by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the October 2019 Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter)
James Cameron is an innovative filmmaker who has pushed the boundaries of technology in services of cinematic storytelling. He almost single handedly resurrected 3D with the release of Avatar in 2009. Now that the format is once again at a low ebb, he may need to ride to the rescue once more. As he works on the herculean task of simultaneously creating four Avatar sequels (Avatar 2,3,4 and 5), he is said to be exploring new and improved methods of capturing and delivering stereo images including high frame rates and even perhaps glasses-free cinema viewing. Avatar 2, is now scheduled for release in December 2021, but can 3D survive the wait? In the meantime, let’s look at some of the techniques being used by another innovative filmmaker, Ang Lee.
This American Cinematographer magazine cover story from December 1953 asks: “Is 3-D Dead?” That same question has been asked in our industry several times over the years, but just the fact that it has, means the technology has persisted. There continues to be a very wide spectrum of interest regarding 3D within our industry, ranging from the ardent supporters of 3D, to the haters. Personally, I’m somewhat in the middle.
As a moviegoer, I don’t mind seeing appropriate use of 3D in certain movies, but I’m usually not willing to spend the extra cash to see the treatment. Aside from a few notable exceptions like Avatar, Gravity, and Life of Pi, I’ve never been all that keen on most filmmakers’ use of 3D. It’s either distractingly in your face or it’s so subtle you have to ask yourself why you paid extra for it and also had to wear those annoying glasses. And as a filmmaker, I feel somewhat resentful that I spent a good deal of time getting up to speed learning the production technology, only to see 3D wane, with those movies that are released in stereo mostly having had the effect applied in post.
Box office data has not helped make the case for 3D. Variety reported that box office revenues for 3D films in the U.S. and Canada fell 18% in 2017 and the MPAA has since published global data suggesting that Global 3D box office decreased another 20% compared to 2017. And the ancillary market for 3D television has virtually vanished as most manufacturers stopped making 3D enabled displays back in 2016.
So, I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised that Ang Lee was able to raise 138 million dollars to produce an action film natively shot in 3D at 120 frames per second, especially after the disappointing box office returns for his last movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. That drama, which was also shot in 4K native stereoscopic 3D at 120fps, wasn’t particularly well received by audiences or critics. It only scared up a global box office return of about $32 million on a $40 million budget. I, for one, am actually glad Lee took another swing for the cinematic home run, and admire his use of the technology. Although it is a different viewing experience that takes a little getting used to, it is quite successful at viscerally putting you into the story. It is immersive in a way that goes beyond even VR, but it has to be properly seen. Although I was lucky enough to attend a press screening for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at 120fps, 3D, 4K at the storied Cinerama Dome, not a lot of folks got to see this film as the Director intended, and I’m sure that played a part in the movie’s poor reception.
Ang lee uses several techniques designed for 3D that just don’t translate well to a flat 2D screen. For example, instead of going to the traditional longer lens for close-ups, Lee opts for the “Big-Up,” moving the camera very close to the subject on a wide angle lens and filling the frame with their face, a technique that is usually reserved for comedies. It can be very dynamic in 3D, but otherwise just looks weird. The 120 frame rate is also designed to enhance the 3D, where the 24fps motion blur we’ve become accustomed to in viewing dramatic productions, causes unwanted artifacts for stereo projection. However, when shot at 120 and played back at 24fps, it can tend to look more like a soap opera, sporting event, or at best, a video game.
I’ve now had a chance to see Gemini Man, although not exactly as it was meant to be seen. In fact, no theater in America will play this action thriller in 120 frames-per-second 4K 3D as acquired. At a significant ticket price premium, ($21.75 for an adult admission, compared to the normal $17.75,) I chose to see the movie in Dolby 3D at 120fps. At that frame rate, however, they are only capable of 2K, which I think was a pretty good compromise since I’ve never really been able to see much difference between 2K and 4K projection. It also featured premium sound, which is never a bad thing, as well as better dynamic range.
The 3D was well crafted by Stereographer Demetri Portelli under the watch of Technical Supervisor Ben Gervais, (a DCS member). They have both served Ang Lee on his last several projects. Technology developed by Douglas Trumbull, (another DCS member,) also apparently played a part as his MAGI system was credited, presumably for the treatment of the120fps frame rate. However, these were not the only cutting edge technologies at play in Gemini Man.
The visual effects necessary to create a mo-cap driven CGI version of Will Smith’s nemesis, his clone, only 30 years younger, is amazing. All the more impressive is to see these VFX stand up to the hyper-realistic clarity of the 120fps shooting technique. However, Gemini Man is a lot more than a cinematic science experience; it is a great action movie that is only enhanced by the technology. The car/motorcycle chase may be one of the best I’ve ever seen. And although the story may be a bit predictable for my taste, I still enjoyed the movie on many levels.
Maybe that’s why Gemini Man is doing considerable better business than Billy Lynn, but with a roughly $140 million production budget on top of $100 million-plus marketing spend, it still doesn’t look like it can ever recoup its full investment. As with most tentpole 3D releases, an especially large portion of the box office for Gemini Man comes from China. Chinese audiences seem to appreciate these kinds of cinematic technology advances more than here in the Americas. There are many theaters across Asia that can project these movies in their full glory, even 120fps 4K 3D. In the case of Gemini Man, $113 million of the total $140 million gross so far has come from China alone. Chinese conglomerates, Fosun and Alibaba, were listed as co-producers, so a large Chinese mainland release was a given.
However, other film distributors can’t always count on the same treatment, especially now with the on-going trade war that may have American movies in the Chinese government’s cross hairs. Distributors are also at the mercy of Chinese censors. For example, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood has been banned in China as a result of its less than dignified portrayal of Chinese-born hero, Bruce Lee, which the Director, Quentin Tarantino, refuses to alter.
I’m a Bruce Lee fan myself, and didn’t appreciate Tarantino’s demeaning historical portrayal of Lee as a braggart and bully who gets his comeuppance when he loses a fight to stunt man Brad Pitt’s character. However, I like censorship even less. The point is that American producers who may count on the Chinese love of 3D to justify the added expense, may have to think twice about investing in 3D, another bad sign for the format.
Like a superhero to the rescue, it may take James Cameron to save 3D. As I mentioned earlier, his team is currently at work on a series of four sequels all presumably captured in native 3D at high frame rates. However, these movies that were originally slated to start showing several years ago have been delayed many times.
In October 2010, almost a year after Avatar’s record-breaking release, the director announced two sequels, scheduled for 2014 and 2015. The first delays were said to be attributable to a need to flush out the story, then new technology had to be developed, as it had for the original. We all know what a perfectionist Mr. Cameron is known to be, and he always comes up with something great, so there was no rushing this faze either. He has also been busy exploring the oceans in a submarine and setting depth records while simultaneously producing movies including Alita: Battle Angel and the soon to be released Terminator: Dark Fate.
The acquisition of behemoth Fox studios by Disney and their need to integrate the release schedule with their other pot of gold, the Star Wars movies may be the reason for the latest postponement. At any rate, Disney now controls the franchise and has announced that the release date for Avatar 2 has been moved back to December 2021. The three movies that follow it have likewise been delayed and will come every other year. By moving the Avatar release, and those of its sequels, Disney has locked up the lucrative pre-Christmas box office until 2027, with an Avatar film every odd-numbered year, and Star Wars every even number.
He is bound to again come up with something very special and once again stretch the limits of motion picture technology, but can James Cameron save 3D? Only time will tell.