2D Oscar entries undermine biz's case for 3D ticket premium

Judging by box office, the visual effects Oscar race focuses on one of the most popular aspects of movies.

Generally, though, it tends to be considered a “minor” award, with far less impact on the business than an acting, directing, screenwriting or best picture award.

This year, the jockeying for the visual effects Oscar threatens to embarrass Hollywood by exposing a dirty little secret.

The issue is 3D. The industry has spent 2010 happily raking in 3D bucks, which have helped make up for a relative dearth of the cutting-edge vfx common in box office champs.

The rationale for the up-charge on 3D tickets has been that 3D is a premium format. And while there have been protests — notably from Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron — that some 2010 3D titles were far from premium, the industry has resolutely taken the premium on for all 3D seats.

Yet it’s likely that at least one of the year’s major 3D releases will be submitted for visual effects consideration in 2D, not 3D.

“The Last Airbender” is likely to be submitted for Oscar in 2D, not the much-maligned 3D version. In addition, Warner Bros. says no decision has been made about whether to submit “Clash of the Titans” in 2D or in 3D.

Those 2D submissions would torpedo the argument for the automatic 3D upcharge. After all, 3D doesn’t enhance the sound or the screenplay. If isn’t enhancing the movie’s look, what is it enhancing? The acting?

The irony of all this is that movies that created their effects in 3D and submit in 3D actually have a big advantage in the Oscar race.

“(3D) adds a huge degree of difficulty, and we’re keenly aware of that in assessing pictures,” says Bill Taylor, an Academy governor from the vfx branch.

“A lot of cheats that worked great in 2D don’t work in 3D.”

For example, he says, “In 2D, if you wanted an actor to appear farther away, if he’s standing still, you can just scale him down. But that trick doesn’t work in 3D.” Just shrinking the character doesn’t make him look farther away, it makes him look smaller.

In general, 2D visual effects can be made as layers that, if viewed from the side, resemble pop-up books or theatrical painted flats. Adding a second eye for 3D, from a slightly different viewpoint, reveals that those elements are flat.

“3D allows one more tool to help what you’re doing be more believable and immersive,” says Eric Barba, who took home an Oscar for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and was the vfx supervisor on Disney’s 3D “Tron: Legacy.” “But from a technical standpoint, it makes our lives more difficult.

He notes that camera tracking must be much more precise. “When we’re making a CG object and putting it into a live-action image,” he says, “the CG camera and the real camera have to be precisely aligned.

“In traditional tracking you can fudge it a bit. But once you add (3D) … the other camera will tell the viewer where the object is in space, and if it’s off, it’ll come forward or sink back.”

While both “Clash” and “Airbender” are conversions, that’s not exactly the issue. Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” was converted, but conceived for 3D and will submit in 3D. The decision to add stereo to Fox’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” came late, and the picture was post-converted, but a Fox spokesman said it will be submitted in stereoscopic as well.

The decision of what format to submit in is a new dilemma for everyone involved. Producers never had to worry about submitting the silent or sound versions, color or black-and-white, or 4:3 or widescreen.

With the 2D option available, producers also can hide the 3D conversion, which is arguably a visual effects process that runs through the entirety of the pic, if they’re not happy with the result.

“If the conversion is less than great,” Barba notes, “then certainly submitting a 2D version would be saying we’re not proud of the visual effects on this part, being the conversion, but we are happy with everything else we did.”

But Barba says he thinks that’s fair with 3D conversion. “We’re in the early days of learning how to convert films, just like we’re in the early days of learning to shoot 3D, and there are going to be some learning or teething mistakes.”

For “Narnia,” visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton gives 3D a somewhat cautious endorsement.

“The first thing we finished was the 2D work. I guess that’s a greater indication of our intent,” he says, adding “I have to say the 3D conversion hasn’t radically altered it.”

Bickerton points to the scene where a painting on the wall comes to life and water rushes out. “Originally,” Bickerton says, “it was going to be a moving oil painting, a la ‘What Dreams May Come’ perhaps.” Once the decision was made to take the movie 3D, the shot changed to a push-in where the painting changes from a flat painting to 3D footage.

“I wouldn’t be concerned if they wanted to show the 3D version to the Academy,” he says. “I had concerns going into the process that our fabulous 2D work would be hurt, but if anything, it has only served to enhance.”

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