3D: Premium prices for not-so-premium experience

Form will be a fad if biz neglects to nurture the medium

I’m often asked where I think entertainment tech is going, and for the most part, I’m happy to play Cohenac the Magnificent.

One common question, though, always makes me roll my eyes: “Isn’t 3D a fad, just like it was in the ’50s?”

No, this isn’t the ’50s all over again. The 1950s 3D boom lasted about 18 months. This 3D revival arguably began with the Imax 3D version of “The Polar Express,” in 2004, so it’s already lasted five times as long. Two 3D movies have won cinematography Oscars. One is the biggest grosser ever. And if 3D TV ever really gets off the ground, 2D movies will go the way of black-and-white.

But I do have doubts. Some of what I see these days makes me wonder if this 3D movie revival carries the seeds of own destruction. Specifically, I think the 3D upcharge is proving both a blessing and a curse. We’re getting movies with enough 3D to collect the upcharge, but not enough to deliver the premium experience the audience is paying for.

I suspect some filmmakers have accepted 3D as a financial necessity, but their attitude is “Release my movie in 3D if you must — but don’t make me change one single thing I’m used to doing.”

I’ve been calling the result “indifferent 3D.” I guess that’s a polite term. I could also call it “cash-grab 3D.”

That’s the vibe I got from two tentpoles this summer from companies that have made the big bets on 3D, Disney and Sony.

The 3D in Disney’s “Brave” was very mild, as Pixar’s 3D generally is, but it also had some camera pans that looked nothing short of disastrous in 3D. Even my family, not 3D experts beyond what they’ve picked up from hanging around me, complained — before I could say a word about it — that the pans looked awful. I doubt Jeffrey Katzenberg and Phil McNally at DreamWorks Animation would have ever let something like that out the door.

Keep in mind that the problems with 3D panning are both obvious and famous. Not only does panning result in the same strobing it causes in 2D, but the 3D illusion breaks and the image collapses into a muddy mess. That’s why a push for higher frame rates started with the 3D revival. Higher frame rates solve some of those panning problems.

Disney and Pixar wouldn’t have used those camera moves if they were truly committed to delivering a premium experience to people who buy premium-priced tickets.

Meanwhile Sony, which has a companywide bet on 3D spanning pro hardware, consumer electronics and filmmaking, released two big 3D tentpoles: “Men in Black 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Director Barry Sonnenfeld embraced 3D in the former, though he chose to have the film converted, rather than shoot in 3D because he found the 3D shooting tech too limiting.

“Spider-Man,” however, was a different story. Its trailer suggested it would be a compelling 3D experience. It was shot with stereo cameras. The movie, however, had so little 3D that I could watch significant chunks of the picture without the glasses without noticing a difference. In other words, though its 3D was “native,” for much of the movie it was also negligible.

When the 21st century 3D revival dawned, filmmakers in the vanguard were concerned about protecting the format, so 3D wouldn’t reacquire the schlocky reputation it earned from the worst pics of the ’50s, ’70s and ’80s.

But 3D’s bad reputation today isn’t coming from schlocky movies like “Piranha 3D” (hey, schlock has its place!) but from cynical content creation on the one hand and poor projection on the other. And what “cash-grab 3D” and a lot of crummy projection have in common is the desire to collect the upcharge while doing as little as possible to earn it. In short, greed.

The upcharge did what it was supposed to do: It gave exhibitors an incentive to invest in digital cinema and studios an incentive to make 3D pics that would reward exhibs’ investment.

But if filmmakers don’t embrace 3D and make it a plus in their storytelling, and if exhibs won’t do the extra work and spend the extra money to show 3D beautifully, eventually auds might decide that aside from the work of a few people who have publicly promoted the format, Hollywood’s 3D is just a cynical cash-grab. And the sad part is, they might be right.

Then, 3D really might disappear again. Just like the ’50s.

Bits & Bytes

Fanhattan, the next-generation video-guide app, now includes HBO, Cinemax, NBC and CW, and a number of new features. It’s available on iOS devices.

SMPTE has published the BXF (Broadcast eXchange Format) 2.0 suite. BXF, says SMPTE, “streamlines interoperability and information exchanges between business and media management systems vital to broadcast and new-media operations.” It is available for purchase and for subscribers to the store section of the SMPTE Digital Library.

FotoKem’s Keep Me Posted (KMP) has appointed vfx supervisor/cinematographer Peter Vasquez to lead the expansion of its visual effects services.

Kwesi Collisson has joined Gotham digital media and post-production studio Mindsmack as executive producer.

Barry Lyne has joined Xytech as director of sales, EMEA. He will work out of Xytech’s London office.

MPC Film has opened of a pre-production studio in Santa Monica. Previs supervisor Duane Floch and executive producer Julian Levi head the office, which houses previs artists and a screening room.

Mark Driscoll of Look Effects will be on the “The Business of the Business: The State of the Union in 2011-2012” panel at the SIGGRAPH Business Symposium Sunday at the J.W. Marriott in Los Angeles.

The Nov. 7-8 Entertainment Technology Expo in Burbank will include the first ever Digital Process Workflow Lab from Createasphere and its partners.

Union VFX of London collaborated with helmer Danny Boyle on the short films seen during the Olympics’ opening ceremony and continues to work with Boyle on his upcoming pic “Trance.”

Bicoastal studio Brickyard VFX did all vfx for “Ruby Sparks.”

Reliance MediaWorks and Prime Focus have joined Digital Domain’s 3D technology licensing program.

Rhythm & Hues has adopted The Foundry’s Mari as its primary paint tool.

The Animago Award & Conference is moving to the Metropolis Hall at Filmpark Babelsberg, near Berlin.

Pixologic has released Zbrush 4r4 for Windows and Mac. … The Zbrush User Group will meet Aug. 6 at Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Los Angeles, with a book signing for Zbrush masters Eric Keller, Scott Spencer and Paul Gaboory.

Moviola is hosting an online webinar on Avid 6 for FCP Editors, today, Thursday Aug. 2, at 10:00 a.m.

Stavanger Film Lab of Norway is hosting a one-time editing workshop with editor Alex Rodriguez (“Children of Men”), Sept. 8-9 in Stavanger, Norway.

iPi Soft will showcase its iPi Motion Capture 2.0 at next week’s SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles.

Thinkbox Software is releasing Draft, a software tool for automating typical post-render tasks, at SIGGRAPH. Thinkbox has also announced Ember, a plugin for 3ds Max for visual effects creation.

Cinesystem has installed Cinedigm’s Theatre Command Center TMS solution at its five-screen theater in Hortolandia, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Tatarstan Novy Vek of Russia’s Tatarstan Republic has installed Cinegy for its new four-camera studio for national news.

Discovery Networks Intl. has launched an app to integrate social networks with its programming. App allows viewers to interact with on-air content via Facebook and Twitter.

Japanese mobile gaming company Gree is opening a Vancouver location.

Software Company Fabric Engine has announced Creation Platform, a framework for creating custom, high-performance graphics applications.