The relationship between 3D cinema and audiences is love-hate, a never-ending oscillation between hot property and yesterday's fad. 3D technology was first patented by William Friese Greene in 1894. The first commercial screening of a 3D movie, Power of Love, took place in 1920. Yet in 2017 — despite all the state of the art technology in the world — 3D still isn't fully enticing fans, so much so, in July IMAX announced they will be focusing on increasing 2D screenings in North America.
Does that mean it's time Hollywood turns its back on the quest to seek an extra dimension? Or is the full revolution waiting patiently on the sidelines until technology can make glasses-free 3D a reality? A good place to start is with IMAX themselves. With 1,257 screens in 75 countries, in order to flourish the company needs to be on the right side of history when it comes to understanding the taste of audiences.
Greg Foster, CEO of IMAX Entertainment and Senior Executive Vice President, IMAX Corp., explained to Movie Pilot that in North America, there was a "clear growing audience preference to 2D." Traditionally, IMAX release around 40 movies per year, the majority in 3D. Changing audience preference has called on them to increase the number of standard screenings to "balance the slate," including high profile films such as Dunkirk, Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Blade Runner 2049.
Foster stresses that the increase in 2D screenings doesn't necessarily mean IMAX is writing off 3D, explaining that they are "very proud" of their current technology. However, the impetus is on practicality, not novelty. "When 3D is used effectively and for the right type of film — we have seen the incredible power that it can have," Foster says, "An example of this is a film like Gravity. You can certainly appreciate the film in 2D, but experiencing it in 3D was a transformational experience."
As well as balancing the desire of audiences, Foster explains that IMAX's goal is to provide filmmakers with the best tools to bring their own particular vision to life. Depending on the director, that'll be a choice between 2D or 3D, film or digital. For IMAX, allowing filmmakers to pursue their own creative avenue is the main goal, whether that's a 70mm loving auteur or a CGI whizz who sees the potential of modern technology to bring their particular story to life.
The Continued Immersive Appeal Of IMAX
Aside from the debate of 2D vs. 3D, IMAX is thriving. In 2017, there are more movies shooting with "IMAX DNA" than ever before. "This is very exciting as it allows us to supercharge the experience and provide audiences with something that is truly differentiated," Foster explains. Christopher Nolan is a catalyst for the increased use of high-resolution cameras, a director whom Foster refers to as a "trailblazer" for his promotion of IMAX across high profile blockbusters such as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar and Dunkirk.
Foster acknowledges that even as recently as a decade ago, the size, scope and impracticality of IMAX cameras (some can weigh up to 54 pounds) was "intimidating" for many directors, but Nolan's persistence has helped to promote the undeniable advantages of their use. He says:
"Christopher Nolan has been a trailblazer. He's shown that not only is it possible to use these cameras on Hollywood productions, but taken it one step further by strapping them to Spitfire planes for Dunkirk. The result was absolutely breathtaking and unlike anything we’ve ever seen."
Whereas Nolan was once an anomaly, a host of prominent directors are turning to IMAX, including J.J Abrams, Zack Snyder, Michael Bay and Brad Bird. Rian Johnson and The Russo Brothers utilized IMAX cameras for two of the biggest upcoming releases on the movie calendar, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Avengers: Infinity War. "I believe it is a combination of filmmakers seeing that it is possible using the playbook that Nolan helped develop, but more importantly, they see the resulting images and how audiences react to it — that makes it worth it," says Foster.
Another director who has been hugely influential in the pioneering of technology is James Cameron, who has been at the forefront of cinematic innovation for decades, constantly pushing the boundaries of what's possible on the big screen. Such is his influence — Avatar (2004) is still the highest grossing IMAX release of all time — Foster takes an buoyant view to his creative input, adding: "To be clear, whatever James Cameron asks us to do, we'll say yes!"
Is Glasses-Free 3D The Answer?
Technological innovation is an important facet of the future of 3D. For directors, the tools are becoming more practical; in 2014 IMAX launched ultra-lightweight 3D cameras, and the compact ALEXA IMAX 2D digital camera was used by the Russo Brothers to film Infinity War. Image projection quality has drastically improved in recent years, too, as cinemas move away from traditional lamp setups in favour of laser projection. New projectors drastically improve efficiency and image quality by using red, green and blue lasers instead of white bulbs.
From the audience's perspective, Cameron's biggest goal for the Avatar sequels is a 3D experience — without the need for glasses. MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) is at the forefront of exploring how to achieve this. Although progress has been made, will glasses-free 3D be ready for Avatar 2's release date, 2020? "This is hard to estimate," Piotr Didyk, a former researcher at CSAIL, tells Movie Pilot, "The projection system would need to change and it is unclear how quickly cinemas could adopt new technology."
Didyk highlights the current issue of a "chicken-and-egg-problem" with glasses-free 3D; without the technology, the films can't be made. But without interesting films designed for it, the technology is redundant. It's clear a simultaneous approach is best. As Cameron waits on the sidelines with Avatar, technology is close to making his dream a reality. In July, CSAIL announced a new system for glasses-free viewing on television screens, dubbed "Home 3D." It converts video in real time, leading to compatibility with games consoles and media players.
Further still, in 2016 CSAIL announced "Cinema 3D," a prototype system that is arguably the biggest leap forwards for widespread glasses-free viewing in theaters. Home-based televisions use "parallax barriers" to mimic depth by creating two series of slits, providing a different view for each eye. Cinema 3D applies the same system and upscales it for the multiple perspectives (and larger screen) of the theater, using a series of mirrors and lenses.
Cinema 3D is in its early stages. Current prototypes are the size of a reporter's notebook, some distance from an IMAX screen. But the future's bright. Eventually, this technology could manifest in visual spectacles usually confined to world of sci-fi, transforming any screen into a glasses-free 3D experience, visible from any angle. The possibilities are limitless: Imagine billboards containing adverts where cars accelerate into thin air, or three-dimensional video mannequins walking the catwalk in windows of high-street fashion stores.
Above all else, it could transform the cinematic experience, especially if Cameron continues to push the glasses-free for the #Avatar series. Does this mean glasses-free 3D will triumph and make 2D redundant? Not quite. After all, there's room for both. "I believe the answer is a balance of formats," says Foster, before highlighting the key component — giving audiences something they can't get at home:
"You can’t just look at one single item like a projector or a sound system; it's the sum of parts — and designing an experience together with filmmakers — that transports audiences somewhere they’ve always wanted to go, but could never get to."
Do you have preference to 3D? Does 2D suit you just fine? Or do you enjoy both?