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DreamWorks Animation bets big on digital 3-D

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DreamWorks Animation bets big on digital 3-D

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As I was reading through the most recent issue of "Tales from the Laughing Place" magazine (Which -- FYI -- features a spectacular selection of articles on Epcot & its history. If you aren't yet a subscriber of this high quality quarterly, this is one issue that you should probably go out of your way to pick up. Anyway ...), I came across a most interesting quote from Imagineering Ambassador Marty Sklar. To wit:

"When Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffery Katzenberg came in [1984] they were intrigued by ... the 3-D film 'Magic Journeys.' They ... considered doing theatrical films back in the mid-80's after seeing 'Magic Journeys' and the impact it had on our guests."

So why didn't these former Warner Bros. & Paramount executives actually greenlit a 3-D theatrical release after they came on board at the Walt Disney Company? Perhaps it was because Michael, Frank and Jeffrey remembered the mediocre ticket sales that "Comin' at Ya!," "Jaws 3-D" and "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" had racked up. This trio of films were part of an early 1980s era attempt at reviving the 3-D film format that basically went nowhere.

Or perhaps Michael, Frank & Jeffrey's reluctance to attempt a 3-D theatrical release can be explained away by the numerous production problems & cost over-runs that were associated with "Captain EO." Whatever the reason, these three Disney execs never followed through on that particular notion.

But clearly at least one member of this trio continued to puzzle at the commercial possibilities involved with a 3-D theatrical release. Not the old red-and-blue lenses, gives-you-a-headache-if-you-watch-too-long type of three dimensional film (i.e. " ... not your father's 3-D"), mind you. But something new and far more ambitious.

Which is why Katzenberg -- in his role as CEO of DreamWorks Animation -- took the stage yesterday morning at ShoWest. He was there to convince all of the exhibitors who were gathered at the Paris resort in Las Vegas that Jeffrey had actually seen the future. And that digital 3-D was going to the biggest innovation in movie-going since " ... the advent of color 70 years ago."

DreamWorks Animation is really betting big that digital 3-D will be the wave of the future. Starting next year, all of that studio's films will be released in a format Katzenberg is calling "Ultimate 3-D." Mind you, DA will still be creating 2-D prints of such upcoming releases as "Shrek Goes Fourth" and "Monsters vs. Aliens." But only on an as-needed basis.

Copyright 2008 DreamWorks Animation. All Rights Reserved

Speaking of "Monsters vs. Aliens" ... As part of his keynote address at this year's ShoWest, Katzenberg treated exhibitors to a clip of this March 2009 DreamWorks Animation release. During which the President of the United States (voiced by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert) attempted to communicate with an alien spacecraft. Which then didn't respond all that well to his "Close Encounters" -like musical overture.

After this brief scene from "Monsters vs. Aliens" was screened, Katzenberg pointed out that this particular DreamWorks Animation release had -- right from the get-go -- been envisioned as a digital 3-D production. Not like -- say -- WB's "The Polar Express," Paramount's "Beowulf" and/or Disney's "Chicken Little" & "Meet the Robinsons." Which had started off life as 2-D CG films, only to then be turned into 3-D releases in post-production.

Mind you, Jeffrey was quick to credit "Polar Express" & "Beowulf" director Robert Zemeckis -- not to mention Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook -- for proving that there actually was an audience out there that would be interested in seeing 3-D digital motion pictures. "If not for (Robert & Dick's) pioneering and pushing in 3-D, I wouldn't be here today," he said.

And speaking of turning 2-D movies in digital 3-D productions ... Just as Disney did with "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas in Disney Digital 3-D," John Lasseter himself is overseeing the digital 3-D conversion of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2." Which will be released to theaters, respectively, in October of 2009 and February 2010 as part of the promotional build-up for "Toy Story 3." Which -- under Pixar vet Lee Unkrich's direction -- is now being produced as a digital 3-D project.

Which -- it should be pointed out here -- took a lot of animation industry vets by surprise. Given that it had always been assumed that this June 2010 Disney * Pixar release would be a 2-D CG film too, just like "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" before it. Particularly since the folks at Emeryville have always seemed to look down their noses at digital 3-D, feeling that Pixar movies don't need gimmicks in order to reach their audiences. That the stories & characters featured in their films were strong enough to move moviegoers without having to add anything else to the mix.

 Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

So what changed Pixar's tune? Well, I'm told it was the gaming footage that this CG studio has been creating for "Toy Story Mania" that ultimately made the folks in Emeryville change their minds. Animating Buzz, Woody and the gang for this new Disney's California Adventure & Disney's Hollywood Studios attraction reportedly really opened Pixar's eyes when it came to the sorts of performances that could be gotten out of these characters in the digital 3-D format.

So if -- come June of 2010 -- you really like what you see in "Toy Story 3" ... Well, you can then thank Robert Coltrin and Kevin Rafferty. The two Imagineers who originally dreamed up the idea of building a ride-thru shooting gallery for DCA that would then feature the "Toy Story" characters.

So what do you folks think? Do you think it's wise for DreamWorks Animation to go "Ultimate 3-D" with all of its upcoming releases as of March of 2009? And -- for that matter -- are you at all enthusiastic about seeing "Toy Story" & "Toy Story 2" in Disney Digital 3-D?

Your thoughts?

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  • Maybe the technology has advanced, but when we converted The Ant Bully to IMAX 3D (which was the first CG animated film to be shown in IMAX 3D I believe) the big problem was that all the tricks and cheats we animators use....came glaring through once "depth" was added.  Eyelines for characters as well as character placement had to be adjusted as well as perspective cheats.

    Since DW is going 3D from the start they can keep all this stuff in mind... and again, the technology might be advanced enough where its not a problem.

    I do hope a "2D" option is still offered....I dont know if my youngest child will wear the glasses....and if so perhaps not for the full 80 mins or whatnot.


  • I hope they also don't forget that people with lazy eye issues (like my roommate) have real issues with 3-D glasses.  They cause really bad headaches sometimes and other issues.  This is cool but they better have 2-D options as well.

  • The issue is boxoffice, pure and simple. As much as the theater-owner boosters of ShoWest may like to pretend otherwise, they all know that theatrical exhibition of motion pictures has been dying a slow and painful death for several years. Between the competition from 500-channel cable/sat services, piracy of films forcing day-and-date DVD releases of movies (meaning, for the uninitiated, the simultaneous release of the disk with the theatrical release to keep the "time gap" from making millions for the copycats who sneak a high-end video camera into a theater and have 50,000 discs on sale in Hong Kong 5 days later) and now the streaming capabilities of the high-speed internet (not to mention the fact that between portable DVD players, CAR mini-screens in seatbacks, and Ipod video viewing, the customers are getting more used to low-quality imagery and smaller screens for first-run, not rerun or made-for-TV-only viewing).....well, what's a theater owner to do?

    Answer: History. In the late 1940's and early 1950's theater owners and movie producers were terrified by a little box called a "television" that would DARE to give the peeps for "free" what they were used to shelling out money for at the local boxoffice. In fact, one little factoid of Disney history is that Walt was literally the first major movie producer/studio to make shows for the new medium rather than rail against it, and that was closely linked to both his desire to promote Disneyland on it and the investment IN Disneyland by the then-last-place fledgeling ABC network which, in an ironic turn of fate, is now part of the Disney corporate empire.

    But in those days, the way the moviemakers tried to fight the box was with what were, at the time, stunts and gimmicks. First, they tried "wide-screen" processes using anamorphic lenses, the most famous of which was CinemaScope but which also included larger-format versions like Todd-AO and, of course, 70mm release of big epics. They added "Stereoscopic Sound!" and, eventually, the original 3-D films and even "Smell-O-Vision"....which of course all recent Disney attraction visitors know is back in places like Soarin', Spaceship Earth, and the late lamented Horizons famous orange groves.

    Now, we have two "Get''em back into the theaters!" games going on--3-D releases of big hits (which, let's remember, began with live-action epics like the Spiderman films and Harry Potter) and Imax large-screen versions or combos of both. The problem for the ShoWest exhibitors with Imax is, of course, that they have to build those big houses and have enough product in the stream to justify the expense. 3-D is cheaper and easier to show, and the producers/distributors of the films help in the cost of the polarized glasses which, once again thanks to their use by Disney in the parks, have come down in price of production as the volume has increased, too.

    Remember that I-Max, Omni-Max, and Show-Scan were all originally about showing SHORT subjects at museums and other special venues, not full-length movies, but rapidly expanded once the venues were there. That plus the fact that more and more live-action films are being shot digitally with no original film involved makes conversion to 3-D much easier, too. The conversion of animation from hand-drawn cells to digital production does the same thing for 'toons.

