Coming at You: 3-D Digital Cinema to Take Center Stage at Display Week 2008

The emergence of 3-D digital cinema in the past two-plus years has been called the most important cinematic development since the introduction of color. After decades of waiting, 3-D cinema seems to be here to stay, thanks to technology advances spearheaded by the adoption of digital projectors in theaters across the globe. Learn all about 3-D in cinema at aspecial session featuring some of the world's most renowned and accomplished 3-D artists and technicians at Display Week 2008 in Los Angeles.

by Michael Morgenthal

IF you are a pirate who wears an eye patch, this story isn't for you.

For everyone else who use both eyes, the emergence of stereoscopic 3-D digital cinema in the past two-plus years is one of the most exciting developments to come along in both the cinema and display industries in decades. Of course, display-industry veterans and the movie-going public have heard these promises before regarding 3-D, only to see the trend pop up and then quickly fade in the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1980s.

Those involved in the movie business insist that this time is different – that after decades of waiting, 3-D cinema has arrived and is here to stay. Hollywood studios and A-list directors are signed up to produce a slew of digital 3-D feature movies over the next couple of years. The number of digital 3-D–enabled screens has jumped from less than 100 just 2 years ago to more than 1300 worldwide (as of March 1, 2008), with many deals pending to expand that reach even further.

Why are they so convinced that 3-D cinema is no longer a fad? Technology advances, led by the adoption of digital-cinema projectors, have finally enabled the seamless projection of pixel-perfect 3-D movies that are comfortable and entertaining to watch. Audiences have responded to the limited slate of 3-D films thus far, making Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour the highest-grossing 3-D film in history. Theater owners are thrilled to have an attraction to bring the public back to movie theaters, and one that allows them to charge a premium on top of the regular ticket price.

Clearly, this is 3-D's best chance to gain widespread acceptance. And with Display Week 2008: The SID International Symposium, Seminar & Exhibition taking place in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world, this May, show organizers have put together a fascinating special session highlighting the latest advances in 3-D cinema.

The session will take place Wednesday, May 21 from 2:15 to 6:00 pm and will feature six all-star presenters from across the entire spectrum of the 3-D digital-cinema process, from content creators to the camera designers to the post-production designers to the 3-D system designers. The session will include demos of 3-D digital cinema, thanks to RealD, which is providing the special silver screens, projectors, and glasses necessary for the demos. The special session will take place in a hall with a capacity of approximately 2500 people.

All of these 3-D professionals are quite evangelical about the prospects for 3-D digital cinema, quick to espouse its virtues and brushoff those who dismiss this as the latest 3-D fad. This time, they argue, everything has changed – including the possibilities for expanding 3-D technology past the theater and into myriad other environments, including the home.

"We're really at the point where (3-D content) is going to evolve, it's not going to disappear," explains Phil McNally, Global Stereoscopic Supervisor at Dreamworks Animation, whose credits have earned him the nickname, "Captain 3-D." "We're already past the 18-month (lifespan) of the 1950s 3-D boom, and what we have this time is not this sudden peak (of 3-D releases) and then drop off. This has been a steady build that is just starting to take off now, the curve is going up. (3-D has) always been boom and bust. This time around, movies have come out that have proven the case. Financially they proved it at the box office, but more importantly, technically they've proved that it can be done and doesn't hurt (the audience). Now what we have to prove is creatively, what can we do with the opportunity. That will take a lot longer."

Hollywood has taken up the challenge. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of Dreamworks Animation, has called 3-D digital cinema the most important development in filmmaking since the advent of color and has vowed that his company will only produce 3-D animated features from now on. Academy-Award-winning director James Cameron, a long-time avid fan of 3-D, is slated to release the eagerly anticipated Avatar in 2009 and has said he will never direct another movie in conventional 2-D. Several other Oscar-winning directors, including Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Peter Jackson, have signed on to direct 3-D movies in coming years. (For a list of scheduled 3-D releases, see the "Future Digital 3-D Movies Releases" sidebar.)

