The best is yet to come: 3D technology continues to evolve and win audience approval


3D just keeps getting bigger and better in spite of the early skepticism that the trend wouldn’t last. This year, Hollywood delivered on their promised 3D titles, with many more in the production pipelines. Like color or stereo sound did before, 3D production techniques are maturing and becoming part of the filmmaker’s everyday toolkit. We are seeing 3D being put to use, not as a gimmick, but in ways that add to the overall enjoyment of the movie.

The best 3D has yet to be seen by the public. The combining of emerging digital production technologies—motion-capture, high-resolution live-action capture, computer-generated images and 3D—will yield never-seen-before images that will leave audiences not only thrilled but stunned.

This is great news for exhibitors. First, while there is a lot of talk about 3D in the home, it is a few years off. Even when available, there will be no comparison between big-screen 3D and the home-theatre experience. Second, 3D is happening now. There is plenty of great 3D content hitting the screens in the next year and the reference bar for onscreen visual entertainment is being raised again this year, with Fox’s Dec. 18 release of James Cameron’s Avatar.

3D, its innovations and maturing technology is—so far—a uniquely Hollywood-driven development, but it is being consumed by exhibitors and their audiences worldwide. Depending on how screens are counted, as of August 2009 there were between 4,800 and 6,600 3D-equipped screens, split approximately equally between the U.S. and international markets. The exact count of 3D screens is difficult to pin down not only because it’s a rapidly moving target, but because of the flexibility of some of the 3D processes, particularly the ability to relocate active glasses to different auditoriums, allowing multiple auditoriums to be quickly equipped.

In many overseas markets, the number of 3D systems installed has doubled since January 2009. In some new markets, like Latin America, Australia, Russia and Eastern Europe, almost 100% of all digital installations are 3D. In many countries, where the multiplex- or circuit-wide 2D digital conversions have stalled due to lack of economic incentives, screen-by-screen 3D conversion is the single reason digital cinema is moving forward.

It is easy to understand the “gold-rush” mentality about 3D by looking at the box-office results. Exhibitors consistently report 3D screens grossing between three to five times the same titles on 2D screens. Exhibitors are also finding little resistance to 3D premium ticket prices, especially when the same title is offered side-by-side in 2D at standard prices. When given a choice, most simply choose to pay more and see it in 3D.

The last bit of good news for exhibitors is that there are plenty of choices in processes and equipment. Following the 2005 debut of RealD’s low-cost passive glasses and silver-screen solution, there is now competition from Dolby’s reusable glasses and white-screen approach. There are also XpanD’s active glasses and newcomer MasterImage’s 3D solution. Increased competition in the marketplace is keeping equipment prices down and driving system performance even higher.

RealD continues to lead the market with approximately 3,400 systems installed as of July 2009. In addition, they have received orders that will bring their total to over 9,000 in the next few years. RealD estimates that 90% of US 3D box office is delivered on their 3D-equipped screens. Their new RealD XL light-doubler has been a hit with cinemas with larger screens, timely since more and more of the 3D titles are playing in the larger auditoriums.
Europe has been a particularly active market for RealD, with sales reportedly up 400% since the opening of their London office in February 2009 with industry veteran Bob Mayson at the helm. Exhibitors recently signing on to add RealD systems are Cinestar in Germany, CGR in France, Cineplexx in Austria, Vue Entertainment in the U.K., Irish Multiplex Cinemas, and others.

In the fall of 2008, Sony announced they had developed a special 3D process and lens assembly for their 4K SXRD projector. It is a fairly simple and elegant solution, using their 4K chip to project two images top and bottom—one for each eye—and a special dual-lens assembly to converge the images on the screen. Sony has incorporated RealD’s circular polarized filters, so the Sony 3D process is entirely compatible with the RealD glasses and the silver screen. Sony has entered an exclusive distribution plan so that the Sony lens is available through RealD’s program. Since both the AMC and Regal theatre circuits have made large commitments to add Sony 4K projectors, a substantial number of these will be RealD 3D-enabled.

