3-D films are far more difficult for digital-camera-toting moviegoers to pirate. (See pictures of movie costumes.)
Beyond the venal, however, filmmakers say that 3-D, like sound and color, really breaks down the barrier between audience and movie. "At some level, I believe that almost any movie benefits from 3-D," Lord of the Rings director Jackson says. "As a filmmaker, I want you to suspend disbelief and get lost in the film--participate in the film rather than just observe it. On that level, 3-D can only help."
3-D Movies, Take 8
If the return of the 3-D movie sounds like a rerun, that's because it is. By some counts, this is 3-D's eighth incarnation, and to date, it hasn't exactly revolutionized the industry. The first stereoscopic movies appeared in the U.S. before the last Great Depression, disappeared, then enjoyed a schmaltzy revival in the 1950s with such blockbusters as House of Wax (1953). They've cropped up intermittently ever since, typically attached to high-camp vehicles like Andy Warhol's Frankenstein (1973).
"To me, 3-D has always been the circus coming to town," says Daniel Symmes, a 3-D historian and film-industry veteran. Symmes worked on the soft-core 3-D hit The Stewardesses, which was produced in 1969 for around $100,000. It grossed more than $27 million, making it the most profitable 3-D movie ever. Symmes scoffs at today's digital 3-D and its big budgets and says it's déjà vu. "Does the circus stay around?" he says. "No. If it does, attendance drops off, the novelty is gone and the circus goes away."
But proponents say digital 3-D is a different animal from the analog stuff that came before 2005. Viewers often wore cardboard glasses with red and cyan cellophane lenses (similar to but somewhat different from what you see in this magazine). As just about everyone knows, old-school 3-D was less than awesome. Colors looked washed out. Some viewers got headaches. A few vomited. "Making your customers sick is not a recipe for success," Katzenberg likes to say.
It was cumbersome to produce too. In the old days, two 65-mm, 150-lb. film cameras--each shooting the same scene in sync--were used to make a 3-D picture. The gap between the lenses simulates the space between our eyes, adding space perception. But with film, you never knew how the shot would turn out until later.
The birth of high-definition, digital filmmaking changed all that. Cameron and an associate, Vince Pace, developed the 3-D-capable Fusion camera system, which is cheaper, smaller--13 lb. each--and way more versatile than the old film rigs. "Every movie I made, up until Tintin, I always kept one eye closed when I've been framing a shot," Spielberg told me. That's because he wanted to see the movie in 2-D, the way moviegoers would. "On Tintin, I have both of my eyes open."