These will follow on the heels of several digital 3-D releases over the past two-plus years. The first was Disney's animated Chicken Little in November 2005. More recently, in 2008, Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, a 3-D concert film starring the teen sensation, set box-office records for its release date – it brought in $45,000 per screen on its opening weekend, compared to $11,000 per screen for the next-closest movie that weekend – and is now the highest-grossing 3-D movie ever at nearly $64 million. U2 3D (Fig. 1), another concert film starring the iconic Irish rock band, has been very well received.

This has been music to the ears of theater operators, who for years have seen declining attendance in the face of DVDs and today's 500-channel cable- and satellite-TV universe. Exhibitors view 3-D digital cinema as a way to drive traffic back to their auditoriums because it is an experience that can only be achieved in the theater. In addition, they are able to charge a premium (on the order of $1–$4 per seat) for 3-D features due to their uniqueness, which further helps their bottom line and allows them to recoup the investments they made in digital projectors. To date, there has been little to no resistance by filmgoers to the higher prices, exhibitors report.

"The first real mega application for digital cinema, the first place it began to give you a return on investment (ROI), was the fact that it was an enabling platform for 3-D," explains Jeremy Devine, Vice President of Marketing for Rave Motion Pictures, a Dallas-based movie exhibitor that is the largest theater circuit in the U.S. to be 100% digital (445 screens), of which 37 are 3-D–enabled screens. He states that revenues for 3-D features are 2.5–3 times what a 2-D film will generate. (Devine will not be a presenter at Display Week.) "If you didn't have this killer application, digital would enable you to run some of this other universe of alternative content, such as operas, rock concerts, some sporting events, and some animated and anime product coming down the pike. The reality of those is that the return has simply not been as dramatic as 3-D, so it probably would have retarded our adoption process (of digital cinema)."

The Perfect Storm

Currently, there are approximately 1300 3-D–enabled screens worldwide, the majority of which are in the U.S. But according to both RealD and Dolby, the two primary 3-D system providers who will both be presenting during the Display Week special session, many deals are pending that would up the 3-D screen count dramatically. The growth has already been dramatic – when Chicken Little was released in 3-D in late 2005, there were only 84 digital 3-D–enabled screens worldwide.

To understand why digital projectors make such a difference for 3-D, it is important to realize the limitations of the previous film-based incarnations of 3-D movies. While there are several methods for tricking the eyes into thinking they are seeing movies in 3-D, all of them require that two versions of the movie be projected simultaneously. Stereoscopic glasses use various techniques to separate the two movies so that the left eye sees one version and the right eye sees the other, creating the 3-D effect.

Film-based 3-D movies require two projectors to show both movies simultaneously, which leads to a multitude of problems that could cause the two films to be out of synch for a number of reasons: the two projectors could shake or be misaligned, a frame from one of the films could be spliced out by a projectionist, one of the films could get scratched up or broken after multiple viewings, or the films could be misaligned. Any of these factors could contribute to audiences complaining of eye fatigue or even getting nauseous, and this was a big factor in why 3-D movies were never viewed as more than a fad, quickly bubbling up in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s, and then disappearing again.

However, today's digital projectors can present both movies at the same time from the same projector at 144 frames per second (fps), allowing the images for the left eye and right eye to alternate. This led to the development of systems allowing for the separation of the images for each respective eye.

"Once we got digital projectors that could run at 144 frames per screen, RealD with their Z Screen technology came up with a way to use that 144-frames-per-second capacity to flash the left–right eyes alternately, triple flashing 6 fps, three per eye," McNally explains. "The digital delivery system has quite literally pixel-perfect alignment – everything is square, it's all coming through the same lens, it's a single projector – so the one digital-cinema projector in a theater can either do 2-D or 3-D with very little modification." (See Table 1.)

