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Laramie Movie Scope: 3D Movies

An evaluation of state of the art 3D movie technology

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 5, 2009 -- I recently drove over to Cheyenne to evaluate two of the current popular competing methods for showing 3D movies using digital projection. I've also seen about every other kind of 3D theatrical movie projection that is around, or has been around for the last 50 years. My idea was to write this story about the various competing technologies and do some comparisons.

The two competing technologies I spoke of are based on two different methods of delivering 3D images on a projection screen, using different kinds of movie screens and different kinds of 3D glasses worn by the audience. The first, and most popular, is called “RealD” or “Disney 3D.” It uses polarization and a special kind of silver screen, combined with polarized glasses to get that 3D effect. The second method uses a spinning wheel in front of the projector which splits the color spectrum up into six streams, three for the left eye and three for the right. Special glasses filter the color spectrum so that the right eye and left eye each see a separate image.

I watched the excellent 3D movie “Coraline,” first with the Real D system at the Frontier 9 cinema in Cheyenne operated by Carmike, a huge theater chain that was an early adopter of 3D and digital projection technology. Then I watched the same movie again at the Capitol 12 theater, which just recently installed Christie digital projectors and the new Dolby Digital 3D system. I saw very little difference in the 3D effect between the two systems. The color may have been a bit more vivid with the Dolby system, but other than that, the two competing systems seem pretty much equal to me. Both systems use a single projector operating at a frame rate much higher than the traditional 24 frames per second.

It looks as if the difference between the two systems comes down to cost for most theater owners. The RealD system requires a special screen which is a big expense. Some reports indicate other premium added costs of installing the RealD system, which includes a digital processor to create the polarized left and right images which are projected onto the screen. If this added cost has no real basis in labor and hardware, it can be decreased or dropped at to make the system more cost competitive. The other expense is the polarized glasses. It appears these glasses are cheap enough so that the cost is covered by a $2 surcharge on ticket prices. The Carmike theater in Cheyenne did not even bother collecting the used glasses after each show, indicating the glasses are cheap.

While the Dolby Digital 3D system does not require a special silver screen, it does require expensive 3D glasses, with lenses developed by Dolby partner Ifinitec GmbH of Germany. These glasses isolate the split color spectrum images for the left and right eyes created by the special projector modifications used in the Dolby system. Rumor has it that the glasses are not expensive to make, but Ifinitec GmbH charges a high licensing fee to manufacturers who make the glasses, which is in turn passed on to consumers. Since the glasses cost anywhere from $40 to $100 per pair, depending on discounts and quality, the theater must collect them, clean them and repackage them after each show. That work means additional labor expenses. It also means it is expensive to buy and maintain a large stock of 3D glasses. If the cost of these glasses is, indeed, inflated, it may be the price will come down eventually due to competition or mass production.

There are a couple of other 3D technologies out there. One is an old technology that has been around for many years and that is called anaglyph 3D. It uses a color-splitting technique, combined with blue and red-lensed glasses to create a 3D effect. This was featured in the films “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” both directed by Robert Rodriguez. This anaglyphic method was recently used to broadcast an episode of the TV show “Chuck” in 3D. It has also been used to view 3D images from Mars online and in magazines. It has even been used in comic books. The problem with anaglyphic 3D is that the 3D effect is greatly inferior to that of several other 3D technologies, including the two mentioned above. Another 3D technology, used in IMAX theaters and in home uses, uses special radio-controlled glasses with LED shutters which rapidly blink off and on, alternatively blocking, or letting through the left and right images. This creates a very high-quality 3D effect, but the effect is not as good if you happen to be seated far to the left or right of the center of the screen. The cost of active shuttered glasses varies widely. One of the companies making active-shutter 3D glasses is NuVision.

An older type of 3D technology, popular in the 1950s and still in use at a few specialty theaters since then, uses two interlocked projectors instead of one. One projector gives the image for the right eye, the other provides the left eye image. As in the RealD method, the images are polarized at 90 degrees to each other. Special polarized glasses are used to separate the left image from the right. That is one of the reasons that polarized glasses are cheaper. They've been in use for over 50 years and nobody has a monopoly for manufacturing polarized lenses. I've seen movies shown by this older method, and the image quality and 3D effect is about the same as that of the new digital projection systems. The most famous of the many 3D films shown in this way was “House of Wax,” starring Vincent Price.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)