3-D back en vogue

'Spy Kids' release the latest in a current string of projects

It may be just a matter of perception, but 3-D seems to be popping up everywhere.

Stereoscopic images are jumping out of feature films, theme park rides, large-format theaters, airports, festivals — even computers, vidgames and TVs.

High-profile helmers including Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron are giving 3-D its biggest boost ever, using digital technologies to ease the painful process of 3-D creation and exhibition.

And more than a century after stereoscopic picture cards were middle-class America’s favorite parlor entertainment, 3-D finally seems poised to become more than just another gee-whiz gimmick.

“In motion pictures, digital technology now offers filmmakers the opportunity to make 3-D effective, in a way that’s not possible with film,” said Charles Swartz, director of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center. “That’s both on the camera side and on the projection side.”

This weekend’s debut of Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids 3-D” marks the first feature use of stereoscopic technologies since 1991’s forgettable “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.”

The “Spy Kids” protags are in 3-D for much of the movie, during scenes where they are trapped in a giant vidgame.

“I could not have even dreamed up this movie with film,” Rodriguez said.

He used a 3-D camera rig co-invented by Cameron for “Ghosts of the Abyss,” his undersea docu that Disney released earlier this year. Now Cameron wants to do all his features in 3-D, saying it pulls an audience further into the experience.

Rodriguez agrees that 3-D could have a big impact on filmmaking, as long as it’s married to a compelling story in an appropriate fashion.

“I think it could be a revolutionary way to pull people back into theaters,” he said.

Rodriguez was a bit of a revolutionary himself in making “Spy Kids 3-D,” using on-set monitors so he would know immediately if he got the shot he wanted. Cameron’s rig and digital post-production techniques helped head off the headache-inducing focus problems that have long dogged 3-D.

“In the old days, the effect didn’t work,” Rodriguez said. “You had to lock down the camera, and didn’t know if you got the shot. I really felt it could be done differently.”

Stu Maschwitz, the Orphanage effects supervisor who oversaw about 85 shots on the film, said Rodriguez’s approach provides “a portable and affordable and logical solution for shooting 3-D. It’s obviously a fun extra element that’s really cool, but people are learning where it’s appropriate.”

Some worry Rodriguez could set back 3-D’s long-term prospects, though, because he chose to use the old-style red-blue anaglyphic glasses of 1950s 3-D for audiences.

That approach kept costs down (both Rodriguez and Dimension’s Bob Weinstein said the film cost less than either of its $40 million predecessors) and allows the film to be released widely, without requiring special projectors.

But it could leave viewers thinking in-theater 3-D hasn’t progressed for half a century, even though it has.

Among the advances: newer polarizing lenses don’t block out colors and zap subtle hues the way anaglyphic lenses do. In “Spy Kids,” for instance, visual effects creators couldn’t use red colors in the lava-surfing scene because of the anaglyphic glasses.

And in the future, Swartz says, digital projectors will make it far easier to project high-quality 3-D images while keeping them synchronized — a challenge with film-based equipment.

Meanwhile, 3-D is popping up outside traditional cinemas as well. Numerous entrepreneurs think there are lots of places where 3-D is appropriate, such as:

  • Imax, where most recent 3-D films have been shown.

    “Large-format 3-D is a new language of film,” said Ben Stassen, CEO of nWave Pictures. “What Hollywood is trying to do is differentiate itself from entertainment you can get in the home. In the evolution of out-of-home entertainment, 3-D will be a major component.”

    Stassen has directed several large-format 3-D films, including “Haunted Castle,” which remains on Variety‘s Top 60 Box Office chart 2½ years after its release.

  • Theme parks, where such new attractions as “Shrek 4-D” at Universal Studios Hollywood and “Haunted Lighthouse” at SeaWorld in San Diego combine 3-D film with physical effects to create surprisingly immersive and popular experiences.

  • Specialty attractions in high-traffic pedestrian areas.

    “I’ve seen how people respond if it’s done right. They love it. It’s like a high,” said Dean Georgopoulos, chief operating officer of D Theaters.

    His company plans as many as 40 theaters that will screen 3-D shorts of subjects such as surfing and other action sports. His first theater opens this fall in Orlando’s airport.

  • Televisions, vidgames and computer screens in consumers’ homes.

    Disney Interactive added 3-D capabilities to its GameBoy Advance vidgame for “Spy Kids 3-D.”

    At next week’s Siggraph convention in San Diego, Stereographics will show off plasma and liquid-crystal display monitors at the Discreet booth that don’t require 3-D glasses to be viewed. Stereographics touts the monitors as ideal for ad displays.

    And X-3D Space Technologies sells its specially configured 3-D computer systems for consumers, along with education and entertainment titles. Its technology also can take a standard TV signal and convert it to 3-D.

    “I like to say the quality, the technology, the experience, is 1,000 times better than 1958,” said X3-D chief operating officer Steven Schwartz.

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