Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Toby Mensforth wants viewers to be immersed in the moviegoing experience. As director of theaters and concessions for Smithsonian Business Ventures in the District, Mr. Mensforth says the 3-D movies featured at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History complement visits to the museums.

“It’s a fabulous way to transport people,” Mr. Mensforth says. “It takes people to another level.”

Three-dimensional technology has come a long way since the golden era of the 1950s. Today’s images are clearer than ever.

The movies are novelty films that come and go in popularity, says Patrick Wright, chairman of the video department at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Typically, 3-D films have been a way to reinvigorate a dying franchise, he says.

“If it’s going to be used, it should add something to the film instead of detract from the story,” Mr. Wright says.

With all the visual stimulation today, an audience needs to be entertained, says Greg Foster, chairman and president of Imax Filmed Entertainment in Santa Monica, Calif.

The movies “Wild Safari,” “Aliens of the Deep” and “Magnificent Desolation” are presented at the Smithsonian in Imax 3-D.

“It’s fun to watch people reach out and grab things,” Mr. Foster says. “It’s almost like a roller coaster.”

Three-dimensional movies are a way to challenge the competition of DVDs and video games, Mr. Foster says. They give the moviegoer a unique experience in the theater that they can’t get at home.

“The seamlessness of the technology makes it work,” Mr. Foster says. “It’s not gimmicky anymore.”

Imax 3-D movies essentially mimic the way a person’s eyes and brain view the world, says Lorne Orleans, vice president of film production at Imax. He is the producer of the Imax version of the Hollywood blockbuster “Superman Returns,” which contains about 20 minutes of 3-D sequences.

Several methods are used to project 3-D images; Imax uses its own method. For a 3-D Imax movie, two film strips are projected through polarizers, Mr. Orleans says. The viewer needs to see the same object from two different angles for depth.

When a viewer is wearing Imax 3-D glasses, his brain naturally fuses the two separate images to get the three-dimensional image. The glasses have matching polarizing filters that correspond with polarizers that filter the two film strips. The polarizers separate the correct information to the correct eye. Without the glasses, a person would see a double image on the screen.

Imax 3-D movies have much steadier images compared to technology of the past, Mr. Orleans says.

“The images used to bounce around a lot,” Mr. Orleans says. “You would have a headache.”

Imax’s live-action two-dimensional-to-three-dimensional conversion technology allows filmmakers to shoot their movies normally; the film can be changed to a 3-D format in post-production.

The filmmaker simply delivers a DI, or digital intermediate, with image files on it, Mr. Orleans says.

With “Superman Returns,” after artists isolated images in the scenes meant to be converted to 3-D, the modelers added dimensions to the images using complex math. The proprietary “render process” takes the information from the artists and modelers for the finished product.

“There was a period in the entertainment field where they thought virtual reality would be the next best thing,” Mr. Orleans says. “Imax 3-D is the closest thing to reality. It’s like a computer-graphic fantasy world. It’s the most immersive storytelling tool.”

Imax isn’t the only company making advances with 3-D technology, says Ray Zone, author of “3D Filmmakers: Conversations With Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures.”

In November 2005, “Chicken Little” opened in 85 digital 3-D cinemas across the United States, using a single digital projector fitted with a dual-stream server. Real D in Beverly Hills, Calif., is the company assisting movie studios in making features such as “Chicken Little” and “Monsterhouse.” The company helps in delivering a movie to the theaters in digital form, so it plays with the dual-stream server and the digital projector. A dual-stream server delivers two files simultaneously by alternating them on the screen very rapidly.

Real D also provides the theater with a Z screen, which Mr. Zone says goes in front of the projector’s lens. When the audience watches the movie using circular polarizing glasses, the left and right eyes see the alternating images separately. The images alternate 144 times a second.

“More and more movie theaters are buying digital projectors,” Mr. Zone says. “That is the technological fact that is driving 3-D into theatrical exhibition. Digital projection simplifies 3-D in the theater.”

NuVision Technologies in Beaverton, Ore., is working on a technology that has yet to be used in a major movie release, Mr. Zone says. Liquid crystal display shutter glasses would interact with an infrared sensor at the top of the screen that makes the glasses alternate 96 times a second.

A buzz already has begun about filmmaker George Lucas’ plan to convert the “Star Wars” series to 3-D, Mr. Zone says. Mr. Lucas has hired In-Three Inc. in Agoura Hills, Calif., for the project.

“He gave them the opening sequence of the original film, and he loved what he saw,” Mr. Zone says.

Filmmaker James Cameron has committed to making all his films in 3-D with his own Reality Camera System, which uses two high-definition cameras in a single camera body for depth perception, Mr. Zone says. “Avatar” is slated as one of his upcoming releases.

Three-dimensional films are more like real life, says Mark Margolis, president of Rainbow Symphony Inc. in Reseda, Calif. The company makes glasses for 3-D films.

“If you have two eyes, you can see in three dimensions,” Mr. Margolis says. “It brings an additional layer of reality to what you’re watching.”

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