3D Here or hype?

James Cameron first conceived the science
fiction epic Avatar back in 1994 as a mix of live action and computer generated
work that told the story of alien moons, mining, threatened local tribes and
ten-foot tall human-alien hybrids on the world of Pandora.

He intended to release it
immediately after Titanic. However, the delivery of the concept very quickly
became so vast and complex that the director put the project on ice until the
technology required to visualise his computer-generated worldview had caught up
with his ambitious project.

For the next fifteen years,
a vast array of new and revolutionary techniques, both hardware and software,
were developed including special cameras, proprietory software and massive data

“We took the bull by the
horns and just got on with it ourselves. Through some time and energy, we came
up with a tool set and a process that allowed us to create these alien
creatures,” Mr Cameron said.

Weta Digital, the New
Zealand studio responsible for the groundbreaking visual effects in The Lord of
the Rings trilogy and King Kong, is took special effects to a new level of
creative and technological excellence.

For Avatar, the studio
created over 1,800 stereoscopic, photo-realistic visual effects shots, many of
them of the Na’vi as ‘hero’ characters. In addition to digital characters and
environments are the machines, vehicles, equipment and every-thing else that
helped blur the line between im-gination and reality.

When the film was released
in late 2009 the final project captured the world’s imagination. It was a lush,
hyperrealistic blend of live action, CGI and motion capture animation delivered
in the highest quality 3d available and opened up a massive interest in the
format. It could have been a career-ending risk but Avatar broke international
box office records with a worldwide gross of $232,180,000 over its first five
days of release. Indeed, it is the highest grossing film of all time in over 30
countries and by now the production cost of $300 million has been recouped many
times over.

The three-dimensional
element is widely credited as having kicked off renewed interest in the format.
There are numerous releases that have been filmed in 3d including Toy Story 3.
Shrek Forever After, The Last Airbender, How To Train Your Dragon and Alice In

How it works

Avatar blends real life
movement with animation. The realistic aliens were achieved with a
performance-capture camera, which captures the movements of real-life actors
which can then be mapped to a 3d computer generated animation which performs
the exact same motions. For the 3d effect a brand new stereoscopic camera was
used. This is a camera with two lenses rather than one, the lenses placed next
to each other to capture stereo images on separate films. This mimics the way
that the information from your left and right eyes are combined by the brain to
create a depth of field and three dimensional environment. Close one eye and
it’s still there; the brain is very adept at extrapolating and interpolating
the missing information.

In an IMAX3d cinema, the
stereo films are played back simultaneously. Polarised glasses worn by the
audience fuse the images together and create a three-dimensional effect.

Audiences were wowed by the
movie but some have complained of headaches. This is thought to be because 3d
movies are designed to be 20/20 perfect representations whilst many people have
less than absolutely perfect vision to an equal extent in both eyes.

“You’re forcing yourself
with the eyes and the brain to bring these two images together, and after a
while, especially in a two and a half hour movie, it becomes very difficult to
maintain,” said Frank Orge, an ophthalmology expert in the United States.


James Cameron is far from
the first director to tap into three dimensions. In fact, the concept of
stereoscopic imaging has been around more or less since the first cameras were
invented. The first demonstration of 3d was at the Academie des Sciences,
Paris, France in 1856. JC d’Almeida using an alternating system of red and
green flickering (static) images plus rather familiar glasses with red and
green lenses – an anaglyphic system.

In the 1890s a camera was
invented that could shoot two simultaneous films through two lenses. However,
despite these occasional bursts of creativity, notably for several years in the
1920s, 3d was second-best to two dimensional systems due to the difficulty and
expense of creating colour images.

It is the 1950s that is
most-associated with 3d cinemas, other systems including shutter-release
glasses that synced up with rapidly flickering alternate left eye and right eye

Famous breakthroughs in this
era were Bwana Devil and later House of Wax thrilling audiences.

A rash of B-movies including
It Came From Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Robot Monster are
still regarded as classics of 3d – Robot Monster largely because it’s also
considered one of the worst movies ever made. Anywhere. By anyone. However, the
fad was short-lived and 3d films again faded until the 1980s with a
mini-revival, mostly in horror and space movies. Digital technologies through
the latter end of the eighties and the explosion of computer capability in the
1990s and 2000s made the quality and cost of digital moviemaking perfect for
high-definition three dimensional movie-making again – led, latterly, by

Post-Avatar, cinemas with
the capability of showing digital movies in 2d or 3d have grown exponentially.
A propos of nothing, the average ticket price for a 3d movie compared to its
two dimensional counterpart was $3 more.

Home technology

Home systems are beginning
to appear which use various versions of 3d. At the moment, glasses are still
needed. It’s become possible with the increasing move toward Blu-ray Disc
storage systems which can store enough hi-definition information to enable home
movies to show in 3d, as long as the TV is also 3d. This year’s World Cup was
shown in three dimensions by FIFA and the technology world is only awaiting one
of the major games console developers to unleash their 3d systems. As it ever
was with new technology, these are likely to be expensive until a
standardisation is introduced that will make all devices compatible – and
therefore cheap.

Nobody will be throwing away
those geeky-chic glasses any time soon.