November 4, 2005 1:17 PM PST

'Chicken Little' gives peek at digital 3D

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October 29, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO--In a darkened movie theater here, a small chicken with enormous glasses watches anxiously as the sky cracks open above him.

For just a moment, I remove my own bright green 3D glasses, and the screen flattens. What had looked like a window out into the animated world blurs slightly and looks more like ordinary, albeit well-animated, computer graphics.

I put the glasses back on, and the shattering sky again stretches out to infinity. I can't say much about the actual movie--I'm only watching about eight minutes of it, after all--but this new digital 3D technology looks good.

The movie is Walt Disney Studios' animated "Chicken Little," which is being released on 85 screens around the United States today in an updated, digital 3D technology that is drawing buzz from major Hollywood directors and theater owners.

The studio is touting its work with sound specialist Dolby Laboratories, effects house Industrial Light and Magic and 3D projection technology company Real D as a groundbreaking step forward in creating animation that an audience can fall into as if it were real.

The bigger step may be Disney's success in persuading 85 theaters around the country to install expensive new digital projectors, along with the 3D capability to show "Chicken Little." That sets a foundation in most of the biggest cities for the digital release of films and experimentation with more 3D works.

I've never been a big believer in 3D myself. When I was a kid, I laughed with everyone else at the re-releases of a few B-grade films on television (how many times do people really need to throw spears right at the camera, after all?). A few weeks ago, I watched one of the genre's heights--Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder"--in its original 3D splendor, and thought: Interesting, but gimmicky.

The bulk of those films date from Hollywood's first major flirtation with 3D in the early and mid-1950s, a time when studios were feeling the same kind of box-office pressure they feel today.

Click for photos

At that time, audiences were falling in love with television, and theater owners were looking for ways to draw them back to the big screens. Today, big-screen TVs, DVD players and booming home theater speakers (as well as $10 movie-theater ticket prices) are again persuading people to stay home, and Hollywood is again looking for ways to keep audiences in their seats.

The next few years should see a surge in new 3D movies, some from major directors. Even George Lucas is getting on board, promising to re-release 3D versions of the original "Star Wars" films in 2007, the first film's 30th anniversary.

Technology tussle
The new generation of 3D technologies is built on digital tools that promise a far better experience than in the past. But the industry hasn't yet settled on a standard way to do this.

All true 3D films require having a double image--one frame for the right eye and a slightly different frame for the left--in order to create the illusion of depth.

Old 3D films typically did this with two projectors. The new generation of digital projectors do it with just one machine, alternating rapidly between images meant to be seen by the right and left eyes. The Real D technology used in the Chicken Little film shows 144 frames per second, for example.

In the case of "Chicken Little," the alternating left eye, right-eye images are projected with polarized light--essentially meaning that the light waves carrying each image are lined up in an orderly fashion, but each side is lined up in a slightly different way.

The green 3D glasses I'm wearing have polarized lenses, so that each side lets in only the images that are meant for that eye. Using the Real D technology, the projector shows 144 back-and-forth frames per second, half of which are seen by each eye.

A different technique is being boosted by a company called In-Three, which Lucas has tapped to create 3D versions of the "Star Wars" films.

In-Three is primarily focused on creating 3D masters of 2D originals, but it is also backing a technology using "active" glasses, in which each lens actually goes rapidly dark in turn. This may be easier for theaters to use, since it doesn't require installation of a special reflective screen. However, it does require a significant investment in glasses, which currently cost about $20 a pair.

Will all of this prove enough to keep cynical audiences coming back to theaters? After all, 3D fads have come and gone for years, and most audiences seem to be happy with increasingly high-quality 2D films.

Here in my theater seat, watching "Chicken Little" and his friends try to evade alien death rays, I'm impressed but unconvinced. The technology is interesting, but always secondary to the movie itself. As with Hitchcock's works, the best movies will be sought out for their art, not their technology.


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it happened with sound
We used to have just "Stereo" sound, with 2 channels, but the 90s saw theaters and home video equipment get better, and better, and better with competing formats of digital audio, surround sound, noise reduction and more. It seemed like every year the first-run movie theaters in the SF bay area were upgraded with some sort of new audio experience. And those technologies are here to stay.

