'Here's looking at you, kid' takes on whole new meaning with 3-D gains

I recently sat in a theater, put on some 3-D glasses and watched "The Matrix," "Transformers," "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith" and even "Casablanca."

No, the movies are not available in 3-D, at least not yet. Instead, I was viewing a series of short demonstration clips from In-Three, a Westlake Village, Calif.-based company that has developed a process called "dimensionalization" that converts 2-D movies into stereo 3-D.

With conversion processes like this sprouting up, 3-D might soon include legacy films as well as new live action and animated titles.

Some leading filmmakers have expressed interest in converting such titles, including James Cameron, who has cited "Titanic."

In-Three CEO David Seigle admits that there has been reluctance to invest in the conversion process — the company charges from $50,000-$100,000 per minute of film depending on the complexity of the work — because there are only slightly more than 1,000 3-D-ready digital screens in North America.

But many believe that screen counts will grow: There are at least 10 3-D films already slated to open next year, and Regal Entertainment Group and Real D just agreed to install 1,500 3-D systems in the domestic market.

So far, the only legacy 2-D film to be rereleased in digital 3-D is the Disney-converted "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," which bowed in October 2006 in 168 theaters and grossed $8.7 million. Disney is clearly a believer in the model; it reissued the film in October and plans to repeat it this year and in 2009. It also announced that "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" will be converted and rereleased in digital 3-D.

In-Three, which is working on George A. Romero's 1978 indie horror flick "Dawn of the Dead," uses patented software tools and techniques in its conversion process to create a second camera image from any 2-D image. Each frame then is fully "dimensionalized" — that is, all objects are moved forward or backward from the screen or in relation to one another to achieve the desired dramatic impact. Seigle says it can take as little as four months to convert a movie.

A key element in 3-D imagery is what is known as "parallax," an industry term used to describe the separation of objects in the images that are intended for the left and right eye. This separation determines the perceived depth that viewers with glasses will experience. Essentially, the greater the separation, the greater the depth experience.

This is an important point to understand. It provides filmmakers with a multitude of creative choices, as directors can determine the distance at which each object in a frame, as well as the background, is seen by the viewer.

If the 3-D is too aggressive, parallax also can bring about eye fatigue and headaches. In fact, I experienced both when In-Three deliberately demonstrated overly extreme parallax to me.

Some industry execs say parallax requires particular attention if deliverables for different sized screens are to be created from the same stereo master. (Screen sizes might range from iPods and home theater to traditional cinema screens and Imax.) They have varying opinions on to what extent if any it might have on the creation of deliverables. Some companies, including In-Three and DreamWorks Animation, have their own approaches figured out.

Before I completed my visit to In-Three, I viewed a "dimensionalized" clip from "Casablanca."

There was no obvious use of 3-D in the drama. The format simply gave the scene more depth. By the point when Rick tells Ilsa that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," I was focused on why she needed to get on the plane, not the 3-D experience.

In the end, it is the story — not the technology — that will ultimately involve moviegoers.

Carolyn Giardina can be reached at