'Chicken Little' gives peek at digital 3D

Is it a gimmick or a sign of what's to come for moviemaking? Hollywood wants 3D to bring audiences back to theaters. Disney takes 3D digital

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--In a darkened movie theater here, a small chicken with enormous glasses watches anxiously as the sky cracks open above him.

For just a moment, I remove my own bright green 3D glasses, and the screen flattens. What had looked like a window out into the animated world blurs slightly and looks more like ordinary, albeit well-animated, computer graphics.

I put the glasses back on, and the shattering sky again stretches out to infinity. I can't say much about the actual movie--I'm only watching about eight minutes of it, after all--but this new digital 3D technology looks good.

The movie is Walt Disney Studios' animated "Chicken Little," which is being released on 85 screens around the United States today in an updated, digital 3D technology that is drawing buzz from major Hollywood directors and theater owners.

The studio is touting its work with sound specialist Dolby Laboratories, effects house Industrial Light and Magic and 3D projection technology company Real D as a groundbreaking step forward in creating animation that an audience can fall into as if it were real.

The bigger step may be Disney's success in persuading 85 theaters around the country to install expensive new digital projectors, along with the 3D capability to show "Chicken Little." That sets a foundation in most of the biggest cities for the digital release of films and experimentation with more 3D works.

I've never been a big believer in 3D myself. When I was a kid, I laughed with everyone else at the re-releases of a few B-grade films on television (how many times do people really need to throw spears right at the camera, after all?). A few weeks ago, I watched one of the genre's heights--Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder"--in its original 3D splendor, and thought: Interesting, but gimmicky.

The bulk of those films date from Hollywood's first major flirtation with 3D in the early and mid-1950s, a time when studios were feeling the same kind of box-office pressure they feel today.

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At that time, audiences were falling in love with television, and theater owners were looking for ways to draw them back to the big screens. Today, big-screen TVs, DVD players and booming home theater speakers (as well as $10 movie-theater ticket prices) are again persuading people to stay home, and Hollywood is again looking for ways to keep audiences in their seats.

The next few years should see a surge in new 3D movies, some from major directors. Even George Lucas is getting on board, promising to re-release 3D versions of the original "Star Wars" films in 2007, the first film's 30th anniversary.

Technology tussle
The new generation of 3D technologies is built on digital tools that promise a far better experience than in the past. But the industry hasn't yet settled on a standard way to do this.

All true 3D films require having a double image--one frame for the right eye and a slightly different frame for the left--in order to create the illusion of depth.

Old 3D films typically did this with two projectors. The new generation of digital projectors do it with just one machine, alternating rapidly between images meant to be seen by the right and left eyes. The Real D technology used in the Chicken Little film shows 144 frames per second, for example.

In the case of "Chicken Little," the alternating left eye, right-eye images are projected with polarized light--essentially meaning that the light waves carrying each image are lined up in an orderly fashion, but each side is lined up in a slightly different way.

The green 3D glasses I'm wearing have polarized lenses, so that each side lets in only the images that are meant for that eye. Using the Real D technology, the projector shows 144 back-and-forth frames per second, half of which are seen by each eye.

A different technique is being boosted by a company called In-Three, which Lucas has tapped to create 3D versions of the "Star Wars" films.

In-Three is primarily focused on creating 3D masters of 2D originals, but it is also backing a technology using "active" glasses, in which each lens actually goes rapidly dark in turn. This may be easier for theaters to use, since it doesn't require installation of a special reflective screen. However, it does require a significant investment in glasses, which currently cost about $20 a pair.

Will all of this prove enough to keep cynical audiences coming back to theaters? After all, 3D fads have come and gone for years, and most audiences seem to be happy with increasingly high-quality 2D films.

Here in my theater seat, watching "Chicken Little" and his friends try to evade alien death rays, I'm impressed but unconvinced. The technology is interesting, but always secondary to the movie itself. As with Hitchcock's works, the best movies will be sought out for their art, not their technology.