Why 3D movies are a waste of money

The technology behind the 3D visuals in "The Amazing Spider-Man" promises new advances, but studios have been hesitant to push the limits.

"The Amazing Spider-Man" director Marc Webb with a new kind of 3D camera. Sony

The current wave of 3D films is a sucker's bet.

You've probably experienced it yourself: After slapping down a significant premium on movie tickets and sliding on your 3D glasses, you're treated not to a visual feast but a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. For many films, the 3D effects are barely there; in others, the post-production conversion actually makes it worse.

I got to screen two recent films, "Prometheus" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," in 3D, and my advice to you is to save your money on paying extra for those glasses. While both are visually interesting films ("Prometheus" is confusing, and "Spider-Man" is a bit disappointing), the 3D aspect does nothing to enhance the experience.

I highlight these two films because they are the first to use a new kind of 3D camera technology from 3ality, which is quickly becoming a standard for filmmakers looking to delve into the third dimension. Its stereo image processor, or SIP, camera rig allows production companies and studios to shoot 3D more easily, shoot on the same schedule as a 2D camera, and push the limits on what they can deliver.

Conservatism hurts the films
The problem: studios have been too conservative, and have been reluctant to go too deep with the 3D, resulting in a 3D movie that doesn't satisfy anyone. Steve Schklair, CEO of 3ality, said that 3D films can use about 4 percent of the screen's width for its depth, with 2 percent providing a decent effect. Most live-action films now shoot at a depth of about a half percent, which barely registers with viewers.

"The Amazing Spider-Man" looks great, but the 3D isn't necessary. Sony

They tend to be conservative partly because they don't fear that audience members will complain about discomfort. Early 3D films feature more dramatic 3D effects, which was uncomfortable for some viewers. Schklair said the new technology doesn't suffer from the same problems, and said the depth could be doubled or tripled with little consequence.

The other option for viewers sensitive to 3D films is to skip it altogether for the 2D version instead.

The studios also want to pack in as many people into the theaters as possible. A deeper 3D movie requires viewers to sit further back, which means theaters can't sell tickets to the first few rows, Schklair said. That's lost revenue for each screening of a hit film.

Schklair was perfectly frank in his assessment of 3D movies, saying he wouldn't pay for one that didn't have a substantially different feel than a normal 2D movie.

For "Prometheus," 3D is another instance of an unnecessary expense for the audience. 20th Century Fox Film

"I actually want to get something for that higher ticket price," Schklair told me. "I want a better experience."

Schklair, who hasn't had a chance to screen "Spider-Man," criticized the studios for remaining conservative with the 3D effects, or relying on the post-production conversion model.

In both cases, the studios are burning a lot of good will with the audience.

The 3D option has been a huge financial boon to the film industry, allowing movie theaters to justify higher ticket prices. In New York, a normal ticket costs $14, while a 3D film costs $18, or 28 percent more. An IMAX 3D screening costs $20, a 43 percent premium. As a result of 3D, films such as "The Avengers" have sped past the records. But was "Avengers" in 3D really worth it?

Of course, there are some 3D films that fare decently, particularly computer-generated films often geared toward children.

But for a lot of the blockbusters that generate intense hype and curiosity, such as Spider-Man and Prometheus, customers are beginning to realize that 3D is a cash grab for the studios that adds little to the experience. Even worse are the films that are converted to 3D after the production, such as the horrible version of "Clash of the Titans," which became the poster-child for poor 3D adaptations. With the lack of great experiences, I wouldn't be surprised if viewers catch on quickly, and 3D loses its cachet with each new movie.

Better 3D experiences around the corner
Which is a shame, because 3D is a feature that can greatly enhance a film when used properly. The TS-5 is a two-camera system that behaves like a single camera. The TS-5 includes an image processor constantly looking at the left and right images and adjusting the cameras so they are always properly aligned.

The TS-5 camera using the SIP system from 3ality. 3ality

In the past, directors would have to shoot one scene, and then halt shooting to change out the lens for a closer shot or different angle, resulting in a much longer shoot. The SIP cameras allow studios to shoot a 3D film under a shorter 2D schedule, saving them millions of dollars in production costs. The technology is also easy to use, and doesn't require directors to learn a new way of shooting.

Sony, for instance, made the last-minute decision to shoot "Spider-Man" in 3D because it knew of 3ality's capabilities, Schklair said, adding the film was shot on schedule.

There's still some hope for 3D films. Schklair said Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit," which is the first film to adopt his technology, takes advantage of the camera's capabilities to create some compelling 3D scenes. Likewise, Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, also makes better user of the technology, Schklair said, adding both films deliberately make the 3D experience different.

Both films are scheduled to hit theaters in December.

But until those films arrive, you might be better off opting for an old-fashioned 2D ticket.

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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