artistic and commercial success of Robert Zemeckis's
stereoscopic adaption of the epic poem Beowulf,
dream of a stereoscopic film renaissance seems at hand. Stereoscopic
still photography was actually invented in 1840 and was first attempted
for the cinema the 1890s. While 3D cinema has
enjoyed several spurts of popularity in the twentieth century, it
sometimes has been considered more fad than art, except in special
venue/theme park applications. The 1950s produced several important
stereoscopic films, as did the 1980s. Since then, Imax and others have
been at the forefront of 3D and large format cinema.
by Michael Karp, SOC
But now it looks like stereoscopic film is moving from the artistic
ghettos, to the center spotlight of Hollywood production. Important
technical improvements, especially in stereo projection, have
encouraged auteurs like Cameron to champion the medium.
Let's look at some stereoscopic history.
Most of us are familiar with the cool, five dollar Fisher-Price
long available at many supermarkets and toys stores. Seven stereo
color images are contained on a removable disc that one would click
through. Home stereo still cameras such as the Stereo-Realist were also
introduced in the 1930s.
In the Los
Angeles of the 1980s, TV stations would occasionally
broadcast stereoscopic movies over the air. We would faithfully scurry
off to Wendy's Hamburgers to pick up our red/cyan anaglyph 3D glasses,
Obviously these colored anaglyph glasses did not provide nearly the
same quality as a full color, theatrical stereoscopic presentation. In
the 1970s, Second City TV
(SCTV) would make fun of 3D movies. The characters would mockingly
create indulgent "3D moments", wave pendulums out at the audience, and
romp through fictitious stereo
epics such as Dr. Tongue's
3-D House of
quality special venue stereo shows
are ubiquitous at theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios,
including Captain EO,
Muppetvision 3D and Honey, I Shrank The Audience.
But one problem with these special venue shows is that the polarizing
glasses that the audiences wore were often quite dark and dingy to view
through. The raw 65mm 3D images that we produced at Digital Domain for T2-3D were stunning, as was
the Universal Studios live show integrated into the triptych three
screen movie. But I
always felt a little disappointed when actually viewing the show. If I
took my 3D glasses off, the image
looked so bright and beautiful, but then of course the stereo effect
was lost. When I put the disposable polarizer glasses back on, the
stereo looked nice, but
the image was dingy again.
quite a bit with the Crystal Eyes brand shuttered glasses used on
shows like the T-REX:
Back to the Cretaceous. But these early
were heavy and expensive. And battery charging was a problem for the
So when Chicken Little - 3D
premiered at Disney's flagship Hollywood Blvd. El Capitan Theater in
2005, I was again primed for disappointment. But much to my surprise,
the Disney Digital 3D system used was bright and beautiful! The
"passive" polarizer glasses were light weight, disposable units. Disney
the advanced new RealD stereoscopic
system, which has helped pave the way for the current stereo
Stereo projection throughout the 1980s and 1990s has often been
accomplished with large format film projectors, especially Imax. But
because of the high cost and complexity of stereo projection and of
65mm film prints, stereo projection was a niche product. And 35mm
projection equipment is just as complicated and unappealing to the
average theater owner as is 65mm stereo.
Digital stereo projection is
different. The Real D system works with
very little modification to the existing Texas Instruments DLP digital
projectors that are becoming increasingly common even in neighborhood
theaters. And because these digital DLP projectors already have a
beautiful image similar to film prints (minus film print cost and wear
and tear), the
combination of Real D stereo and the TI DLP digital projector makes
lots of artistic and financial sense for the Hollywood studios and
exhibitors. Real D uses circular polarizers instead of the older linear
glasses, so the stereo effect isn't lost if the audience member tilts
their head. Problems with color casts from the polarizing glasses have
also been improved.
Not to be out done, Imax and Dolby are introducing their own digital
stereoscopic projection systems for the general public. And Imax stereo
analog film projection continues to be very popular.
Digital projection makes sense for another reason. Despite the fact
that most digital projection (1k) has much lower
resolution than film (2k to 4k), digital projector systems never
weave. When a film projector is out of alignment and the image shakes
(a common situation in real world, neighborhood movie theaters), the
film image can look even fuzzier than a steady, but lower resolution
Many movie theaters suffer from dim images, since their projectors
cannot put out the minimum of 12 footlamberts of brightness. Even more
light is needed in a stereoscopic system, since most of the stereo
glasses lose quite a bit of light.
Now that dramatic improvements in stereoscopic projection have
arrived, shooting stereoscopic has become easier as well. There are
of stereo movie cameras, but the most "artistic" type uses two separate
cameras, each looking at right angles into a beam splitter mirror.
These camera rigs
often look like they were designed by Rube Goldberg and can be very
funny looking. On T2-3D,
we used twin 65mm cameras, which made for a gigantic and heavy rig.
Since then, James Cameron and others decided that they wanted to switch
digital cinema cameras, especially the Sony F900. These cameras are
available in versions with no bulky video recorder built in, so the
camera and lens package can be very small. Since the actual video
recorder is far away in the video village, the stereoscopic camera rig
can then be reduced to a manageable size.
T2-3D dual 65mm stereo
It is currently possible for the independent or student filmmaker to
shoot in stereoscopic, but the process is still much more complicated
than regular cinema. Companies such as www.the3drevolution.com,
and www.paradisefx.com can help. But
currently, the easiest way for
the independent filmmaker to produce in stereoscopic is with an
entirely CGI movie. It is not that difficult to add a second camera in
Maya, etc. and create the binocular vision of stereo.
