3D: Movie Theaters Get Another Chance

2010 January 22

     I'm a 3D-stereo hound, I admit it. I love it in audio when a hifi system recreates a full three-dimensional image of a musical event complete with front-to-back depth. Similarly, I enjoy stereoscopic 3-D in visual images. I'm still on the mailing list of the Atlanta Stereographic Association, read the newsletters, and check out the 3-D images. I have a ViewMaster handy and keep a pair of red-green "anaglyph" glasses next to my computer monitor. Stereoscopic 3D viewing has been popular at various times and it's enjoying a resurgence today.

     3D is a great gimmick, especially for scary movies. Guns, sharks, and alien parasites come out of the screen right at the audience. The 3D movie "Parasite" with Demi Moore made sure to have the scary stuff come out of the screen. There were parodies of this effect, of course. My favorite, part one and part two, was a Three Stooges episode where everything came right at the camera, so when a knife was hurled at Larry it flew right at the camera out of the screen and the pies thrown went straight toward the camera out of the screen.

     Alas, there's no real standard for true, full-color 3D-imaging in either television or computer video. Even the monochrome obtained with anaglyph often doesn't come out right because colors on my television or computer monitor aren't exactly the same as my red-green glasses so I get "ghosts" of the other image for one eye or the other. There are one-off systems for various video cards, but there has been no consensus. Watching a video through a wide-eye or cross-eye viewer gets painful after a while, we really need a filtering system.

     This dearth of home-3D is a fantastic opportunity for the movie-theater industry which has been suffering from lack of interest.

     Three things have kept me out of movie theaters in the past ten years. First, the movies from Hollywood have been awful. There are certainly enough bad movie remakes that we don't have to look hard to find them or to conclude that "they just don't get it." The new movies have generally been disappointing as well. I recall the Tony Awards didn't give a best-musical one year since there weren't any good enough. If the Academy Awards did that, then the Oscars show would be short indeed for the past decade or two.

     Second, the theater-going experience was unpleasant. The transition from analogue-film projectors to digital was fraught with failures, at least in my movie-going experience. It was annoying having some pop-up, computer-failure message during a movie and waiting for some poorly-paid, non-computer-literate projectionist to figure out how to get the movie started again. There has been a trend for television-raised audiences to talk during the show. This has plagued my concert experience as well as movies. Then they put car and soda-pop commercials amidst the coming-attractions trailers. The final insult was that they no longer sell Jujyfruits and I've had to make do with Dots, good but not the same.

     Third, the theater-going experience lost much of its advantage. With high-quality DVDs, now Blu-ray, showing on big, plasma or liquid-crystal displays and five-channel sound with lots of boomy bass, viewers can have much of the intensity of the theater at home. (I played a bombs-and-bullets scene with Arnold Schwartzenneger in "Eraser" with the bass set normally and said, "that's television." I played the same scene with the bass turned up and said, "and that's home theater.") Even with my modest television set and TiVo, I enjoy movies sitting at home with my own air-popped popcorn. I'm not missing enough to want to go back to the theater.

     While the home-theater screens have been getting bigger, the big theaters have been chopped up into multiple multiplex mini-theaters that Tom Hanks calls "hecto-plexes" with what seems like a hundred small screens. If the home video is getting bigger and the theater video is getting smaller, then why pay the extra to see theirs?

     [Cue dramatic music here and switch to a deep, reverberant voice.] Enter the Third Dimension.

     I can't get reliable, standardized 3D at home and 3D is coming back into the movies. I really enjoyed Avatar in three dimensions and the stereoscopic effect added a great deal to my movie-going experience. The audience was attentive, the movie was good, and it got me back into the theater.

     It's only a matter of six months or a year before somebody figures out a way to make 3D a home-video option. Active, battery-powered, timed glasses will work for any system with an image-refresh rate more than 50 per second and somebody may come up with a passive system with circular polarization like the one in the theater. It's gonna happen.

     But now the theaters have a six-month window. If I want decent 3D in 2010, then I have to go to a movie theater for the experience. (It's like GM owning almost all the car rentals a few years back so just about every car I rented was a GM car, so I got to test drive all their cars without any choice. It's too bad I didn't like any of them.) If Hollywood can make a few good movies in 3D, then I'll be back. And if my experience is as pleasant as it was at Harkins in Scottsdale and the movies are as good as "Avatar," then I'll keep coming back for more.





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