- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

Jeffrey Katzenberg (the “K” in DreamWorks SKG, snuggled neatly between Steven Spielberg and David Geffen) gets really excited when he talks about 3-D animation. He compares the oncoming 3-D revolution to the introduction of sound and to the move from black-and-white into color, two groundbreaking moments in the history of cinema.

He’s excited for good reason: With the new technology at the disposal of film studios, 3-D looks better than ever. This isn’t your father’s trip into the third dimension.

“If you go old-school, it was anaglyph, those red-and-blue goofy glasses,” says Mr. Katzenberg, chuckling at the thought. “That was more of a trick and used for the lowest common denominator, taking bad movies and dressing them up a little bit and trying to have fun with the audience.”

The 3-D movies seen in theaters now are far superior to those primitive tricks from the past, but they’re only the first step.

“The newer generation that has come along in the last four or five years used a much higher-end delivery system in the movie theater, better glasses and better tools for taking 2-D and post-producing it for 3-D,” Mr. Katzenberg explains. “So it was a pretty giant leap above what people had seen in anaglyph.

“But the next step up the ladder, if you will, … is what happens when you have these super-high-end digital tools in which you can actually author in 3-D.”

Like color, sound or revolutionary digital effects before it, 3-D can be bent to the will of the director and used to further both the filmgoing experience and the auteur’s vision.

Ultimately, that’s what the move into 3-D is all about for the studios: getting people into theaters. Setting up theaters for 3-D is no small task, however, and something of a sticking point for the owners of all those screens. Digital projectors aren’t cheap, and the upside for exhibitors was unknown.

As a result, adoption has been slow. George Lucas filmed the capstone to the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, “Revenge of the Sith,” entirely on digital film, hinting at one point that theaters without digital projectors wouldn’t be able to screen the film.

When “Revenge” was released in 2005, however, there were just 100 digital screens in the United States (and fewer than 350 in the world). Those low numbers are starting to tick up, thanks to the distributors: They are pouring millions of dollars into getting digital projectors into theaters.

According to Mr. Katzenberg, 1,500 digital screens are in operation today (100 of which are in Imax theaters). Over the next four months, another 1,000 screens will be converted, and by the summer of 2010, there will be 7,500 screens.

“What George Lucas wanted to do wasn’t going to improve the business of the exhibitor,” Mr. Katzenberg explains. The exhibitor’s “customers weren’t going to pay more for it. It was not going to improve the dollars-and-cents profitability of the business for the exhibitor. What I’m bringing to them for the first time in decades is something that actually improves the business of the exhibitor.”

That uptick in business will come from an uptick in ticket prices; the 3-D films that have been released in the past couple of years - mostly family fare such as “Bolt” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” - all have a slight premium, an extra dollar or two for the 3-D experience.

That premium will hit $5 for DreamWorks’ next 3-D film, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a few clips of which were shown when Mr. Katzenberg was in town.

“Let’s be clear: Our consumers can choose. We’re not making them pay the $5 premium for it,” he says, though says he’s certain people will.

“Very few people will not choose this over” standard movies, he says, pointing to the numbers already known. “Just look at any movie, of the 3-D movies. Even the junky ones that have come along do two, three times the business.”

Animated features are simply the first step into the new world of 3-D. One of the neat things about the digital projectors is their ability to screen live broadcasts, and the move to 3-D marches forward on that front as well: College football’s BCS National Championship game will screen live Jan. 8, in 3-D, on 80 screens, including the Marquee-South Point Cinemas in Fredericksburg, Va.

“Digital makes all this possible,” says Steve Schklair, chief executive of 3ality Digital Systems, the technological subsidiary of 3ality Digital, the company broadcasting the game. With the help of computers, broadcasting in digital allows the fixing of “misaligned images, mismatched images, exhibition problems.”

“3-D has always required extensive post-production to make it even remotely watchable,” Mr. Schklair says. “You had to align the images, control the images, somehow control the depth. Those were all things that needed to be automated.”

3ality has employed a cadre of experienced football camera operators using a special camera rig containing two lenses.

“Our technology is going toward keeping the images perfectly color-balanced, perfectly in alignment, [a] pixel-for-pixel match between the left and the right on a frame-by-frame basis,” Mr. Schklair explains.

The goal is to bring this technology into homes after the switch to digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

“The only way to fill a channel would be to start doing live broadcasts,” Mr. Schklair says, explaining why there was a need to create a rig that could work on the fly.

With all this 3-D entertainment hitting theaters and airwaves, Mr. Katzenberg thinks viewers will want to purchase their own glasses rather than use theater-provided lenses. Enter the Luxottica Group S.p.A., owner of Ray-Bay.

Earlier this year, Variety magazine reported that Luxottica was partnering with Kerner Optical LLC to produce designer 3-D frames - great news for anyone who finds his prescription frames won’t fit underneath the 3-D glasses available at theaters.

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