RealD's system uses circular polarized light, an active shutter that fits over the lens of the projector, and passive, inexpensive disposable glasses to direct the proper images to each eye (Fig. 2). RealD currently has 1200 3-D–enabled screens worldwide, which require the installation of special silver screens. RealD debuted its system in 2005 with Chicken Little.



Fig. 1: "U2 3D," released in February 2008, is one of the first live-action theatrical movies in digital 3-D.


In 2007, Dolby introduced its 3-D system, which has been described as "anaglyph on steroids." It utilizes color-interference technology whereby a wheel-type filter inside the projector splits each of the RGB elements in the light source and projects them onto a high- gain white screen – the first half of the RGB spectrum is for the left eye and the second half of that spectrum is for the right eye (Fig. 3). Audiences use more-expensive, reusable passive glasses to view the movies. Dolby currently has about 100 screens worldwide, including screening rooms in many studios because they like the flexibility of being able to view 3-D and 2-D movies consecutively, according to Jeff McNall, Cinema Product Manager for Dolby.

"We look at (the emergence of 3-D digital cinema) as the perfect storm," explains Rod Archer, Vice President of Engineering for RealD. "The advent of digital cinema was coming along anyway. On the content-creation side, the computers and the computer graphics and the tools needed to create a 3-D movie had only recently been created. These technologies occurring at the same time have made it possible to do this."

No matter which system is used, the true genius of both systems is how they make the 3-D process so easy for any projectionist. McNally, who has been an amateur 3-D photographer since 1990, explains that stereo enthusiasts have long rigged home digital projectors for 3-D viewing, but this demanded a great deal of knowledge. The new systems offer push-button ease, meaning that there are a limitless number of screens that could be converted to 3-D.

"A lot of people have been doing this as hobbies at home for years, even with low-end digital projectors and polarizing them the way they did stereo in the past," McNally says. "When RealD showed up with a single-projector solution, that was the breakthrough because now you do not need an expert to run the projector, and the biggest problem with 3-D in the past is that you always needed expertise in the projection room.

"What RealD did was put the expertise into the technology and bring it down to the normal expertise you need in the projection room. The 3-D aspect of it was built into their hardware at that part, and it's fantastic. The thing that has always killed 3-D in the past was bad presentation … any (theater) that has a digital projector can turn it into a 3-D projector, and as long as they can read the right buttons to kick it into that format, it's going to work."

This simplicity has captured the imagination of the Hollywood studios and has convinced them and everyone else in the 3-D movie business that this time around 3-D is here to stay.


Table 1: A comparison of the RealD and Dolby 3-D Systems
  RealD Dolby
Method Circular Polarization Color Interference
Screen Needed Special Silver Screen High-Gain White Screen
Debut 2005 2007
Glasses Passive, Inexpensive, Disposable Passive, Inexpensive, Reusable
Screens Worldwide (Approximate as of March 1, 2008) 1200 100



Fig. 2: An illustration of RealD's 3-D technology. Image courtesy of RealD.


"It is pretty amazing," continues McNally, whose 3-D credits include Chicken LittleMeet the Robinsons (2007), and the forth-coming Monsters vs. Aliens (Fig. 4). "We've been literally waiting 150 years for the technology to become acceptable. When sound was introduced, they had problems in the first couple of years, which they overcame. 3-D has been in this perpetual loop of failing the first few years. It would run for a while, everyone would get fed-up, then it would come back, everyone would get fed up again, and on and on. This time, it has come back, and it's at the point now where the only thing that (could go) wrong now is the artists controlling the content. The blame cannot be placed on the system that projects it anymore, it is now down to the people who make the content as to whether it will be good or not. That is what is so exciting."




Fig. 3: (Top) Dolby's 3-D system illustrated: the light path through the projector. The filter wheel goes into the light path before the image is formed. This allows for higher lamp power as well as no modulation of the actual image. The result is no degradation to the image. The Dolby 3-D system uses six color bands – three for each eye. (Bottom) A rotating-filter-wheel assembly installed in the existing projector is inserted between the lamp and picture elements for 3-D and retracts for 2-D. Images courtesy of Dolby Laboratories, Inc.