Dolby claims over 1,000 cinemas installed with their 3D system as of July 2009, with another 500 installations in progress. Rather than concentrating on a few key exhibitors, Dolby has been quietly building a strong base of support from many small and mid-sized exhibitor organizations, independent cinemas and specialty screening rooms. With a broad and loyal geographic footprint around the globe, the Dolby system lends itself well to exhibitors where there is a desire to keep a white, non-silver screen and where managing reusable glasses is not a problem. Organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the U.K.’s BAFTA, the Directors Guild of America, and a number of science centers and museums have selected the Dolby process.

Dolby has also addressed the need to show their 3D on larger screens. In a joint development with Barco, twin projectors are mounted in a custom configuration, allowing exhibitors to fill larger screens ranging from 41 to 70 feet. The Dolby and Barco large-screen solution is compatible with all of Barco’s twin-projector offerings, including their ultra-bright DP-3000.

XpanD, with what might be considered the original 3D process using active LCD shuttered glasses, has been gaining recognition, particularly in the European markets. They have around 1,000 3D screens installed. XpanD has been able to put new life into an old idea. The original shuttered glasses were large and heavy. With the acquisition of NuVision, the leading manufacturer of shuttered glasses, they have been re-engineered. XpanD’s new X101 Series glasses are lighter, look stylish, and have easily replaceable batteries.

Although the XpanD glasses are the most expensive, the costs are offset by the savings in basic booth equipment. All that is really needed beyond a 3D-capable digital projector and server is a fairly low-cost IR emitter for synchronizing the glasses. This also leads to more flexible operation as multiple screens can be equipped with the IR emitters and quickly used for 3D by bringing in the glasses.

XpanD has made recent progress with exhibitor commitments from Yelmo Cinemas in Spain, Xtreme Cinemas in the Czech Republic, Europalaces Theaters in France and United Entertainment and Camelot Cinemas in the U.S. In Asia, XpanD has a distribution agreement with Singapore-based server manufacturer GDC Technology to incorporate their 3D systems into the growing base of digital systems in mainland China.

MasterImage, a Korean company, is the fourth and newest entry into the commercial cinema 3D business. MasterImage USA, headed by cinema veteran Peter Koplik, recently opened an office in Burbank, Calif., to specifically focus on the exhibition market. The MasterImage system, like RealD, uses a silver screen and low-cost glasses, but the filter is a spinning wheel in an enclosure positioned between the projection lens and the porthole. MasterImage claims the simplicity of their systems results in lower costs and increased flexibility, without compromising image quality.

Currently, MasterImage has approximately 130 systems in North America, bringing their total installed base to over 300 screens worldwide. They have just concluded a major agreement with the U.K.’s Empire Cinemas for 40 systems. Other recent installations include 12 systems for Palace Cinemas to be installed in the Czech Republic and Hungary. Plus, they are planning on adding 30 systems in Ireland. At ShoWest 2009, MasterImage announced a distribution agreement with DTS Digital Cinema.

Another recent development facilitating the spread of 3D is progress toward a single-inventory 3D master for distribution to the cinemas. Both the RealD and Dolby 3D processes, for optimum imaged quality, require a small but different type of pre-processing on the files before being sent to the projector. Initially, the RealD pre-processing—called ghostbusting—was added to the DCP delivered to the theatres, but that caused distributors to have to identify in advance which system was being used and maintain multiple inventories of digital prints. The Dolby pre-processing was performed in Dolby’s server, but that limited Dolby 3D playback to those cinemas with Dolby servers. To resolve the issue, both RealD and Dolby have begun licensing their pre-processing to server manufacturers, thereby allowing one compatible single-inventory DCP to be used for all 3D systems.

With lots of new 3D titles, more equipment choices in the market, and the number of 3D installations doubling in the last nine months, 2009 will be remembered as the year 3D took off. But based on the progress being made in 3D production, live-action 3D capture and 3D digital effects, the best is yet to come.