    But the bottom-line here is that movie houses need a new "gimmick" to get peeps in seats and sell popcorn...and that brings up another reason "whyfor" Katzenberg & Co made this move: The growth of 3-D HOME video technology means that a 3-D-originated feature can now not draw bodies into cineplexes that might otherwise stay home, it can help a disk sell better than the 2-D ones next to it on the shelves at Best Buy.   Novelty sells, folks. But there's one caveat to consider:

    The films like "Comin' At Ya!" in the last 3-D boomlet were full of gimmicks. Actors would do things like toss cigarette butts into the "audience" or make broad gestures--sort of like the things that "fly into your face" in park 3-D movies like "Bug's Life" and "Captain Eo"--and for many of these movies, the gimmicks of the 3-D became the important part with storytelling, characters, and heart a distant second-place. We must all hope that in the rush to do 3-D to make theater owners happy and draw audiences, we don't see a bunch of gimmick movies that fail to make us laugh, cry, and care, even while we're being pummelled with special effects and whiz-bang 3-D games. Remember the glut of awful, dumb, and utterly meaningless scifi after "Star Wars" and you'll see what I mean.

    The medium may, as Marshall McLuhan once said, be the message...but it cannot REPLACE the message just 'cause it's novel, different, or the latest gimmick.

  • Great comment JohnWayne. I agree.

    I enjoy the 3D films. But it is true that watching them simply isn't as "comfortable" as watching other movies. You can never really let yourself go all of the way into the stories .. because you have the glasses on and for the most part you know it the whole time. Bottom line ... some people like to play football ... but won't be caught dead playing with pads and helmets. There will be people that stay away for that reason.

    I personally am unhappy with these so called 3D versions of current movies such as Harry Potter, I Am Legend .. etc ... filling up the THREE imax theaters in my town and pre-empting some of the "real" IMAX / IMAX 3D documentary productions that have come and gone.

    Some of the bext IMAX films out there ... "MARS", ALIENS OF THE DEEP, etc ... never came to LAS VEGAS. And thats a shame... you would think LAS VEGAS is a large enough market. But with only three  IMAX screens in town ... owers were short sigted enough to assume that people would rather see something that wasnt even created for those screens and that is also showing on 50 standard screens arround town instead.

    Im thinking that it's the IMAX documentaries that will SELL the idea to the public. "Aliens of the Deep" for instance must have been simply incredible in IMAX 3D. That would sell anyone on the platform. You would think that promoters would figure this out. Nothing state of the art about seeing Transformers on IMAX. Its just louder, bigger, and more blurry and "cropped".

    As far as the "people getting used to small screens" problem .... yes it is a problem. We have to figure out how to reverse this trend. But unfortunately what I am seeing from my kids (teens) is the reverse.  They are no longer spending any time watching anything ... because they would rather see the text come across a 1 inch phone screen for 3 hours a day that any "movie". It seems that they trully are offended in the theater when they are told to shut that off for 2 hours to the point that they simply do not want to go.

    In a world where you can sit down in front of a computer to pay a bill and end up spending 3 hours browsing YOUTUBE, IFILM, and FACEBOOK, who really needs to do anything "crazy" like "plan" to go to the movies or even worse, set aside actual time to watch it.

    Its going to take more than "gimmicks" to fix this.

  • I don't like 3-d films. I don't like them in theaters, I don't like them in IMAX, I don't like them in theme parks and quite frankly I'm not excited for the 3-d aspect of Midway Mania (as in: I'd like it better if it was actual characters, I'm not a fan of video in theme parks ie Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and the rain effect on Pirates of the Carribean). I will NOT see Toy Story 3 in 3-d, and I'm hoping "3-d FX" won't be noticable in regular format. My problem is a) the lack in quality and b) having to where the glasses. I just don't like it, plain and simple. I hope Pixar realizes it's been about quality and that 3-d would be a horrible artistic mistake (Jaws 3-d anyone?).

  • So far all the digital 3D stuff I have seen just doesn't look very good. Only IMAX looks really great so far.

  • I'm all for 3D films in the cinema, but I hope that the studios don't stoop to too many 'cheap 3D tricks' that are fun in the multiplex, but that won't translate when the film is released on DVD.  

    You've got to remember that people will initially watch a Disney movie ONCE at the movie theatre, but then watch it MANY times at home.

