Indie filmmakers, '3D is now open'

3D tools are quickly becoming more accessible for smaller budget independent work, according to a Sundance Film Festival panel.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
4 min read

PARK CITY, Utah--After the Saturday night premiere of U2 3D here at the Sundance Film Festival, the film's director called upon the excited indie filmmaking audience to follow her lead in embracing new 3D technology.

"3D is now open," Catherine Owens said, adding that if she--a sculptor and multimedia installation artist without a traditional film background--could make a film in 3D, so can they.

Business Week media columnist Jon Fine borrowed Owens' "3D is now open" line to set the tone for a panel discussion he moderated the following day, "In 3D: The Future is Now," which explored the new generation of 3D as a viable outlet for creativity.

"New technology is changing the way we tell stories," Fine said.

Panelists declined to weigh in on the race for the best 3D movie projection technology, which began in earnest last November with the release of Beowulf in 3D. Viewers had the choice of watching that film in Imax 3D, Real D, and Dolby 3D; Dolby 3D was our winner--and not just by a nose.

Festival-goers of all stripes packed a large screening room for the panel here, a good indicator of both consumer and filmmaker interest in the topic. Many, in fact, waited in long waitlist lines for a ticket to the sold-out forum.

For their efforts, audience members, donning Dolby's black 3D glasses, were treated to 3D movie clips from several different filmmakers on the panel with varying approaches and levels of so-called gimmickry (i.e., use of eye tricks like things jumping out at you).

3D panel
Business Week media editor John Fine (third from right) moderates a panel Sunday on 3D at he Sundance Film Festival. Michelle Meyers/CNET News.com

First, however, panelists did their best to explain the technology.

3ality CEO Steve Schklair, whose company created the 3D camera and tools used in U2 3D, said the technology aligns images taken from two separate motion-controlled digital cameras that are placed side by side--as the left eye and right eye. The images are matched up afterwards in a layering process that controls for depth.

"You have an entire new dimension which is depth," added indie filmmaker Jed Weintrob, who used an earlier generation of 3D technology in his horror movie Scar. "The 3D screen is truly breaking down the wall that separates you from the action."

It's not, of course, that 3D is new--the studios have been employing the technology in a sort of 3D renaissance of late. (My daughter is all geared up for the 3D Hannah Montana concert film coming out next month.) What's different now, the panelists say, is that 3D tools are quickly becoming more accessible for smaller budget independent work.

"Moore's law is driving down the cost of the technology," said Ray Zone, who has spent the past couple of decades working in 3D art, including filmmaking. Zone said the day is quickly approaching when a filmmaker can make a 3D flick using a desktop application.

And the numbers of movie theaters equipped with 3D projection technology continue to grow rapidly. So do the numbers of consumers with 3D-equipped home theater systems.

To me, the use of 3D in action or horror films is a no-brainer, if done well. Such genres already set you up to be sitting at the edge of your seat, waiting to be shocked by whoever or whatever is suddenly in your face. That was the case for clips shown at the panel from Weintrob's Scar, Zone's Dark Country, and a reel offered by panelist Todd Cogan from thePace 3D studio (co-developed by Vince Pace and James Cameron).

In a different category, however, are films like U2 3D, which uses the technology more subtly, not to shock, surprise or further dramatize, but simply to immerse the viewer in the film narrative.

Owens said she's of the belief that you can't just plug any old script into 3D. Rather, you have to be more of a conduit for the technology.

"If you get in its way, it will not perform," she said. "Let 3D speak to you."

While other panelists agreed that too much 3D gimmick can detract from a film's story, it's hard to hold back.

"Gimmick is really cool," Weintrob said.

Zone chimed in that when you think about it, every advance in technology was a gimmick: "sound, color, widescreen..."

"Moviemaking is really a gimmick," added panelist Phil McNally (aka "Captain 3D"), who did stereoscopic work for Disney's Meet the Robinsons among other films, and argued, "If you really want to focus on a story, you should be a writer."

Cogan offered one simple, but important rule of thumb for using 3D: "Do not hurt people's eyes."