If you look at the beginnings of stereo recordings, you'll notice that it too was used in a gimicky way. Voices popping from left to right channels, instruments isolated to just one speaker, etc. But when the novelty wore off, stereo was used to the effect of just making the performance sound richer and fuller. Stereo is now here to stay.

With at-home HD-DVD on the horizon, there *has* to be some sort of picture upgrade in the theaters in order for them to complete. Digital projection is a start but the resolution is not quite there. I saw Star Wars Ep. 2 in digital projection, and while most of it looked great, anything that needed detail, like the text-crawl at the beginning, or the background stars in space, looked aliased.

I hope 3D is the same as audio -- that after the novelty is overwith, it will be used in a much more subtle way to draw the viewer into the world.
Posted by (34 comments )
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new 3D
I agree with the ending sentence of this article. It will always come back to the quality of the motion picture. The first films were black and white, jerky, fuzzy, and silent. The art in the best of them endures today. Then came sound. Many good actors had bad voices for audio, and lost their places to actors with good faces and good voices. Still, the best art endures today. And then came color. Now actors really had to look good. The cameras and filming tecnology were evolving all the time. Here in the first decade of the 21st century, I myself can remember 55 years of film evolution. I remember the movies that were truly art, that were able to persuade the audience to willingly suspend disbelief and fall into the story unfolding before their eyes. The art of motion pictures is the most complex of all artistic mediums. Technology brings them to life, but at the center of that life are still the basic elements: story, which comes from a writer; characters, built by the actors; direction, from a director who can see the whole and also all of its parts; and the crew, people who are willing to give their expertise in many fields over to the control of the director and his vision of the story; without the willing cooperation and sublimation of self of all of these people, the work will not become a movie at all. The phenomenon that is a work of art expressed through the medium of a motion picture is so involved that it appears impossible to achieve. And we have all seen many times that it does not rely on gimmicks, or fancy new bells and whistles. In the end, it relies on the combined artistic talent of hundreds of people all focused on a goal they cannot see: the story and the director's vision of its expression.
Sure, lets see some new better 3D, or hear some better sound. But I wouldn't be putting my money on those. If I had any, it would be invested in the writers, actors and directors first, and their supporting crews and technicians. Which brings me to my nod to the producers - without them to supply the money, we would all still be at home playing board games, knitting and crocheting, and reading books (books?!).
Posted by (9 comments )
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Too bad...
... that Disney is no longer a quality animation house. Walt must be
turning over in his grave.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
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Disney is down the crapper... They keep releasing "classics" on DVD but some are so outdated it makes more recent ones look good. Most notably, Bambi. I hate that damn movie.
Posted by Bob_Barker (167 comments )
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Stupid Glasses
Until they find a way to project a 3d images without the need to wear special glasses(which is a pain if you require regular glasses for vision correction) 3d movies will be a niche market that continues to rise and fall in popularity.
Posted by Rolndubbs (194 comments )
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10% of all big films in 3D after 2007 50% of animation!
Lots of sceptics thought sound would ebb after a year or two, same with color. Now all films are in sound, 99% in color. I would say that since so much of the movie market is comic book level or
inspired, the ongoing appeal of modern 3D will
result in about 10% of all films, especially animation and big CGI films like "KING KONG", and
at least 50% of future 3D animation films will
actually play in some theaters in 3D for years and years to come. You sceptics will be dead by
the time something causes 3D to lose appeal, like
glassless 3D! New HD Blue-ray disks will assure
excellent 3D quality in the home as well. Digital
cameras are coming out in 3D in a few onths, and video games and the internet is going that way too to some extent. Of course the majority of filmd weill always be in 2D flat. Sex videos will
even go the 3D route a major extent, as will video games! You'll sooon see!
Posted by 3dallan (5 comments )
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Get a grip, 3D movies are a joke
The theatrical movie business is in decline, and has been for 50 years -- people want to watch movies at home (if they watch movies at all anymore..) This means the content has to be re-purposeable to the small screen. To make 3D work even marginally, you need a very large screen (like IMAX) and even then it has problems, like causing headaches in many people with one dominant eye.

With a screen that doesn't span you whole field of view you run into an insurmountable scale problem or 'dolls-house' effect, where the exaggerated L/R image displacement makes objects seem close, and since the images are small, the objects seem small too, & people look like little dolls... 3D will work in head-mounted displays, but not in theatrical or home presentation.

Posted by gnomeproject (1 comment )
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