When Paramount Pictures' 3D movie Beowulf debuts on November 16, the battle between an Anglo-Saxon hero and various monsters won't be the only one moviegoers will witness.
The Robert Zemeckis film also will be first major time that Real D, one of the companies that made the current renaissance of 3D movies possible, directly faces a newer challenger, Dolby 3D from Dolby Laboratories.
Beowulf will show using Real D's technology on 1,000 screens in the US nationwide, Chief Executive Michael Lewis said. Dolby isn't saying yet how many will use Dolby 3D, but it's racing to install its technology as widely as possible, limited chiefly by the rate that partners manufacture its 3D glasses.
"Real D is leading the pack, since they have the widest distribution, but everyone is watching with anticipation," said Aaron Parry, chief executive of production company Main Street Pictures, which Warner Bros. hired to evaluate the current state of stereoscopic filmmaking.
Ultimately, the race to spread 3D movie technology could hasten the day that many in the industry see as inevitable, when 3D movies escape their history as off-the-wall spectacle and become the norm. In this view, the shift to 3D is just another overhaul of the entertainment business, just like the arrival of sound and colour in the last century.
"I think in 10 years you can say entertainment will feel like you're there. It will completely blur the line between the experience you took physically and the experience you took visually," said Vince Pace, whose company, Pace co-developed with James Cameron the Fusion 3D camera being used in that director's 2009 movie, Avatar.
It's no secret why the industry would be eager for a cinematic revolution. Big flat-panel displays and surround sound made home theatre compelling at the same time the studios were financially stagnant. 3D versions of movies such as Chicken Little have generated more revenue than their 2D equivalents financially, and the industry expects more of the same.
"We believe that 3D has the potential to meaningfully boost growth, by allowing theatres to offer a new visual experience that we believe will drive incremental attendance and price hikes," JPMorgan analyst Barton Crockett said in a September report.
He estimated 3D movies will draw 10 percent more viewers than 2D equivalents, and each person willing to pay about US$3.50 more per ticket in 2009. That means US$300 million to US$400 million in additional earnings for theater companies -- about a fifth of the total box-office take by 2011. The number of 3D-equipped screens in the United States should jump to 7,000 by 2010, he predicted.
Most expect home theater to lag 3D in movie theatres. Even when it catches up, "The biggest problem is that 3D on a small screen is not satisfying in same way as in big screen. It is what you call an immersive experience," said Dave Schnuelle, Dolby's senior director for image technology.
Antipiracy is a side benefit. Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has observed, "Ninety percent of all piracy comes from a camcorder aimed at the screen. You can't camcorder 3D movies."
However, building a 3D future is difficult.
Inside the technology
Real D and Dolby rely on the same basic idea to give an audience the illusion of depth: show images that differ slightly in vantage point to each of a viewer's eyes. The viewer's brain will reconstruct the third dimension, just as it does in the real world.
Both companies require glasses to ensure each eye gets only the correct view; Real D uses circular polarisation while Dolby uses a colour-filtering technology licensed from Infinitec. The light is separated into the left-eye and right-eye views at the projector, switching back and forth 144 times per second.
With the new method, "there's no eye fatigue like in the 1950s and 1970s," said Tim Partridge, Dolby's head of products and technology.
In Dolby 3D, a spinning CD-size wheel between the lamp and the digital projector alternately lets through one set of light frequencies or another -- two slightly different versions of the red, green and blue primary colours for each eye. The wheel spins six times for each movie frame, with the digital projector synchronised to show the appropriate eye's image.
In contrast, Real D uses an electronic filter called a Z-screen that circularly polarises the light two different ways after it leaves the projector, also switching back and forth six times per frame to avoid flicker. Circular polarisation -- a complicated transformation of light's electromagnetic properties -- requires the use of a special silver screen that retains the polarisation as the light reflects back toward the audience.
Another company in Korea, Masterimage, also is trying to get into the market with an approach that uses a spinning wheel in front of the projector to apply the circular polarization.
