The New 3D Technology

"It’s been only two years since the re-launch of commercial 3D exhibition with Disney’s Chicken Little in November 2005 and there are now almost 1,000 cinemas equipped. This rapid growth exceeds all previous attempts at getting 3D into mainstream exhibition, and this means that this time it’s likely here to stay.

3D has been on the fringes of exhibition since its first introduction in the early 1950s. The launch of 3D in 1953 quickly ran out of steam by 1955, leaving many exhibitors with the feeling that it was an expensive fad that, frankly, didn’t work very well. It made a partial comeback in the mid-1970s, only to fade again from mainstream use. Over the years, 3D found its long-term application in special-venue presentations where the specialty content and a unique audience could justify the costly installation of its specialized equipment.

Today’s situation is quite different. Enabled by the rollout of 2D digital cinema equipment, 3D instantly provides a tangible benefit whose value is instantly seen and appreciated by the audience. Enabling 3D on top of a standard 2D digital-cinema installation has become the “killer application” providing much of the justification for the conversion to digital. Much like surround sound in the 1980s, 3D has now moved from limited specialty applications into mainstream exhibition.

The 2005 release of Disney’s Chicken Little changed everything by proving that the technology behind the new digital 3D works better than before and is viable for full-length titles. A number of marketing studies have cited two to three times the box office for the 3D-equipped screens, proving that today’s audiences don’t object to paying a premium ticket price for the unique experience.

3D Content from Hollywood
Adding credibility to the current 3D movement is the fact that the driving force behind it has largely been the filmmakers themselves. The Hollywood production pipeline is planning a number of major 3D releases in the next few years. DreamWorks Animation has committed for complete adoption of 3D by 2009 and filmmakers like James Cameron and George Lucas have made commitments for future projects. A few of the big titles being planned are Journey 3D and U2 3D, both scheduled for 2008; DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens, scheduled for March 2009, and James Cameron’s Avatar in May 2009.

Overview of 3D Technologies
In a nutshell, 3D requires two projection systems, one for each eye, with each projecting an image taken from a slightly different perspective. The viewer, when wearing special glasses to direct the proper image to the corresponding eye, subconsciously fuses the images together, creating a mind’s-eye view that reveals the scene’s depth. In effect, 3D is doing for the eyes much like what stereo surround sound does for the ears.

Throughout exhibition’s short history, there have been many different 3D techniques used in cinema. With 35mm film, 3D typically required two projectors, which were not only costly but nearly impossible to keep in close enough synchronization to maintain the effect without also delivering a splitting headache.

Initially, glasses with simple red and cyan filters—commonly know as the “anaglyphic” method—were used to separate the images. The low-cost red/cyan glasses worked—but also created unnatural shifts in the overall color balance that most filmmakers and viewers found unacceptable. Glasses with horizontal/vertical polarized lenses were used with somewhat greater success. Later, active glasses, which act as high-speed shutters synchronized with the frame being projected, were commonly used in special-venue applications, but these are typically quite expensive and require batteries and frequent recharging.

With the first installations of digital systems in 2000, innovative filmmakers recognized that the new generation of digital projectors solved the stability problems that have plagued previous 35mm 3D approaches. These filmmakers, in fact the very same filmmakers that are making 3D content today, began asking the digital-cinema equipment vendors to quickly enable the equipment to allow 3D projection. A new company jumped in with a solution.

Real D’s Approach
Real D, a name unknown to most exhibitors prior to 2005, has quickly become the dominant player in 3D digital cinema. Working being the scenes with filmmakers and equipment manufacturers, Real D saw a unique opportunity to develop and integrate the necessary 3D options so that DCI-specified 2K digital cinema equipment can be used in 3D applications. The engineers at Real D realized that they could avoid the classic problems with 35mm 3D—the high cost of two projectors and problems synchronizing the two—by running a single digital projector at a much higher frame rate than a conventional 35mm projector. To separate the images, instead of bulky and expensive “active” glasses, they could place the shuttering system—what Real D calls the “Z-filter”—in the booth between the projector and the porthole. To improve the viewer’s experience over older polarized systems, Real D added a new “twist” to the glasses—circular polarization—which makes the image quality relatively insensitive to the rotational angle of the glasses. Overall, the 3D viewing experience was tremendously improved over anything that could be done with 35mm film.

The initial launch of Real D with Chicken Little included installation of over 100 Real D systems in the marketplace, with further commitments quickly following with Columbia Pictures’ Monster House in July 2006 and Buena Vista’s Meet the Robinsons released this past spring. For the November release of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, Real D expects to have 1,016 installations in the market, with 122 of these being in overseas territories. Real D installations span over 20 counties and includes over 60 exhibitor organizations. Primary exhibitor partners include Carmike Cinema with 428 systems, AMC with 117 systems and National Amusements with 41 systems.

Rave Motion Pictures of Dallas also committed strongly to Real D with at least one auditorium in each of its 27 locations. Rave has been so excited by the results, it has installed seven Real D screens in its new Town Square location in Las Vegas. Jeremy Devine, Rave’s VP of marketing, says, “Our experience has been that 3D screens typically average three times the box office of conventional 2D screens. We are very excited to be opening Beowulf at our new Las Vegas location on November 16th with over 1,500 seats offering 3D.”

The Real D approach puts the cost of the 3D equipment in the projection booth and allows the use of low-cost “giveaway” glasses in the auditorium. The downside is that to maintain accurate polarization as light bounces off the screen, a “silvered” screen is needed, which typically requires the exhibitor to change the screen.

Dolby’s Approach
Dolby Laboratories, who partnered with Real D and Disney on the initial 2005 Chicken Little release, announced in the summer of 2006 that they were developing their own 3D system. The Dolby approach, originally developed for industrial application by the German company Infitec, uses a different approach. Instead of the circular polarization used by Real D to separate the left and right eye images, Dolby 3D Digital Cinema illuminates each image with light created from three slightly different primary colors. The Dolby 3D system also uses a single digital projector, but instead of changing each image’s polarization, the light from the projector’s Xenon bulb is pre-filtered by a small spinning filter mounted inside the projector. The audience also wears 3D glasses, but instead of polarized lenses, Dolby’s glasses act as filters that allow light to pass that is made up of the primary colors intended for that eye while blocking the primary colors intended for the opposite eye.

Since the Dolby 3D system doesn’t use polarized light, there is no requirement for a silvered screen, allowing the existing white screen to be used. Although Dolby’s 3D system uses lightweight passive glasses that require no batteries or recharging, the manufacturing process is more complex than Real D’s polarized glasses and therefore they are more expensive. Dolby’s 3D glasses are currently priced at $59 a pair and the exhibitor needs to provide equipment for washing them between shows. In the future, Dolby hopes to offer disposable glasses that the moviegoer can keep as a souvenir.

Dolby’s 3D rollout is just beginning and has already gather an impressive list of customers including Malco Theatres, Carousel Cinemas, Cinema City, Cinetopia, Cobb Theatres, Marcus Theatres, Maya Cinemas, Megaplex Theatres, Sundance Cinemas and the Kinepolis Group. "Kinepolis continues to be impressed with the quality of Dolby's digital-cinema technology," said Nicolas Hamon, projection and sound manager, Kinepolis Group. "Beyond quality, the flexibility of Dolby 3D has many advantages, as the solution supports both 3D and 2D presentations for playback on standard white screens already in our auditoriums. In addition, the reusable glasses model eliminates the need to reorder glasses, minimizing environmental impact."

The Pros and Cons
Real D believes that their low-cost glasses are a key advantage over Dolby’s approach, which requires collecting, washing, and maintaining an inventory. Typically, the glasses used by Real D have been provided at no charge by the distributor, who uses them as promotional items. Real D also sees some inherent advantages in the silvered screen and argues that with the recommended gain of 2.4, a silver screen will reduce energy and bulb costs when showing conventional content. Savings from such will offset initial installation costs.

Dolby believes that maintaining the glasses is easily manageable and cites the advantage of using the existing white screen, which does not potentially compromise the 2D picture quality. Dolby claims also to have an advantage in the booth, as the color filter wheel is installed inside the projector, which may in the future be offered by the projector manufacturers as a factory option. For the time being, Dolby is supplying a field retrofit kit—priced at $26,000—that can be installed inside any DCI-capable 2K DLP Cinema projector in a few hours.

3D Standards
One of the great advantages of both the Real D and Dolby 3D processes is that they are both compatible from a production standpoint. While both the Real D and Dolby 3D processes require that a small amount of correction be done to the 2D distribution package, fortunately both can be implemented during playback. Real D plans to implement their 2D-to-3D file correction using an external adapter. Since Dolby is a server manufacturer, they easily accommodate their conversion inside their Dolby Cinema Player. For Dolby’s current deployment, Dolby is insisting that their Dolby Cinema Player be used, although at some point they may be able to accommodate playback from other servers.

Both the Dolby and Real D 3D systems offer comparable 3D image quality, with each company claiming a slight advance over the other in several fairly minor technical areas. Both companies also claim to be competitive in overall costs. Real D offers three different business models: a flat-rate license, a revenue-sharing plan and a per-seat plan, while Dolby offers a flat-rate, one-time purchase of the projector retrofit kit and supplies the glasses. In addition to Dolby and Real D, a number of other companies are looking at the mainstream cinema market with 3D implementations that either use active glasses or two projectors, and these might prove to be viable in some situations. The fact that several companies are now competing in the 3D market—with a standardized distribution format—will certainly benefit exhibitors by providing more choices and deployment options.

With strong support from Hollywood’s filmmakers, broad manufacturer support, and a competitive market of technologies and systems, 3D has now achieved all the elements needed for commercial success and will be part of the cinemagoing experience in the future."

By Bill Mead, Film Journal International