New Technology Sharpens 3-D Movies

Movie studios look to new and more sophisticated 3-D technology to provide thrills. There are new opportunities with 3-D such as having the audience feel the same claustrophobia of the onscreen character trapped in a dank dungeon.

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The animated featured film "Beowulf" opens today, and in many theaters, you'll be able to watch it in 3D. Today's new digital 3D is far from the days of the "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and cardboard glasses.

NPR's Nate DiMeo reports on some new tools for filmmakers.

NATE DiMEO: In 1952, the African adventure film, "Bwana Devil," became the world's first 3D featured film. Its advertising promised moviegoers a lion in their laps and a lover in their arms.

It's a bad movie, and it's more than a little racist and the 3D was clumsy at best. But it was good enough to inspire a lot of film executives, who were feeling pretty nervous at the time.

Professor JONATHAN KUNTZ (Film History, University of California, Los Angeles): Of course, the early 1950s was the period when there was a significant drop off at the box office due to the great expansion of network television in that period, which basically took the mass audience away from the theatrical film.

DiMEO: Jonathan Kuntz teaches film history in UCLA.

For years there, the movie studios just couldn't get enough of 3D. And there weren't just shlocky(ph) genre pictures. The musical "Kiss Me Kate" came out in 3D. Hitchcock shot "Dial M for Murder" 3D.

Mr. KUNTZ: 3D when it's done just right and when it's exhibited just right to the viewer, it can be spectacular. The 3-dimensional effect is really awesome.

DiMEO: But while studios couldn't get enough, audiences could.

Mr. KUNTZ: Problems could arise, and whenever you have any problem with the 3D movie, everyone in the audience gets a headache. And it's a bummer. And people get turned off to 3D.

DiMEO: And people did get turned off, and the studio shut 3D down. Now, movie studios looking to new, more sophisticated 3D technology to provide the more sophisticated thrill that will get people off their couches and away from their Xboxes. Thrills like these.

(Soundbite of horses galloping)

Okay, so, 3D doesn't work so well in the radio, but just imagine that horse is coming right at you. "Beowulf's" director Robert Zemeckis started a 3D production company with producer Steve Starkey.

Mr. STEVE STARKEY (Producer, "Beowulf"): It's a new art form, you know, it's like we found a different tube of paint that squirt out and throw on to a canvas.

DiMEO: And DreamWorks Animations has announced that soon all of its movies will come out in 3D.

Mr. PHIL McNALLY (Stereographer, DreamWorks): The title global stereoscopic supervisor.

DiMEO: And that man with that title at DreamWorks Animation, is Phil McNally. Stereoscopic is the scientific term for 3D. And McNally is charged with figuring out the art within the science of stereo.

Mr. McNALLY: We have a very good understanding of what mono filmmaking is, but we don't really know what the equivalent is in stereo at this point.

DiMEO: McNally says that the fundamental language of cinema changes when you add that third dimension. Watch one of those IMAX 3D nature documentaries.

Mr. McNALLY: You'll probably find that almost everything is in sharp focus, and you're encouraged to look around and explore the space. And that's one of the winning qualities of a stereoscopic film. But that can be indirect opposition to a very specific story point, you know, the keys have been placed on the table and you want to absolutely see the key and nothing else. If you have the whole room in sharp focus, when how do you that direction now?

DiMEO: But he says for every technique a director might need to throw out, There are new opportunities that opened up with 3D. Say you're star is trapped in the dank dungeon, now you can compress the space and have the audience feel the character's claustrophobia for themselves.

Mr. McNALLY: There's no why this couldn't be a significant as adding sound or color to movie making.

DiMEO: He says he can't wait to see what happens, say five years down the road. After the thrill of the novelty of 3D has worn off, the thrill of the - whoa, that lion is coming right at me.

Mr. McNALLY: Do we ever imagine a Woody Allen film playing in stereo where it's just four people sitting around the table. We don't know that it could turn out to be the strongest use of stereo we ever see because you're personally connected to those characters.

DiMEO: The 3D space could envelope you. Imagine, the intimacy of sitting a hairsbreadth from Sam's piano bench in Rick's Café or putting on funny glasses and having your own dinner with Andre. And they just end up being character and human emotion. Not horses galloping right at you that makes 3D stick around this time.

Nate DiMeo, NPR News.

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