The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Bono's hand almost poked out my eye: My continuing education in 3-D

September 24, 2008 |  5:12 pm

I spent most of today driving around town with Jim Miller, who's a partner in Stereo Pictures, a tech company specializing in 2-D to 3-D conversion of film and animation. Since I can't get Jeffrey Katzenberg to ever return my phone calls, Jim has volunteered his services as my own personal 3-D trainer and guru. He has a vested interest in converting people like me from skeptics to believers, since his company's whole business plan is based on mass 3-D consumption in both theaters and eventually at home on your flat-screen TV. But he also knows that I'm not an easy convert.

U2_2 We spent today with two 3-D heavyweights: Michael Lewis, who's the chairman of RealD, the top company involved with installing 3-D theater screens, lenses and software, and Steve Schklair, founder and chief executive of 3Ality Digital, a leading developer of 3-D HD camera technology that was a driving force behind the filming of U2's "U2 3D," a concert film shot during the band's 2006 "Vertigo" tour designed to showcase 3Ality's new film technology. In addition to some of the U2 footage, I got to see 3-D test sequences from "Titanic," "Star Wars," "The Matrix" and "Beowolf,"  lengthy 3-D sequences from "Kung Fu Panda" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth," as well 3-D snippets of everything from a Gwen Stefani concert to the 2005 Super Bowl to NBA games and motocross races.

The verdict? 3-D is still very much a work in progress, a new format that is filled with potential but remains in its infancy. I felt like I'd been tossed into a time machine and turned up in an early reel of "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story," the absorbing Richard Schickel documentary that's running this week on PBS. In the doc, you get to see young Warners directors fooling around with new sound technology. The films from the early days of sound were often imaginative and liberating, but just as often awkward and stilted. So it is with 3-D. It is a form still best suited for animation and action films, not comedy or drama, where 3-D really offers little added value.

3-D needs action, good lighting and depth of field to show its strength. A classic example is the U2 concert film, which felt underwhelming most of the time, not in terms of the music, mind you, but the utilization of the new technology. Simply watching the band's rhythm section on stage was a visual snooze--3-D had little to add. The concert only really came alive during its most theatrical--and most important, its visually expansive--moments, when Bono surfaced on a mini-platform in the middle of the giant crowd, surrounded by a sea of fans. The best shots were not close-ups of him singing but long shots, with fans in the foreground and background, Bono silhouetted in between.

Depth of field is clearly crucial. The footage of the Super Bowl was a visual kick, because football is a true depth-of-field sport--you love seeing the quarterback in the foreground, surrounded by charging linemen, but still able to look past him at his receivers invading the secondary far off down field. It's hard to imagine baseball working as well, since the traditional baseball camera angle--from center field, peering in past the pitcher at the batter at home plate--is essentially a zoom lens shot, with little depth to it. To shoot baseball in 3-D, you'd need an entirely new set of camera angles to do it right. Football works fine just the way it is.

Steve Schklair told me that 3Ality filmed the U2 concert using the exact same lighting as a normal show, except for more spotlights on the audience. "You don't really need to change any production values at all," he says. I disagree. The images often felt flat and washed out to me, with the backlighting and smoke effects that are so much a staple of concert extravaganzas diluting the impact of 3-D's depth of field. I'd like to hear from a lighting expert, but I suspect you need warmer, more potent lighting to really enhance the 3-D effect, not to mention a different kind of staging, where the band members are placed front and back instead of the typical side-by-side configuration.

So who really knows where they're doing? I'll have another post up soon.   

Photo of U2's the Edge (left) and Bono on the band's "Vertigo" tour by Sandra Mu / Getty Images