Who shows the best view of 3D 'Beowulf'?

The movie can be seen with three 3D projection technologies: Imax, Real D, and Dolby 3D. Herewith, I declare a winner in technical quality.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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This shot of the queen floating eerily above Beowulf's head as if swimming in water showed off the possibilities of 3D computer-generated movies. Paramount Pictures

The race for the best 3D movie projection technology began in earnest last week with the release of Beowulf, and I'm here to judge the first lap.

Beowulf, which recounts the Anglo-Saxon adventures of a Swedish prince of that name, is the first wide release of a 3D movie, showing on hundreds of screens in 3D. And for the first time, viewers had the choice not only of watching with Imax 3D and Real D projection technology, but also newcomer Dolby 3D.

Based on watching the movie start to finish three times, the 3D winner is Dolby 3D--and not just by a nose.

Dolby's technology gave a sharp image that showed every beard bristle, the colors were relatively rich, flicker from moving objects was nonexistent, but most significantly, the sense of depth was strong. Even the subtle differences between a character's facial features were perceptible, and group shots with a host of characters showed as true depth, not as a number of gradually more distant two-dimensional layers. I was truly impressed.

Before I go further, a qualifier. Three viewings of this movie was a lot to endure, given the comic-book-grade plot and cardboard characters, but it's not much as statistical samples go to judge projection technology.

It's hard to say how much of my experience was based on the underlying merits of the technology and how much on the particulars of the theater and viewing. But the Dolby 3D experience was significantly better enough that I'm comfortable awarding it the crown.

This crossing-the-burning-bridge scene was supposed to be a 3D spectacle, but it wasn't as immersive as it could have been. Paramount Pictures

Compare and contrast
All three 3D technologies were compelling, but none was perfect.

My first viewing was with Imax 3D, which was displayed on the company's famously large screens.

Of the three, Imax 3D was the most in-your-face experience of 3D effects, with swords, castle spires and spear points jutting sharply out of the screen. The company deliberately adjusts movie perspective to achieve this effect.

"When you experience 3D with us, you experience the 3D at the bridge of your nose. It is an immersive, full-contact experience," said Greg Foster, Imax's chairman and president of filmed entertainment. And he's right.

However, I was distracted many times during the movie by "ghosting," in which some of the light intended for the right eye leaks into the left and vice-versa. In high-contrast moments, such as a brightly glowing, gold drinking horn held against a dark cave wall, the result is dim secondary copies of elements of the scene.

More disappointing, though, was my befuddled perception of some high-motion 3D scenes. I often found it hard to track objects and people during fight scenes with rapidly moving objects and a whirling camera perspective, for example.

So when I went to my second viewing, in Real D, I was favorably impressed. It wasn't as crisply focused or immersive as Imax 3D, but there wasn't as much ghosting, and I had much better luck keeping track of the fast-moving scenes. For example, in one early scene where King Hrothgar flings gold coins at his subjects, I actually saw coins rather than distracting gold flashes.

Instead of occupying most of my field of vision, the action seemed to take place in a box on a stage in front of the audience. And most of the action was "behind" the front of the screen.

Dolby 3D was promoted earlier on Paramount's Web site, but it's not an option for the 3D theater search process. Paramount Pictures

The Real D audience seemed more wowed than Imax 3D viewers. Despite the more understated 3D, I observed a lot more flinching and startled gasping among audience members than in the Imax show.

Dolby 3D, though, beat out Real D for clarity, color, and coherent 3D. I was looking hard for ghosting and found it only twice, once with a sword and once with Grendel's mother's snaking tail. Many scenes that hadn't worked before came together--one example being the flying gravel pushed by Beowulf's ship as it's towed up the beach--and I found myself relishing the depth of flying dragons and other subjects. Falling snow, driving rain, and blowing embers imparted a feeling of space, not mere distractions.

That said, I still had problems. Not once was I able to make sense of the clouds of sand billowing around an underwater dragon or the froth of bubbles seen in the lair of the monster Grendel and his mother. A chain moving through a pulley knocked me cross-eyed. I also had troubles with foreground objects such as cave stalactites or characters half off-screen.

3D movies: The future
Beowulf is set in Denmark during the sixth century, the darkest of the Dark Ages, but watching it is a view into the future of movie making. I was impressed by various clips, but now having seen what a director with forethought can do with the technology and what it adds to the movie itself, it's clear to me 3D isn't just the flash in the pan it has been in the past.

For me, the 3D movie experience ranged from remarkable to gimmicky, but at no time did I find that it had faded unobtrusively into the background. No doubt part of that is because it's a spectacle that movie makers are using to pack theaters and charge premium prices.

The three 3D technologies all share a common principle: alternate rapidly between two slightly different vantage points, one for the left eye and one for the right, so human brains in the audience can reconstruct the third dimension just as they do in the real world. To keep left-eye light out of the right eye and vice-versa, the audience wears special glasses; the cheap cardboard hand-outs with red and blue plastic lenses are long gone.

There are differences, of course, in the projection technologies. Imax 3D, with about 120 3D screens installed so far, uses the oldest approach--two separate but synchronized reels of film and polarized light to split the views--though it will start going digital in 2008. Real D, whose technology is on more than 1,000 screens, uses a digital projector passed through a device that polarizes light one way and another for each eye.

Dolby 3D, which just entered production and so far is only on 75 screens, uses filtering technology so that the left and right eyes see images composed of slightly different hues of red, green, and blue. That approach caused problems for me seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas, in which elements of even red were hard to look at because the right-eye channel was significantly more orange.

Beowulf's computer-generated images are based on the real movements of actors digitized with motion-capture systems. Although I can't stand the characters' resulting rubbery features and robotic hands, the technique is a good foundation for 3D movies.

With the in-computer virtual "filming," the camera's perspective can shift gradually or dramatically, taking the audience with it. With computer-generated movies, those radical perspectives are nothing new, but 3D adds a new element. For example, when the still-unseen monster Grendel shatters open the door of Heorat, King Hrothgar's mead hall, the camera slowly moves to the front of the hall, and the sense of dread is all the greater as the vantage point approaches the entrance where we expect a vile demon.

Imax 3D gets top billing on Paramount's Web site. Paramount Pictures

The movie, however, seemed adapted for the constraints of 3D display. One problem, for example, is that 3D movies are significantly dimmer, in part because each eye is effectively seeing black half the time and because necessary filters cut down light even more. In what was likely not a coincidence, Beowulf seems to take place entirely during the dark days of northern-latitude winter and is set mostly in wanly illuminated halls and caves.

Overall, though, the experience was engaging, even the third time around. And I recommend checking the movie out in whatever 3D format you can find. Imax's Foster makes a compelling point about the merits of 3D. And even though I'm not a big movie buff, I agree.

"What's happening is a lot of 15- to 30-year-old people were staying home, watching movies on 72-inch plasma screens and not going to the movies the way I was going when I was a 15-year-old," Foster said. "We need technologies to get them to realize they can't replicate the movie-going experience (found) in a movie theater."