Future Digital 3-D Movie Releases

Here is an unofficial list of digital 3-D movies scheduled for release in the next few years. These do not include IMAX 3-D releases, which are film-based. All dates are for the first worldwide release and are subject to change.

Film Name Director Scheduled Release Format
Journey to the Center of the Earth Eric Brevig July 2008 Live Action
Fly Me to the Moon Ben Stassen August 2008 Animation
Niko & the Way to the Stars Michael Hegner
Kari Juusonen
October 2008 Animation
Bolt Byron Howard
Chris Williams
November 2008 Animation
Final Destination 4 David R. Ellis January 2009 Live Action
My Bloody Valentine Patrick Lussier January 2009 Live Action
Monsters vs. Aliens Rob Letterman
Conrad Vernon
March 2009 Animation
Toy Story 3D* John Lasseter October 2009 Animation
A Christmas Carol Robert Zemeckis November 2009 Animation
Avatar James Cameron December 2009 60% CGI, 
40% Live Action
Frankenweenie Tim Burton December 2009 Animation
Crood Awakening Chris Sanders 2009 Animation
How to Train Your Dragon Peter Hastings March 2010 Animation
Shrek Goes Fourth Mike Mitchell May 2010 Animation
Toy Story 3 Lee Unkrich June 2010 Animation
Step Up 3-D John Chu 2010 Live Action
ReBoot TBA 2010 Animation
Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton 2010 Live Action/Performance Capture Animation
Tintin** Peter Jackson
Steven Spielberg
TBA Animation
*Toy Story 3D is the re-release of the original Toy Story that was released in 1995. It is being completely reproduced for 3-D. 
**Tintin is expected to be a trilogy, with one movie directed by Jackson, one by Spielberg, and the third by an as-yet unnamed director.


By all accounts, the 3-D movies to date have been of high quality, but there is certainly a learning curve for the film makers because shooting in 3-D – especially liveaction – is far different from shooting in 2-D.

"The art of cinematography is literally turning space into flat, and all of the techniques we're familiar with – depth of field, moving cameras, all of that – it's a flat graphic art," McNally explains. "The poetry of cinematography is the fact that they have been able to do it and actually represent a spatial world in a flat environment. Now we're at the point not where we need to convert real space into a flat graphic, but we have to convert flat space into a movie space – and they are different because there are different levels of comfort that you can tolerate in the real world that you can't necessarily tolerate in the theater. The fact that the screen is big in scale and has been blown up means that it is different from real life as well. So now, we're in a new interpretation phase. I call it a 3-D–to–3-D conversion process. That's really what we're doing – we're capturing real-life space and manipulating that into a 3-D movie space.

"Now we're starting to look at everything more on the Z axis and less on the X-Y axes, and staging the action on the Z axis and less on the X-Y axes. It's not like one excludes the other – they are all there as part of the story-telling technique. I think for movies up to this point, the majority of shots are composed on the X-Y axes because that is the only thing we have to deal with. Of course, there are Z space shots such as cars flying down the road – there are a lot of shots that play straight across the frame. I think the bias will switch over time so films will have a majority of shots playing down the Z axis and a minority of shots used across the flat plates of the frame. It will just work better in 3-D."

But those expecting 3-D to mimic the campy horror films of the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s that used 3-D to have a monster jump out of the screen into a viewer's lap could be somewhat disappointed. The new 3-D cinema is much more about representing spatial relationships on screen in ways that have never been possible before.