    What are we supposed to do, wear 3D glasses in our living rooms?

  • I still remember 3-D as the "wave of the future" back in the fifties. It wasn't then - - and it isn't now.

  • Ok...   one major mistake in the article.    "Your father's 3-D" was probably not an anaglyphic red & cyan showing.    Huge misconception -- most 3-D films of the 1953 boom were basically the same silver screen and circular polarizer combination that Disney is doing now and has always done in the theme parks.   It's just that technology has increased enough for much clearer images from the same process.

    Another thing:   the article seems to forget that Pixar is a pioneer in stereoscopic animated films.   Knick-Knack was a 3-D short.  They seemed to enjoy doing it, but knew it wasn't feasible for everything they did.  With the response that they got with Knick-Knack, hard to see why they'd need a theme park attraction to convince them that they could do some great things with 3-D when they had done some 20 years ago...

    Madonna:   Huh?!   Have you not bothered to see the great quality that the Real-D format produces?!   There is *no* lack in quality.   3-D is a great art form that can't be done by just about anybody (which is why James Cameron needs to get rid of that camera he uses and go for one that actually works well).   The problems with stuff like Jaws 3-D and every other movie that caused the death of the 1953 and 1983 booms is that they were REALLY BAD movies that were completely about gimmick and had no substance.   The good 3-D films were the ones that only enhanced with 3-D.   The bad ones were the ones that felt the need to send everything toward the audience, whether they needed to or not.

    lostincrowds:   I wear 3D glasses in my living rooms.    I have no problem with it.   However, 3DHDTV is basically a reality now and there's no need for glasses to view the movies on the autostereoscopic screens.  Just wait for the prices to drop and for it to be implemented in more homes...   but, just like most stereoscopic films, most probably will not be released in 3D when the come to Blu-Ray and DVD.

  • As a wearer of corrective lenses in the form of glasses, I find most 3-D glasses to fit awkwardly, if at all.  I go to 3-D movies (Meet the Robinsons most recently) but the stereo images don't line up perfectly and I feel like I'm losing some of the effect.

  • One more comment re. theater technology. Theater owners are FAMOUS about resisting technological change due to the expense. For those who haven't figured it out yet, I work in the hallowed halls of Hollywood, and trust me on this--you have NO IDEA how difficult it was for the Lucasfilm folks to convince theaters to install THX sound, for various digitial sound and picture systems to spread widely, and, in an age when a "conversion" of one physical location would mean 8, 10, 14, or even more than 20 separate screens needed their speakers, booths, and even accoustics revamped, for ANY change to happen. Sometimes it was comical when it did---I remember, for example, when Universal introduced  "Sensurround!"--the ultra-low-frequency rumble system created for the film "Earthquake!" and then used in films such as "Midway" (to simulate bomb explosions and the rumbling of airplane engines on carrier decks) and "Roller Coaster" just to justify the installation expense--the famous Graumann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. had to install this huge cargo netting stuff in the ceiling because pieces of the old and ornate decorative plaster kept being vibrated loose and falling on the audiences!

    Anyhow, modern 3D's big boon to exhibitors (and please note: ShoWest is a convention of THEATER owners--that's what it's all about) is that it is CHEAP with little-to-no installation issues nowadays and the only expense being the as-I-mentioned cheaper special glasses. Of course, very special venue films such as the Disney park films "Magic Journeys" et. al. were expensive because they were both shot and projected on 70mm (most of the 70mm releases of major films these days are actually shot 35 and have special blow-up prints made--or at least were in the era prior to digital filmmaking.) That's why KODAK was a sponsor--all those zillions of feet of 70mm film are not cheap.

    ANYHOW...comparing the Imax short subjects to features or concert films such as recent Rolling Stones or Miley Cyrus movies is an apples-and-oranges situation. Imax was always intended as a "special venue" format for museums and the like, and only the desperation for a new gimmick of traditional exhibitors led to its expansion into multiplexes.

    HOWEVER...in this week's Hollywood Reporter coverage of ShoWest, another little factoid emerges in their extensive coverage of the expansion in 3-D in not just animated but also live-action films both here and in Europe and Asia: The fact that theaters can CHARGE A HIGHER TICKET PRICE for the 3-D screen's showing! Remember always that theater owners have a huge 'nut' tied up in real estate, maintenance, taxes, utilities, and insurance that even their enormous popcorn mark-ups and low-priced minimum wage teenage employees don't always balance out. The big "hits" have to pay for all the weak-sister flops, and especially with 12 screens to fill, having a couple where you can get an extra $2 to $5 per ticket for the gimmick of 3-D makes a huge dent in the bottom line.