However, the process of setting the distance and angle between the left
and right stereo eyes is a controversial and arcane art that is still
foreign to most filmmakers. Human eyes are naturally 2.5 inches apart
(interocular distance), but the interocular of stereo cameras may need
to be varied widely based on focal length, blocking, composition, etc.
If the distance between the two eyes is too great, the audience will
not be able to fuse the two images into one stereo illusion and
eyestrain will result. If the the distance between the two eyes is too
small, there will be no stereo effect. To better manage this effect,
directors such as Cameron will even animate the left/right interocular
distance during the individual shot.
The angle between the two cameras is also important. For Imax
presentations, it is common to keep the left and right cameras
perfectly parallel to one another. But other stereographers prefer to
"toe in" the left/right eyes slightly to control stereo convergence,
which controls how far out over the audience the stereo appears in
This toe in can also be animated during a shot and the interocular and
convergence can even be recorded in the digital stream, which assists
visual effects artists who may be called on to add special effects to a
The decision to produce a stereoscopic CGI film is a much easier one
than that of producing a live action stereo movie. It is only
more trouble to produce a stereoscopic CG film than a monoscopic one.
That is why CGI companies like Dreamworks have committed to producing
all of their future animated films in stereo. However, live action
stereoscopic can be very challenging to create, especially if
visual effects are to be added later.
More live action stereo films are coming. Besides event films such as U2 - 3D, Walden Media will
be releasing Journey To The
Center Of The Earth - 3D and Cameron is shooting Avatar - 3D. Spielberg has
also committed to filming in stereo.
So with the
large stock of 2D films made over the last one hundred
and twenty years, how much conversion of monoscopic films to
stereoscopic will we see?
Imax has converted portions of the monoscopic Harry Potter & the Order of
the Phoenix and Superman
Returns to 65mm/15 perf stereo. And they are joined in the field
by www.conversionworks.com, www.the3drevolution.com
have been very enthusiastic about having their older masterpieces
converted to stereoscopic. This is an amusing change from the fierce
1980s artistic and legal opposition that we saw to the colorizing of
b/w classics such as Citizen
To The Center Of The Earth - 3D
But all of this technical talk doesn't answer the vital, bottom line
question: Does stereoscopic look good? Is it artistically useful to
enhance the storytelling? And don't we all look rather retro in those
I think that almost everyone who has seen the stereoscopic version of Beowulf
really enjoyed it. Many reviewers even consider that stereo
indispensable to the film and are now sold on the artistic future of
3D. Even without the cool "stereo moments" like the memorable spear
shot and the blood dripping at the camera, Beowulf looks great in 3D.
When the lights of the theater came up, the man sitting next to
me exclaimed that he was dying to have stereoscopic
at home. I myself have not
seen Beowulf monoscopic and I
think that it
would be very disappointing to view it that way.
So if the
stereoscopic renaissance takes off, how far away is the stereo
revolution from the home theater? Stereo viewing is already possible
with head mounted goggles such as the Headplay Personal Cinema System.
And several manufacturers are working on "autostereo" systems, displays
which don't require any glasses or accessories for stereo viewing at
all. Already, certain home computers can produce stereo images in
gaming, especially with nVidia cards and inexpensive shuttered glasses
or virtual reality visors.
stereoscopic virtual reality goggles
The next couple
of years will set the pace for the future of stereo cinema, especially
the release of Avatar from Jim Cameron.
These are exciting days for stereographers and film goers alike. Enjoy
And yes, those
3D glasses do look cool on you.
P.S. Thanks to Bill Tondreau, Hugh Murray, Nick Ilyin, Max Penner, Jim
Cameron and especially Peter Anderson, ASC,
for teaching me how this stereo stuff works.
is a twenty-five year veteran of the motion picture industry. Working
as a visual effects CGI artist and vfx cameraman on such blockbusters
T2, Apollo 13, X-Men2, True Lies, etc.,
has pushed the state of the art in that field. He is also an
experienced Director of Photography and story development analyst.
Michael is a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, as
well as a longtime film instructor there. He was a match move/layout
Journey To The Center Of The
Earth - 3D, a
motion control cameraman on T2-3D
and stereoscopic technical director on Ant
Bully - 3D.
He can be reached at email@example.com
confusing jargon used when discussing stereoscopic. The words "2D"
and "3D" are ambiguous and I prefer the terms monoscopic and
stereoscopic. This is because the expression "3D" really applies to a monoscopic CGI film like
Pixar's Cars and the term "2D"
usually refers to traditional cell animation like Snow White and South Park.
Even more confusing is that 2D cell animation can be shot in
stereoscopic, such as Disney did with a Donald Duck cartoon in the
1950s. Shortly after T2-3D, Warner Bros.
produced a Marvin the Martian
"cell animation" cartoon in stereoscopic,
but the entire film was actually created in the "3D" SoftImage CGI
package. The film was stereoscopic because two cameras (left/right)
were used in SoftImage for binocular vision. The
stereoscopic images were "toon shade" rendered, so that they resembled
"2D" cell animation. The process was very impressive, since a cell
animator cannot easily draw in stereoscopic (the stereoscopic Donald
Duck cartoon used flat 2D artwork, but was shot stereoscopic
with a multi-plane camera).
graphics software like Maya, the artist can actually see the wire frame
characters from any angle, so Maya is called "3D". For example, if you
around Shrek in Maya, you can see the back of his head, the front of
etc, even if the final movie ends up being rendered monoscopic. But if
we view 2D flat cell artwork of Snow White, it looks fine from the
painted front side, but if then we
look at the cell image from the back, we can't then see the back of
head. Thus, traditional cell animation is "2D", even though it can be
multi-plane or stereoscopic.