"We did have a small portion of the public and journalists who saw this and were disappointed that there were not more incredibly obvious 3-D effects," recalls Devine. "Some of these 3-D films that have come out – everyone screams and enjoys the spear coming toward the screen or the ball bouncing into the audience's lap, but I thought with what's happening now, it may have been missing the point. That is the novelty of this application, but the real beauty of this now is you are getting people who are trying to tell the story within a 3-D universe. During Chicken Little, instead of just a little ball that bounced out and delighted the 5-year-old, I love the scene where Chicken Little is talking to his father in the car, and there is a wonderful texturing of the imagery. The father is in the front seat and Chicken Little is in the back seat, and it's not a dramatic moment really for kids, but there is this incredible use of depth, and it immerses you in a 3-D universe."



Fig. 4: Dreamworks Animation plans to release "Monsters vs. Aliens" in 3-D in 2009. CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has insisted that all future animated features from his studio will be produced in 3-D.Image courtesy of Dreamworks Animation


McNally points to U2 3D as a film that has really broken new ground from a visual 3-D point of view. While noting that co-director Catherine Owens is a sculptor, McNally referenced the rich spatial layering of shots that in a 2-D medium would have contained too much information on the screen for human eyes to process accurately.

"They create the space in a way that the layers are separate, and you've got multiple spaces happening at the same time, and your brain can understand that spatial relationship, whereas if it were a flat movie, you would struggle to unravel the confusion that was going on," McNally adds (Fig. 5).

He credits 3Ality, another Display Week special-session presenter, with developing the camera technology to allow for such striking visual effects. 3Ality built micromotors into the camera rigs that, during the zoom of a lens, adjust the camera to get rid of any optical shift problems caused by filming with two cameras simultaneously.

"Optical lenses, when you move the focus, it's going to shift the image very slightly," he explains. "It doesn't matter at all in 2-D movies. In 3-D, if you have the two eyes shifting in opposite directions, that's not going to be a pleasant experience.

"We're probably going to go through some bumps in the production of live-action film. I think it's good that computer-graphics (CG) films have come first – it shows it can be done comfortably and successfully. I think all of the CG films that have come out have shown … to create a comfortable 3-D movie – you can watch it, you can deliver it – that problem has been solved. Live action is the next barrier in terms of getting the crew on live action to work toward the tolerances that are easier to do in CG because we can reshoot to get that tolerance dialed in. I suspect that it will be a bumpy ride. There is going to be some abuse along the way, and the eyeballs are not going to thank us for it, but we'll get past it."

Beyond Cinema?

Once they do get past these issues, the next question will be, how soon digital 3-D technology, particularly a "one-button" approach, can be transferred to the home and other environments. There are already 3-D–enabled rear-projection DLP televisions on the market – according to Insight Media, 500,000 3-D–enabled RPTVs from Mitsubishi and Samsung were sold in 2007, representing 75% of DLP RPTV sales for the year. In late February, Samsung unveiled a 3-D plasma television (Fig. 6).

But the issue of content is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to date, and it is further complicated by use in the home environment, that discussion is split between captured programs such as movies and TV shows and live events such as sporting events and concerts.

For live broadcasts, the NBA did an experimental 3-D broadcast of its 2007 All Star Game for viewing in theaters, utilizing RealD's system. Horton says that the technology now exists to allow for this to occur on a more regular basis. The key is for a process, such as Quantel's, that does not require rendering of the images to make them 3-D – it would need to be done in real time.

"Picture the Super Bowl – you can't just say, 'Sorry guys, can you stop the game in the middle because we haven't rendered convergence on you yet?'" he posits. "That's not going to work terribly well. Or, 'Would you mind doing that touchdown over again because I didn't have a chance to cut the left eye and the right eye quickly enough?' We can do live 3-D now.

"If you think about sporting events, you can plan for a lot of things, but some things you can't plan for. You certainly don't want to do render, render, render, render, render, if you're in the middle of the Super Bowl and you're trying to put together a highlights package for the end of it. (Quantel doesn't) need to render a thing as far as stereo goes. That is highly unusual."

As far as pre-recorded content, McNally says he is not sure about plans for the studios to release 3-D movies on DVD, and that right now is the focus on the complete immersive theater experience.

