Iconic films find new dimension

Latest 3-D conversion technology promises better results than earlier efforts

BY SARAH BERMAN, VANCOUVER SUN

Before audiences step into the theatre, they’ll already know the ending of Titanic 3-D. (Spoiler alert: it sinks in all three dimensions.) But one unsettling question mark looms above the blockbuster’s re-release: can James Cameron credibly convert a 2-D classic into the eye-popping 3-D of Avatar?

“The reputation of 3-D is a little uneven at the moment,” explains David S. Cohen, film and technology critic at Variety magazine. Following the $2.7 billion success of Cameron’s Avatar, studios jumped onto the 3-D bandwagon in droves.

Early 3-D converts like Clash of the Titans rushed through the stereoscopic rendering process—with nauseating results. Many critics dismissed post-production conversion as fake 3-D, while others defected from the 3-D format entirely. In 2011, revenue from 3-D movies sagged by 18 per cent, despite the release of a record 47 3-D films.

But 2012 has seen a healthy resurgence in 3-D excitement—thanks in part to advances in conversion technology.

Tim Bennison of Gener8 digital effects studio in Vancouver is working hard to dispel last year’s “fake 3-D” narrative. The company’s chief operating officer says 2-D to 3-D conversion is inherently part of the process for all live-action 3-D films.

“Sometimes shots fail,” Bennison says of the “native” 3-D shooting process. Even with the latest 3-D rigs, misalignment and syncing issues can send productions back to square one. “You might think you’ve captured it, only to get back to the editing room and find out it’s all junk. Not good when expensive actors are waiting around.”

Glitches like this often mean hiring a company like Gener8 to fix up the stereoscopic effects. “In those instances your method of conversion really counts,” he adds.

To match films shot in 3-D from the beginning, Gener8 uses gaming software to build a virtual replica of each scene. ”It’s a special kind of animating that we call rotomation, because it matches the animation in the actual shot,” says Bennison, who previously developed video games for Radical Entertainment. “We’re used to building virtual worlds, so we came at it from a different angle than a lot of people.”

Earlier 3-D conversions used a technique called displacement mapping, which separates foreground and background and arranges depth subjectively. “It ends up looking like an embossing of the 2-D world,” Bennison says. “Like the raised letters on a greeting card.”

Gener8 isn’t only involved in touch-up work. In fact, the company claims it’s the first to offer this type of 3-D reconstruction at the scale of a feature-length film. “We feel we’re pretty well the only company that’s actually cracked the nut of being able to do this projection method on the scale of a full movie,” says Bennison. “Generally it’s much cheaper and low risk, too.”

Cost and payoff are especially challenging to predict for the newest batch of 3-D releases. From pricey re-shoots to unexpected retouching costs, producing a movie in native 3-D can quickly spiral out of control.

Disney’s $250 million 3-D fantasy John Carter, for example, has yet to recover its costs.

Cohen says Hollywood films can knock off a couple million by choosing conversion over 3-D filming, but hesitates to recommend one technique over another.

“Here’s the thing—measuring entirely by cost is probably a mistake,” he says. “You might pay $6 million and still get technically poor, uncomfortable 3-D.”

Bennison doesn’t see his business replacing 3-D camera work, either. “It’s not about which is better—they’re both valid tools,” he says. “Like anything you’ve got different tools for different jobs.”

So far, Gener8 has applied its virtual-reality approach to new releases like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. The company is currently working on three more Hollywood productions, which are slated for release summer 2012.

Cohen says making a 3-D film should be a creative decision, not a financial one. “What I find really good is when you can get the camera in close to the action,” he says. “Titanic might finally demonstrate to people that 3-D is better when it’s up close.”

As long as directors are making the decision—not the studios—Cohen doesn’t foresee a parade of re-releases. “It depends on the director. Some are not very interested,” says Cohen, adding that Christopher Nolan isn’t a fan of the 3-D format.

“I doubt you’ll see the Godfather or Dark Knight in 3-D.”

With a modest $43 million gained on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3-D, older films are not a guaranteed cash-grab.

“I think that number is probably fine—they would have liked to do more—but remember that movie is not very well liked,” says Cohen, adding that 3-D is merely a hook to introduce younger audiences. “Lucas is re-releasing the whole saga to keep the franchise alive.”

Cameron spent $18 million and more than a year on Titanic’s 3-D makeover, which Cohen says will once again raise the bar for the 3-D conversion market.

“We have to watch what happens with Titanic 3D—watch how people respond in terms of quality and how it performs at the box office,” he says. “My guess is we’re going to see a level of quality that we haven’t really seen before.”
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Originally published March 30, 2012. Read more:  http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/movie-guide/Vancouver+studio+hails+conversion+brave+technology/6388081/story.html#ixzz1r06bj5lo

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