'Beowulf' largest 3-D theatrical release

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When it opens today in 1,000 3-D-equipped theaters, Paramount/Warner Bros.' "Beowulf" will be the biggest 3-D release in modern film history.

Since director Robert Zemeckis' Imax 3-D version of "The Polar Express" in 2004, the number of theaters capable of projecting 3-D films has exploded, with Real D leading the charge. In addition to Real D's expansion to more than 1,100 theaters worldwide, Imax has about 120 Imax 3-D screens globally, and Dolby recently unveiled its 3D Digital Cinema system in 75-80 screens worldwide.

Sony Pictures Imageworks was the ideal facility to turn the performance-capture CG "Beowulf" into three dimensions. "We've been down this road," says stereographer/3-D digital effects supervisor Rob Engle, who in addition to "Polar Express" includes 2006's "Monster House" and "Open Season" among the company's previous 3-D efforts. "Our job was to make Bob's vision into a stereoscopic film. We started at the same time as the bulk of the 2-D team. We were working in parallel with them, and we knew what the movie looked like from the beginning."

Engle and his team had to create a second eye from the source material and then work to converge the two images, exactly like our two eyes converge to see a single dimensional image. But it's far from a simple job. To get there, they had to deconstruct the original elements in each scene, produce a second set of them for the other eye and then recomposite all the elements back -- twice. "That allows us to tune the stereo image for each person and each object, tweaking each for its overall position in depth," Engle says. "It gives us a unique level of control."

The magic happens in Imageworks' "sweatbox," a 3-D theater equipped with a Real D 3-D cinema projection system. To previsualize and build the 3-D converged images, the team relies on Autodesk Maya animation layered with custom software that allows the animators to view a virtual world in stereo. "We bring up multiple shots from the movie, look at them in context and adjust the cameras in context," Engle says. "We're dialing in the 3-D in real time, and that's a tremendously powerful tool for experimentation."

The trickiest scene in the movie to transform into three dimensions is when Beowulf first meets the mother of Grendel. "Everything is very contrasty, and the mother is painted with gold paint, so she glows," Engle says. "One of the challenges in 3-D is that the technology isn't quite there to ensure that your left eye only sees the left eye movie. It's a phenomenon called 'ghosting,' and it's particularly problematic in areas of high contrast." It was a delicate balance between getting the proper depth without losing the sense of three dimensions, but Engle and his team aced it.

Is it worth the extra effort to see "Beowulf" in 3-D? Engle answers with an emphatic yes. "Bob and the producers of the movie think this is the way they want their movie to be seen," he says. "And it's the best ride you're ever going to have. You'll feel like you're in the movie."

More coverage:
NEW VISION: 'Beowulf' takes format to next level
REALITY BYTES: New hybrid filmmaking
SCREEN TEST: Biggest 3-D release ever
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