"For 3-D and movies in general, the bigger the screen, the more immersive the experience," he states. "Seeing that 3-D is a spatial experience and it is about immersion, the home projection systems seem to be the step that is closest to the big public theater. The smaller TV boxes are one step down from that in terms of immersion. Of course, the big projection TVs these days are getting pretty big as well. It seems to me that you have millions of projectors out there, whatever the numbers are. People are using DLP projectors in the home. You have DLP 3-D technology in one or two TV designs, and there is a whole market for 3-D projectors, which I can't imagine that that would increase the cost of production given that the TVs are already selling for normal prices."



Fig. 5: This shot illustrates how the directors of "U2 3D" use 3-D spatially to increase the amount of content on the screen; in 2-D, this shot would be too visually confusing. Phil "Captain 3-D" McNally likens this shot to seeing color for the first time. Image courtesy of 3ality Digital. ©U2 Ltd.


And that brings the discussion around to what the 3-D community wants to say to the display industry – that 3-D is here to stay, but for it truly to become the revolutionary development it promises to be, the display industry must get on board.

"It is quite clear that the display technology that you need for stereo 3-D will not be one technology but many," Horton says. "The answer you might need for a big arena might be different from what you need in the home, including the viewing glasses, and would certainly be different from games, and mobile phones are a special case, and so on. What we're trying to do for the display community is to be vendor neutral, and say, whatever display technology is out there, by one means or another we will support it.

"Pretty much everyone is going to be jumping on the stereo-display bandwagon this year. Anybody who was skeptical about it, by the end of this year, if they are still skeptical about it, they are going to have a little bit of commercial issue with that…If the general public wants this, the studios want this, and the broadcasters want this, and it can now be done, as the camera problems, post-production, and compression problems are being solved, exactly what is your basis for not getting involved in this technology?"

McNally says that the display industry has yet to respond to the professional needs of 3-D filmmakers, and he is anxious to see what display manufacturers are able to generate for the professional market. Right now, 3-D filmmakers use DLP RPTVs, which occupy a large footprint.

"We have all kinds of limitations on what we can use, and that is why the projection idea has come up quite a few times," he explains. "Why has the DLP projector not been released in 3-D when it's already in the TVs? I don't know the answer. A big projection TV is a big piece of furniture. The projector that is up in the ceiling is a small piece of furniture that clears an office or a home, and the pull-down screen has a pretty small footprint as well."

"The display community has an interest in this to see how 3-D comes together, how movies are created, how they are displayed," says Dolby's McNall. "It is always interesting to look at the front end to determine the future. Everything starts off as a professional application before it makes it as a consumer application, so let's look at the growth in this professional application, and then stand back and see how it can impact things down the road."

The first step for many in this process will be the special session at Display Week 2008. For when it comes to 3-D, seeing truly is believing.

To wit: Horton tells a story of a Quantel road show in October in Rome, where the company was presenting to a consortium of Italian broadcasters and filmmakers. The music during the demo was loud, and representatives from another group meeting in the same conference center came over to complain. Quantel asked them if they would like to see the 3-D demo, and they were so impressed that they stopped the other conference entirely so all of those attendees could watch the Quantel presentation. Horton says the group – the Association of Italian Book Publishers – was completely blown away.

"We love to do our stereo events to non-industry people as well as industry people," Horton concludes. "Show me a non-industry person who wasn't completely blown away by one of our demos and I'll show you someone who is a pirate with an eye patch."



Fig. 6: In February 2008, Samsung introduced what it called the world's first 3-D plasma-display-panel (PDP) TV. The 50-in. "PAVV Cannes 450'' PDP TV features a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio and was developed in co-operation with Electronic Arts (EA), the world's largest game contents provider. Image courtesy of Samsung.


For information on the Special Session on 3-D in Cinema, as well as all of the other components of Display Week 2008, visit •


Michael Morgenthal is Managing Editor of Information Display magazine; e-mail: