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U2 3D: What 3D ought to be

'U2 3D' betters 'Beowulf' when it comes to three-dimensional movies, showing what the new medium can offer.

An overhead view of U2's drummer, Larry Mullen, from 'U2 3D.' 3ality Digital Productions

Having now seen U2 3D, I can confidently say the era of three-dimensional movie-making is upon us. The movie shows what 3D can be if done right, and more important, it shows it works with real humans, not just computer-generated subjects.

I saw Beowulf in 3D three times to compare the three major 3D display technologies, Imax, Dolby 3D, and Real D. That movie was a great proof-of-concept for the projection technology, but Beowulf itself was hardly a cinema classic.

In addition, with computer graphics, a filmmaker can exert complete control over the virtual cameras. But Beowulf whetted my appetite, and I wanted to see what could be done with actual humans in a 3D movie.

U2 3D faced real-world challenges. In 3D movie-making, the two cameras must be correctly aligned, the right distance apart, and with proper convergence, in which the cameras point slightly toward each other. That's a lot of complication, but the 3ality Digital Production guys got it right.

The result is a film that achieves a new spaciousness and depth. It offered a spectacle without many spears-jumping-down-my-eyeballs gimmicks.

When the camera is peering down at drummer Larry Mullen from above, I felt like I was really hanging above him. When there's a sea of waving arms between the camera and Bono, you can sense each row of the crowd. Visually, my favorite moment, by far, was the seething crowd jumping in sync to "Where the Streets Have No Name."

Editing, too, is a challenge with 3D. When cutting from one scene to another, there has to be enough time for the audience's eyes to adjust to a new focus point--or somebody has to plan in advance to keep the focus point at the same distance.

Here, too, U2 3D fares well, though it felt a little too choppy in the opening scenes to me. Whatever the cause, though, I'm happy to bid adieu to the frenetic MTV jump-cut editing style, and U2 3D was easy on the eyes.

I found low-angle crowd shots immersive. 3ality Digital Productions

There were plenty of flaws that I found distracting. The worst, ghosting, I blame on the Imax technology used during my screening. When Beowulf suffered ghosting, in which a bit of information intended for the right eye leaks over into your left eye and vice-versa, the Imax folks said it was something wrong with the theater, but it happened again in U2 3D. I also found shots directly at bright lights suffered distracting artifacts, which may or may not have been the fault of the 3D aspects of the movie.

I also thought subjects in fast motion were marred by flickering. The digital projection systems, which can take advantage of the higher frame rates possible with Texas Instruments' DLP chips, are better in this department, too.

The Imax show did have terrific sound and, of course, an all-encompassing screen that's effective in grabbing your attention all the way to its peripheral vision. And Imax will be going digital this year, so these issues should be only temporary.

U2 3D sticks fairly close to reality, but it's artfully laced with extra elements. I enjoyed the superimposition of images tremendously, with different views shown at different depths. For example, more than once a view of the band members on stage would be visible within the dark silhouette of Bono in the foreground. It was a new twist to multiple exposures.

Also well done were computer effects that usually complemented the giant display wall actually at the concert. Some purists might want a less adulterated representation of the band's "Vertigo" tour, but I for one wasn't fooled into thinking I had front-row seats, so the extras were fine by me.

Overall, the movie was immersive and entertaining. No doubt the novelty of 3D will wear off over the years, just as it did with color and sound in earlier years of cinema, but for now, my advice is to relish it.