Why 3D movies are here to stay this time

Has 3D finally arrived? If money talks, the answer is a resounding yes. DreamWorks Animation SKG's Monsters vs. Aliens had a record-breaking opening weekend, raking in $59.3 million in the U.S. and Canada. Of that total, $33 million was from 3D screens, totaling 2,080 in the United States. That's short of the 5,000 3D screens DreamWorks studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted, but it was still enough for him to call the film's debut "the beginning of an era."

But is it? Is this just another passing phase for 3D, just a gimmick, or is this the beginning of a new age in filmmaking, thanks to digital technology? We went to Hollywood to find out.


The Analyst Angle

Analysts are also excited about the latest crop of 3D movies, by some counts the third or fourth attempt to convince the moviegoing public that it's worth an extra $3 to $3.50 beyond the average $7 movie ticket price to don kooky glasses and plunge into the depths of 3D. "3D has arrived for tens of millions, delivering more memorable entertainment per screen and per hour," said Richard Dougherty, senior research analyst with The Envisioneering Group in Long Island, New York.

Despite its numerous false starts, the concept of 3D movies seems to make sense. DreamWorks Stereoscopic Supervisor Phil McNally, whose real name (it's even on his driver's license) is "Captain 3D", calls the 3D era an eye-opening experience. He said to DVICE, "3D fundamentally is two cameras, in the same way our eyes are two cameras. If we close one eye, we're not seeing in 3D, we're seeing in mono. And that's how we've made films up until now. Opening two eyes literally allows our brains to get the spatial information we work with in real life."


Second Opinions

Not everyone is so breathlessly sold on the idea of 3D movies, with some going so far as to accuse 3D of "hurting our eyes." One such critic is Daniel Engber of Slate, calling 3D's proponents such as DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg "Wrong, wrong, wrong." He says, "I've seen just about every narrative movie in the current 3-D crop, and every single one has caused me some degree of discomfort." He cites research from the '50s, identifying the way we perceive 3D and pointing out why 3D movies make us uncomfortable.

The problem is the way we see things in three dimensions. As an object comes toward us, our eyes cross slightly as we look at it, called "convergence," and at the same time, our eyes squeeze their lenses to focus on that object, called "accommodating." But when we see a 3D movie, we're slightly crossing our eyes to see that sword thrust in our faces, but when we try to also focus on it, there's a disconnect because the screen is still the same distance from our eyes. This "converging without accommodating," is why 3D feels awkward at first.

Not all film critics are convinced of 3D's goodness, either. Roger Ebert thinks the current 3D technique is distracting, saying "it creates a fatal break in the illusion of the film." He writes in his blog, "There is a mistaken belief that 3D is 'realistic.' Not at all. In real life we perceive in three dimensions, yes, but we do not perceive parts of our vision dislodging themselves from the rest and leaping at us."


Expanding Dimensions

My take? 3D is here to stay. It just takes some getting used to. From an early age, we had to learn how to watch movies, learning the language of film and its approximations of depth. This 3D technique is yet another part of the language of film we can learn, and for me, it took all of five minutes in the DreamWorks screening room to become comfortable with the depth of 3D movie viewing.

And, because of the precision of digital video production and projection, 3D is more pleasant to watch this time around. "Captain 3D" at DreamWorks demonstrated to me how he's learned to use the 3D technique sparingly, and showed me the precise point where the depth becomes uncomfortable and gimmicky to watch.

Captain 3D instructed his animators at DreamWorks to rarely go into that area that makes your eyes feel crossed. The result when I watched Monsters vs. Aliens in the DreamWorks screening room: The best 3D experience I've ever had, and when it comes to animated features, eyes-on proof that 3D has finally arrived.