  • The future of theatrical is probably in event screenings, offering better a/v tech, screensize, content (I think it was M. Night Shymalan who suggested a theatre-only movie in EntWeekly some years back), food, and experiences ("come in costume" is a signifier of these) that you can't get at home. I just read about a movie theatre with an actual restaurant.

    This article is from today's Daily Variety and it is worth reading because it's all about the possibilities of the specialty screening market and Disney's foray into it with the Hannah Montana concert film.


  • I do think that 3-D is the future, but I think that it will take several years for filmmakers to learn how to do it right. When sound was first introduced they had to hide microphones in props with the actors crowded around them in unnatural poses. The actors weren't used to using their voices to act and their forced poses robbed them of the skills they had. It took several years for filmmakers to learn how to position mikes and actors to learn how to perform while speaking.

    Same thing applies with 3-D. Certain things that work well in 2-D just don't work in 3-D (fast editing, strange camera angles), while 3-D provides new opportunities (moving through depth instead of just screen left to screen right).

    John Lasseter has always been a fan of 3-D, but he felt that if you were going to make a 3-D film you had to do it right, considering the 3-D aspect from the very beginning. Up until now the appropriate number of performance venues weren't there, the technology wasn't right, and there wasn't enough experience with 3-D. Now there are enough theaters and enough material to look at what works and what doesn't.

    For people who don't want to watch the movie in stereo I think theaters should start giving out glasses that only show the left (or right) eye so that they could still watch a 2-D version of the movie. Or viewers could where an eye patch. :-)

  • Is there any way JohnWayne can be a regular contributor to this site, Mr. Hill?

    Great stuff!

    As far as 3-D goes, ever since we saw Chicken Little in 3-D, if an animated feature is offered in 3-D, that is the one my family will be seeing.  We love it!

    The 3-D version of Nightmare Before Christmas showed the dark lining in the silver cloud, though.  It was really obvious that the 3-D had been tacked on after the fact.

    Still a great movie, but the effect was a bit disappointing.

    Let's hope that there won't be a glut of substandard 3-D films like there was (and still is)  with CGI when Pixar broke onto the scene.  

  • Thanks for the kind words, atom. And jewalker? Actually it was the advance of the mike technology that ALLOWED the actors to move away from those hidden-in-flower-arrangement michrophones of the early talkies, not so much any quantum leap in filmmaking technique. If you look at many of the truly amazing silent epics (by which I mean the non-keystone-cop-comedy dramas and historical epics that will just plain blow you away with their cinematic sophistication---rent the original silent "Thief of Bagdad" for one easily-available-on-DVD example) you'll see that. I think today's film pro's who deal with CGI and other marvels on a routine basis can handle the technology of 3-D technique just fine. The bigger issue, as with those old 3-D gimmick movies like "Comin' At Ya!" is about the 3-D BECOMING the story rather than serving it. And, as others have noted here, bad movies are bad movies, no matter how high-tech gee-wiz they are in their effects, 3-D or 2-D.

    By the way, one of the other huge problems in early talkies other than mandatory mike placement was the fact that the cameras were NOISY, so literally the entire camera and cameraman were put inside a big, padded, soundproofed (sorta) packing crate of a thing with a little window to shoot through. This, of course, kept the cameras pretty stationary, so the whole technology of dollies and moving camera shots which those same epic silents had already perfected went into the deep freeze for many years until they finally invented first the "blimp"--a padding that went on the CAMERA and/or a sound-deadening camera body or some combo of the two--and then, finally, modern nearly-silent motors and gears to move the film through the machine.  From there we could talk about zoom lenses, about the development of magnetic tape sound recording on set vs. magnetic FILM recording in a central sound department at the middle of the lot and all the other advances that, still mentioning sound, gave us the classic "Speed!" call that is now about tradition, NOT reality, etc. etc.

    Bottomline: As award-winning cinematographer Steven Poster once said at a Director's Guild seminar on digital cinema I once attended: "These are the tools. These are the skills. The tools are great, but the skills are what the storytelling is about, and the tools just enhance the skills--they never replace them."

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