Technicolor Sticks with Film for 3-D

From the introduction of digital projectors and the debut of digital 3-D features, advocates of the 3-D format have kept up a drumbeat with one message: Today's digital projectors finally banish the problems that plagued 3-D on film in the 1950s, '70s and '80s. So the recent news that Technicolor will introduce a system for projecting 3-D from film prints raised a few eyebrows.

After all, 3-D has been the biggest carrot enticing exhibitors to switch to d-cinema, a switch the major studios want badly. At least one exhibitor has said publicly that 3-D is the only reason to switch. Meanwhile, the precise, pristine images of digital projection were supposed to be the key to making the headaches and eyestrain from 3-D as distant a memory as TV magnifying lenses.

That may be why Ahmad Oury, Technicolor's president of strategy, technology and marketing, cautioned, "We're not proposing this is going to replace digital 3-D forever. We're looking at this as a solution that will address the scarcity of 3-D screens out there and enable more consumer access to 3-D content, which is now limited by the slowdown in the digital rollout."

Technicolor is taking a back-to-the-future approach to 3-D on film. The company takes a typical 4-perf 35mm frame and splits it horizontally. The top half is printed with the image for one eye, the bottom half holds the image for the other. A special split lens throws both images onto a silver screen, and the viewer dons polarized glasses to watch, similar to the current Real D or MasterImage systems.

This "over-under" or "stack frame" method has been tried before. What's new this time, said Oury, is "the use of the latest and greatest materials vs. what was there decades ago. The most advanced glass in the lenses, the most advanced polarizing materials, both in the lenses and in the glasses, to optimize the picture."

The lens costs $5,000-$7,000, but the plan is to lease the system for less than that. A pilot program for the system is under way. Oury said the company hopes to have it ready for use in November and to have "a meaningful number" of installations by the end of the year. Early buzz from 3-D mavens has been positive. The system, however, reintroduces some of the old issues with 3-D: image flutter as film moves through the projector, wear and tear on prints and, perhaps most of all, human error by projectionists -- an issue in multiplexes even without 3-D.

Last week, Daily Variety was in Rochester, N.Y., at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theater, watching a series of seven 1950s-vintage 3-D pics, including House of Wax, Dial M for Murder and five B pictures. The pics were shown 1950s-style, on dual-strip film, using twin interlocked projectors and polarized glasses. Eastman House's projection expert Darryl G. Jones was the org's relief projectionist and, for 30 years, was a troubleshooter for Kodak. He has long experience projecting every method of 3-D, as well as Cinemascope and other unusual formats. Jones said he'd found the over-under approach "problematic."

"Probably the biggest problem with it is again getting enough light on the screen. It can be really light-starved because you're using optics to flex this image into the screen the way you want it."

Jones is just old enough to remember the early '50s 3-D wave and likes the format, but it's not his favorite. Getting the lens and projector aligned precisely was tough, too, he said. "Once we had it, you couldn't even touch the frame control on the projector," he said.

Worse yet, on some prints, it was nearly impossible to tell which image was supposed to be "over" and which was "under." If they're switched, the depth effect is "backward;" objects recede instead of coming forward and vice versa.

Jones remembered one night when, expert as he is, he got it wrong. From the booth he noticed during the first reel that the 3-D looked odd. "I took my glasses and turned them over, and everything was the way it supposed to be. The manager comes up to the booth complaining he didn't think it looked right. I said, 'Tell everybody in the audience to flip their glasses over and I'll try to figure it out by the next reel.' " Which he did.

"If I could have things my way, we'd be looking at 70mm projection on large screens," he said. "My criteria would be a bright screen, one that's truly sharp and focused and one that's in proper frame. If I have that I'm pretty happy with the picture."

By David S. Cohen, Variety