3D Mania: A New Dimension in Movies
Movies are done with film.
There is not so much as a single frame of movie film anywhere in the building at Sandhills Stadium 10.
Scrapped are reels, splicers, framing knobs, anything and everything associated with motion pictures since the days of Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Gone forever is the distant clackity-clack of the projector and its mechanical shutter.
3D did it. The advent of the latest popular movies like “Avatar” has pulled people away from flat screen TVs at home and back into theaters at higher ticket prices. Producers were set scrambling to convert already completed pictures like “Alice In Wonderland” to 3D, a process made possible by the switch to digital editing and digital delivery of the finished — in this case, refinished — product.
And digital movies don’t acquire scratches. They don’t tear, or burn, making the show stop and resume later in the movie. If a power failure halts the show, it starts back at the same frame where it left off.
“Sight and sound film degrades over time,” said Chuck DeWitt, senior vice president of Frank Theatres. “With digital, it doesn’t degrade. It allows fuller definition of the picture in 3D. In the good ones you can see things jump out of the screen.”
Today’s 3D digital cinema uses a single projector with twin lenses, one above the other. There are no moving parts to speak of inside: no shutter, no claw, and no film. Zeroes and ones arrive by wire from a remote computer instructing imaging plates through which streams bright white light from a xenon lamp. No arcs and mirrors, no fire hazard.
Pictures no longer arrive in huge metal canisters but on hard drives like the ones in home computers. Even that is destined to go online once downloads take over. In the past few months, Sandhills has switched from separate drives for each of its state-of-the-digital-art Sony 4K projectors to a single master computer driving every screen in the place.
“It is very time-consuming to load a digital picture into projectors from a drive,” DeWitt said. “You almost have to do it in real time. With downloads, you can load a picture in segments. That is the direction things are going.”
Each title is restricted digitally to its dates of release. A password-like code must be entered into the system to enable projection. That system makes it easier for distributors to monitor showing dates and maintain control of their product.
3D is Nothing New
In the silent movie era, the Motion Picture Patents Company enforced its End-User License Agreement (EULA) using armed Pinkerton agents to put a bullet in any camera being used illegally. Early companies like Griffith’s had to wrap a blanket around their illegal cameras between takes. They came to be called “blanket companies” as a result.
Even now, the final shot of the day is still followed by the assistant director’s announcement: “That’s a wrap.”
It’s all new, and it’s all old: 3D is older than movies. Still photos made during the Civil War were viewed in 3D on Stereopticons that placed one image before the left eye, and another before the right. Your great-grandmother might still have one of them in the attic. Later, Viewmaster made popular a handheld 3D viewer with rotating disks of stereo pictures. People bought souvenir disks at vacation sites, taking home 3D views of Old Faithful and Niagara Falls.
In the 1950s, stereo movies hit the Sunrise Theater with “Bwana Devil” and others, the most popular of which was a Vincent Price picture, “House of Wax” — a major hit, the seventh-biggest money-maker of 1953.
Dual projectors trying to keep two separate reels of film in synch often failed, or lost balance in ways that caused fatigue and sometimes headaches. People tired of the cardboard glasses with their polarized plastic lenses
Along came Cinerama, spreading the movie across a curved screen using three overlapping images to fool the eye into a semblance of natural vision — but without glasses. It was rapidly followed by Michael Todd’s Todd-AO that had one seamless wide, curved-screen picture. He used very wide film stock, which made Todd-AO movies costly. Editors said they felt like they were cutting postcards.
Todd-AO had something even better: a terrific first movie with David Niven and Cantinflas in “Around the World in 80 Days.” Still, these attempts at simulating depth were expensive. 20th Century Fox topped them both with CinemaScope and its initial release, “The Robe.”
Once First in State
Charlotte and Southern Pines had the first theaters in the state capable of showing CinemaScope films. The process used special “anamorphic” lenses to squeeze a wide image onto a normal 35mm frame, then spread it back out to a 2.55-to-1 ratio during projection. That let theaters keep the same projector, though they had to change to wide screens and use new lenses.
In the 1970s, North Carolina led the way in an effort to bring back 3D. Earl Owensby had built his own movie studio in Shelby, making and marketing low-budget thrillers and adventure pics outside the Hollywood loop.
“We don’t make ‘films’ or ‘cinema’ in Shelby,” said writer/director Jimmy Huston, who started out there at EO Productions along with Worth Keeter. “We don’t make ‘motion pictures’ or even ‘movies.’ We make ‘pitchers’ — revenge ‘pitchers’ — car-race ‘pitchers’ — prison ‘pitchers.’ That’s what we make.”
Owensby thought 3D would return, and set out to produce 10 such movies. The first was “Rottweiler.” They were too far ahead of the curve. Even in 3D, “Rottweiler” proved to be a dog picture in more ways than one.
“Now, we might be able to convert them to digital and re-release them,” Keeter said, reached by telephone at his home in California.
Keeter is married to Talmadge Ragan, daughter of the late publisher of The Pilot, Sam Ragan.
“There is a demand for 3D product now, and not enough supply,” Keeter said. “Who knows? We might get some play after all this time.”
‘A Social Experience’
Today’s top units, like the ones at Sandhills, have four times the resolution of the first commercial digital projectors. The usual system, called “2K digital cinema” provides an image container roughly 2,000 pixels across (2,048 by 1,080 or 2.2 million pixels).
At Sandhills, Sony 4K digital cinema doubles those numbers to 4096 by 2160. This equals 8.8 million pixels, exactly four times the count of 2K projection. When the movie is in 3D, left and right images, 2K each, show simultaneously.
Why spend the money to make this change? DeWitt has the Frank Theatres’ answer: It’s what gets people off the couch at home, away from the TV set, and into the theater. It’s not just flying between the floating islands of “Avalon” or dodging fiery arrows. It’s the crowd.
“Movies are a social experience,” he says. “People like to go to movies with their friends.”
And eat popcorn.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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