Each technology has its advantages and drawbacks. Dolby 3D's glasses are difficult to manufacture and therefore expensive -- US$50 right now, though the company expects prices will drop. They must therefore be returned after use and washed in an automated washer. Real D's 5-cent, disposable glasses can be branded with promotional graphics from the movie.
Dolby 3D has an advantage with movie screens. Real D requires theaters to install the special silver screens, which JPMorgan estimates cost US$5,500 apiece. Silver screens offer higher reflectivity and work with 2D movies as well, but there's concern that despite advances they suffer from a bright central "hot spot." Dolby 3D uses conventional white screens, which means theaters can move 3D movies to smaller screens as a movie runs its course at a theatre.
Real D seems to have the edge for maximum screen size, though -- an important consideration given that both cut down the amount of light to less than a sixth of what a conventional 2D movie projects. Dolby is cagey about how large a screen Dolby 3D can use, though executives say it's been used to show movies on 11.5 meter screens. Real D, though was at 14 meters during debut and this year should reach beyond 18 meters early next year, said Real D president and co-founder Joshua Greer.
Another factor is how well separated the left-eye and right-eye views are, so that light from one doesn't leak into the other. Real D has "ghostbusting" technology to electronically counteract this problem, and it's working to move it from a digital processing step to a real-time add-on. Dolby, though, boasts that its technology requires no ghostbusting at all.
Neither rival is standing still. "Both are to some degree in their infancy," Parry said. "They'll change radically in the next couple years."
3D movie-making: a new nut to crack
Making 3D movies in the first place is another challenge, with production costs somewhere between 10 percent to 20 percent higher, according to various industry estimates. There, too, technology is changing fast, though.
3D filming has been hampered by technical challenges. For live-action movies, two cameras must be closely coordinated, with risks increasing as cameras move or lenses zoom. Computer-generated animations are easier because they're typically already designed in 3D and therefore require only more computer hours to render the second viewpoint.
Pace is one company trying to address the live-action difficulties, and its 3D cameras have won over Doug Schwartz, creator of the Baywatch TV series and now the chairman of Stereo Vision Entertainment, which aims to bring smaller-budget 3D movies to the screen.
"The (3D) camera used to be size of a VW bug. But you can do anything now -- handheld, Steadicam, underwater, dollies, zoom, cranes," he said. Also important: technology from Quantel lets directors review the shot immediately, in 3D, on the set.
Tools are still missing from 3D production, though, said Pierre Raymond, president and founder of Hybride Technologies, a visual effects company that's working Journey 3-D, a new take on the Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. For example, a standard "rig erase" operation, using computers to digitally erase gear such as wires to suspend actors in the air, is much more complicated than in 2D.
"If do in it 3D, you will erase something on the right eye, and you will not see it. You erase it on the left eye, and you will not see it. When you put stereo glasses on, bang, you see the patch," he said.
Three-dimensional movies are still a novelty, and movies are trying to milk it for all it's worth. "Every time you bring a new technology to market, you will pass the gimmicky stage," Raymond said.
Take Schwartz's work, which is Stereo Vision's first project. Planned for Halloween 2008, Aubrey Blaze Piranhas 3-D features video-game creators who are trapped in Brazilian caves and must reckon with mutant flying carnivorous fish.
"Water is one of best environments for 3D, because things float -- they're in the middle of the screen and coming right out at you," Schwartz said. Stereo Vision also is working to exploit the 3D possibilities of restaurant waitresses in South Beach, Miami with a comedy called Hooters 3DD.
But there are limits, even with movies that embrace 3D's shock value. "You don't want to be jarring to the audience," Schwartz said. For example, MTV-style fast cuts from one scene to another are a no-no because audience members must refocus.
Most, including Real 3D's Lewis, expect a more easygoing era to arrive, with 3D used to involve people more deeply in the narrative. "Ideally we want to make you feel like you're part of the movie and less like there are things flying out at you."