Movie Article

3-D Movies: What You Need To Know

''Alice in Wonderland,'' ''Shrek Forever After,'' and 18 other movies will be breaking the third dimension in 2010

Thanks to Avatar, Hollywood is nuts over 3-D. A slew of new movies are about to hit, and fan faves like Titanic will follow. Here's everything you need to know.

1. There are 20 movies set to be released in 3-D in 2010. Are there enough screens for all of them?
Not even close. With massive titles like Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Shrek Forever After, and Toy Story 3 all coming down the 3-D pike, theater chains are racing to meet the demand, installing 100 to 150 new screens a month. But by next month, there will still be only about 4,000. That could turn out to be a problem because Fox is already urging theaters to keep Avatar on 3-D screens past March 5, when Disney's Alice in Wonderland bows. And that drama is nothing compared with the fraught negotiations over who's getting what 3-D screens when DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon opens March 26 and Warner Bros.' Clash of the Titans debuts a week later. ''We are expanding as fast as we can,'' says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. ''But we are not ready to handle the number of pictures coming out in the next few months in 3-D.''

2. Warner Bros. recently announced plans to convert several upcoming movies — including Clash and the final two Harry Potter films — to 3-D. Won't that take, like, years?
Nah. More like 10 weeks. According to Chris Bond, president of Prime Focus, the visual-effects company hired to convert Clash of the Titans, the process involves isolating every last object — actors, props, giant CG scorpions — within every single shot, then placing them all in 3-D space with Prime Focus' ''View-D'' technology. The trickiest — and nerdiest — bit is establishing the ''interocular'' distance (i.e., the distance between the two virtual cameras re-creating human eyes). Too much tweaking can cause eye strain, headaches, and an overall whacked-out image. ''If you separate those cameras half a mile apart, a mountaintop would look like it's on your table,'' Bond explains. And the cost to convert Clash to 3-D? $4.6 million, according to a source, though it can run from $5 million to $7 million for other films.

3. Okay, so when 2-D movies are converted to 3-D, will they look as cool as films originally shot in 3-D, like Avatar?
Bond, understandably, says yes, arguing that his company can add real subtlety and depth to human faces. ''You don't want an actor to have a flat face,'' he says, ''or a nose sticking out too far.'' But Avatar producer Jon Landau doesn't quite buy it. ''All those studios knew about 3-D before [Avatar],'' he says. ''Now it's like trying to colorize a black-and-white movie because Wizard of Oz worked in color. You would never say today, 'Hey, let's shoot this movie in black-and-white, and then we'll colorize it!''' Theater owners agree. ''Conversion just isn't as good as production with 3-D in mind,'' says Fithian.

4. When will we see classics like Titanic, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings in 3-D?
Eventually — but you'll have to be patient. A rep for Lucasfilm says that while there is interest in converting Star Wars, there are no concrete plans as of now. Ditto for Warner Bros.' The Lord of the Rings, though director Peter Jackson has said he's been pushing to convert the movies to 3-D for some time now. And despite his misgivings about 3-D conversion, Landau is gung ho about Titanic in 3-D, saying that he and director James Cameron are ''in the process of seriously exploring our options.''

5. So will everything be in 3-D someday?
Landau sure thinks so. ''I'm going back to the black-and-white-to-color analogy,'' he says. ''You had color films in the 1930s; it took until the late 1960s/early '70s for color to become ubiquitous, but it did. I think there's no reason that an intimate drama won't be in 3-D in the future.''

6. Who is the biggest 3-D winner?
How many times have you seen Avatar? If you're like most U.S. moviegoers, you saw it in either 2-D or 3-D and then, for an added thrill, went back for seconds in IMAX. In fact, the top-grossing theaters during Avatar's run have been IMAX theaters: The company has earned $225 million on the movie. (IMAX's total 2009 box office was estimated at between $250 million and $270 million.) With only 200 screens at its disposal, IMAX is always very choosy about what movies it runs. ''We turn down way more movies than we say yes to,'' says IMAX's president, Greg Foster. ''We have the opportunity to pick the better movies.''

7. Who is the biggest 3-D loser?
Until 3-D TVs are a mass-market reality, expect home-video sales to continue declining. The studios are exuberant over their 3-D spectacles in theaters, but home-video sales are still falling, more so on titles that are buoyed by 3-D in theaters. The real test will come with Avatar's home-video sales. ''No other picture has been so completely associated with 3-D,'' says Fithian. ''It will be the first title that really answers that question.''

Originally posted Feb 19, 2010 Published in issue #1091 Feb 26, 2010 Order article reprints
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