Audience experience not what it could be

In the 1960s, Arch Oboler, whose pic “Bwana Devil” had kicked off the 3D boom of the 1950s, spoke to Variety about what had gone so wrong with 3D in those years.

“3D went down the drain,” he opined, “because audiences got cheated.” Among other things, he pointed to sloppy projection, noting that in one Gotham screening, he’d found the two eyes 20 frames out of sync.

Digital production and projection were supposed to have solved a lot of those problems but I’ve begun to think the movie industry is cheating its customers again, and if it doesn’t stop, the “soft” box office we’ve seen so far is only going to get worse.

At studio screenings, 3D movies look reliably sharp and reasonably bright. But when I saw “Thor 3D” at the ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, it was shockingly dark and fuzzy. My wife took off her Xpand 3D glasses and refused to put them back on. “Too dark,” she whispered.

There was so little parallax (i.e., so little actual 3D) in it that you could watch comfortably without glasses. So the Arc­Light is charging a premium price for a subpar presentation of a movie that’s barely 3D in the first place. That’ll make anyone feel cheated.

Then came the Boston Globe article that accused exhibitors of projecting movies dimly because they weren’t bothering to swap out the 3D lens on their Sony “3D on 4K” projectors when they show 2D movies. The Globe article gets a lot of tech details wrong(Sony notes that even through the 3D lens, the movie should be appropriately bright as long as the projector’s polarizing filter has been flipped out of the way.), and it scapegoats 3D, but the point that movies are simply way, way too dark is undeniable.

Cinematographer Roger Bailey told me “Sometimes when I’m on vacation, I’ll go into a multiplex just to check out the screens, and I’m appalled at how bad the projection is.”

Said Bailey: “It’s unbelievable that in an age when we think we have unbelievable technology, and the studios are talking about eliminating 35mm film prints in the next 18 months, that they haven’t begun to sort out the problems that have been caused by digital projection.”

On the other hand, last week’s “Transformers 3″ 3D presentation at Paramount and a screening of “Kung Fu Panda 2″ at the Mann Chinese 6 looked crisp and adequately bright.

In fact, 3D has simply exacerbated an existing problem: lax exhibition, undermined by greed and sloth. At Paramount, James Cameron noted digital projectors have gotten brighter to support 3D, but some theaters use the new projectors as an excuse to turn down the projector lamp so it will last longer. Echoing that, Sony 3D maven Rob Engle recently tweeted “A modest proposal … Every 3D digital cinema package should be delivered with a brand new projector lamp included.”

This isn’t just an exhibition problem, though. The problems begin well up the chain.

Rob Hummel, president of Legend3D, says one problem with my “Thor” experience was that I’d seen it at the ArcLight, which uses Xpand. “There’s a problem where people create DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) for RealD and Dolby,” Hummel says. “RealD and Dolby have a 2-stop light loss. At the Cinerama, you’re watching with Xpand glasses; they have a 3-stop light loss.” In other words, watching a RealD DCP through Xpand glasses means seeing it half as bright as it should be.

Hummel, who worked for Prime Focus while it was converting “Clash of the Titans” said there had been only one 3D DCP created for that movie. “Jim Cameron did dozens of DCPs for ‘Avatar,'” said Hummell, “optimized for each specific theater.” If studios don’t bother to master for all the exhibition formats, and theaters charge extra for substandard projection, aren’t they all cheating their customers, the audience?

Ray Feeney, one of the industry’s leading technologists, says the studios can solve these problems — if they choose to.

When d-cinema specs were being developed, Feeney says, there were fears of a free-for-all, with proliferating formats and technologies. So the studios created the Digital Cinema Initiative to impose standards. “The DCI went to the point of saying if you don’t put in servers that will put up DCPs, and things like that, we won’t give you our movie,” Feeney says. “They used access to their content to enforce the behavior that they desired.”

The DCI succeeded brilliantly for 2D, but it didn’t address 3D. So 3D formats and technologies are proliferating. “We are living the problems in 3D that DCI was created to solve,” Feeney says.

Feeney calls for the studios to establish a DCI 2 to address 3D and other exhibition woes. “There are things that can be done,” he says. “But they’re not simple things. They involve a willingness to actually speak truthfully about what’s out there, not just what people would fanatically hope is actually happening.”

Steven Poster, prexy of the Cinematographers Guild, warns that if the industry continues to abuse the audience, they’ll give up on seeing movies in theaters. “The quality of the 3D Blu-rays that are coming out on 3D television is extraordinary. They have to match that in the theater. Every element of every image informs the audience,” Poster says. “If they can’t see those elements, if they’re too dark, or it’s too uncomfortable, where are they going to go? They’re going to go home to their TVs.”

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?

Email david.cohen@variety.com

BITS & BYTES: The Third Floor and Framestore have joined forces on a new previs service aimed at European directors, The Third Floor – London. Company will be based out of Framestore’s Wells Street office. It’s first pictures include Carl Rinsch’s “47 Ronin” and Marc Forster’s “World War Z.” … Sony has extended its sponsorship of ESPN 3D for another calendar year. … RealD and Samsung LCD have pacted on a license agreement for full-resolution 3D panels for television and computer monitors. The panels are expected to be available in monitor size (23 and 27-inch sizes) by early 2012 and 55-inch sizes for TV later on. James Cameron is endorsing the new monitors, which use passive RealD glasses. …

Visual effects supervisor Carey Vellegas has joined Digital Domain … Zoic Studios has promoted Raoul Bolognini to executive producer, features. … Former Rainmaker prexy Marianne O’Reilly has been tapped as head of animation and vfx at Vancouver Film School. … Digital Domain has purchased the first site license for Katana, the look and lighting package from The Foundry. Katana was originally developed by Sony Imageworks. … Look Effects of Hollywood created effects for four pilots that were picked up for 2011-2012: “Ringer,” “A Gifted Man,” “The Finder” and “Awake.” … The Hollywood Post Alliance has announced the call for entries for the 6th Annual HPA Awards. …

“Thor” was released with Dolby 7.1. Surround Sound, marking the 20th title released in the format. 7.1 improves the spatial dimension of sound and is especially suited for 3D. …

Post house ShootersNYC has added editor Anthony Marinelli to its roster …

Regional channel WMTV in Sweden has added Cinegy Type, Cinegy’s branding and CG module. … Perceptive Pixel has launched a professional 27″ multi-touch LCD display, which they claim is the first pro multi-touch desktop monitor … Assimilate and Local Hero Post in London are hosting an event today , May 26, showcasing what they are claiming is the world’s first RED Epic camera workflow. … Local Hero Post has also signed colorist Mike Eaves. … The RED Los Angeles User Group is holding a meeting June 11 at Kappa Studios in Burbank. Speaker will be DI colorist Adam Hawkey. … Texas Instruments DLP Cinema is a Title Sponsor of Cinema India Expo 2011, skedded for June 24-25 in Mumbai. … Panasonic has announced the introduction of a new ultra-high-speed SDHC memory card line for pro applications.

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