Helmer has spent the last 10 years working in stereography

“There isn’t a film that I’ve got in my queue — and I’m four deep right now in projects that I’ve got scripted and want to shoot — that I wouldn’t want to make in 3-D,” James Cameron says. “I’m betting the frickin’ farm on this.”

When “the King of the World” sets his sights on tomorrow’s technology, the rest of the industry takes note. And Cameron is making a commitment to digital.

Cameron, who will join the National Assn. of Theater Owners’ John Fithian for Sunday’s Digital Cinema Summit keynote, has spent the last 10 years working in stereography, first experimenting with the technology for the theme-park attraction “T2 3-D: Battle Across Time” in 1995.

After “Titanic,” he took a break from directing to develop a stereoscopic camera system that could support a live-action 3-D feature, testing his proprietary rig on the deep-sea Imax docs “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep.”

Imax screens are too big for the current generation of digital projectors, so Imax 3-D relies on an expensive system of twin film prints, one for each eye.

“Up until ‘Chicken Little’ was released,” says Cameron, who served as a consultant on the dimensionalized version of the Disney pic, “if you were making a 3-D film, it was going out on Imax or it was playing in a couple of theme-park venues. But the current (digital) technology makes it possible to have an installed base of thousands of 3-D screens of very, very high quality.”

He attributes the success of “The Polar Express” in Imax 3-D more to public interest in 3-D than to the bigscreen Imax format. “Chicken Little” also did well in its 3-D release, with the digital 3-D presentation outperforming traditional screens 3-to-1.

He insists that Imax’s immersive selling point actually works against narrative storytelling.

“Yes, they have more resolution, but they also have too much screen. It’s too in-your-face, and it fills too much of your peripheral field,” Cameron explains. Large-format encourages auds to let their eyes roam to whatever interests them onscreen. “The best stereo experience is one that’s more of a guided experience by the filmmaker, not one that is selected by the viewer.”

Here, he says, digital multiplex screens end up having an edge over Imax.

Cameron believes stereo filmmaking should direct the eye and create a narrative experience.

“If I’m on a close-up of Tom Cruise, I know I’m going to be looking at Tom Cruise. I’m not going to be looking at the extras out of focus in the background,” he says.

Cameron says it will take three or four 3-D tentpoles a year to motivate the widespread adoption necessary to support a blockbuster opening.

” ‘Chicken Little’ converted more screens for one title than all the Imax 3-D screens combined, so it essentially created an alternate platform,” he says. “By the time I come out with my feature film in summer of 2008, I’m hoping for a minimum of 1000.”

That project, he confirms, will be “Project 880,” which overlaps with “Battle Angel” — two big sci-fi pics designed to showcase a number of the technical advances Cameron has been tinkering with, including performance capture and a virtual production pipeline.

Given the post-production demands involved, the pics could conceivably take as long as 2½ years to complete. “I have another project that is a straight live-action 3-D project. It might be done first,” he says. “The working title right now is ‘Sanctum,’ and we’re still writing it, but it’s designed as kind of a fast-turn project.”

But Cameron welcomes the idea of another filmmaker beating him to the punch of the first live-action stereo feature.

“Peter Jackson was in my office the day after he won every Academy Award there is for ‘Return of the King,'” says Cameron. Jackson was excited about making “King Kong” in 3-D, but wasn’t quite ready to switch from film to digital.

George Lucas is trying another approach, dimensionalizing all six “Star Wars” films after the fact. Cameron is considering doing the same with “Titanic.”

“I want feature filmmakers to be able to do their movies in 3-D as opposed to waiting to have their films dimensionalized after they’ve gone out and become big hits, which is a very different thing,” he says. “Making a 3-D movie is fun and cool and challenging, and having your film dimensionalized after the fact is always a compromise.”

As for dimensionalizing library titles, Cameron says he was skeptical about the process at first, but no more: “Any film that’s made more than half a billion dollars is a very good candidate for dimensionalization and re-release.”

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