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The 3D That Got Away: Part II

The 3D That Got Away: Part II

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This fall's blockbuster "The Polar Express" takes viewers on a magical ride to the North Pole using motion capture and computer animation. It's even more spectacular in IMAX 3D. But none of this would have been possible without an event that took place almost five years ago.

Fantasia 2000

Michael Eisner had a problem. Here was a film being developed that had limited commercial appeal. Don't believe me? Look at the dismal box office results for the original "Fantasia" over the past fifteen years. It wasn't really a kid's film. It was more of an intellectual property. And the way the updated version was being produced was a bit odd…haughty animation combined with Hollywood commedians (it's highly doubtful that Walt would have placed either Steve Martin of Penn and Teller in the original version). "Fantasia" was about combining art and music and was costing the studio a fortune. Eisner wanted to make a profit off of it. The solution: IMAX 3D.


We all know that "Fantasia 2000" was released on January 1, 2000 in an exclusive 4-month IMAX run. The IMAX version of the film was a success, overshadowing the dismal sales from the 35mm and DVD and video releases later that year. But why was it not released in 3D? The answer is three-fold. First, these were the days when digital remastering techniques were still being developed. If you've ever seen an IMAX or large format versions of a film such as "Apollo 13" or the two "Matrix" sequels, you understand what I'm talking about. Prior to Imax's DMR technology and similar techniques created by such companies as Technicolor, Imagica, and Lowry Digital Images, any 35mm or 70mm image enlarged to IMAX or other large screen formats would show the film's grain in the enlarged version. This was plainly obvious in the live action sections of "Fantasia 2000," as well as in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" section. For this reason, the "Nutcracker" sequence was eliminated from the film altogether.

When the live action portions were enlarged and placed in 3D, two problems arose. First, the grain showing on the screen showed horribly in the 3D version. Second, live action did not transfer well to 3D (although techniques have been developed since then for live action 2D to 3D transfer, live action still looks best when there are quick edits between scenes). As for the animation, although the computer animated scenes translated nicely, the hand-drawn animation appeared like pop-up or 3-D cutouts. This is the same reason that "Mickey's Philharmagic" was created in computer animation rather than cel-drawn.

Perhaps most important of all was the price tag in converting "Fantasia 2000" to 3D. For the time, before the proper technologies had been mastered, it was just too cost prohibitive. So the film was created in the less expensive 2D version of IMAX. When Michael Eisner sat down with Disney executives at the Edwards IMAX Theater in Valenica in late Summer, 1999, he commented after viewing the completed film that this was the way all of Disney's animated films should be seen. As a result, large format versions of "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" were released, a large format version of "Sleeping Beauty" was created (although never released), and testing was done on large format versions of "Aladdin" and "Tarzan." When the large format version of "Treasure Planet" was released in fall of 2002, it grossed three times more the amount per screen than the 35mm or digital cinema versions of the film.

Coming on Friday: In the final installment of this series, Joe will take a look at the biggest project to escape from IMAX 3D as well as why you may not be able to see "Polar Express" at your local IMAX theater.

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