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The Next Dimension

Cameron, center, revolutionized the 3-D business with his Fusion high-definition video cameras.
Cameron, center, revolutionized the 3-D business with his Fusion high-definition video cameras.
Art Streiber for TIME
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A Beverly Hills company called Real D took the lead on the theater side. It leases out a kind of digital shutter system that sits in front of digital projectors, alternating the two views of each frame 144 times per sec.--fast enough to achieve stereovision. The new system uses polarization, rather than color-coding. Gone are the completely cheesy cardboard glasses, replaced with slightly less cheesy disposable plastic-frame glasses that have gray lenses. "Someday," predicts Katzenberg, "people will buy their own movie glasses, which they'll take to the movies--like people have their own tennis rackets."

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Even if you're willing to grant him the glasses, there's still one problem. For digital 3-D to work, the movie theater must first convert from analog to digital--that is, from reels of film to data feeds. Theaters have been slow to do it, citing the expense and security. Disney chairman Dick Cook is credited with breaking the initial logjam with Chicken Little in 2005. About 75 theaters converted to digital to show the film, and a surprising thing happened: 3-D theaters reported three to four times the box-office gross as those that showed the 2-D version. (All 3-D movies can easily be stepped down to 2-D and are typically shown in both forms.) That was the jump start digital 3-D needed. Katzenberg predicts that more than 2,000 theaters will be 3-D-ready by this week. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)

But in this economy, will people spend as much as $15 a ticket for a movie? Katzenberg is optimistic, pointing out that consumers are cutting back on everything but cheap entertainment. "The movies have been the greatest beneficiary of this," he says. "So to offer a new, exciting premium version of a bargain will be a big winner."

The Future of 3-D
Cameron's Avatar, due in December, could be the thing that forces theaters to convert to digital. Spielberg predicts it will be the biggest 3-D live-action film ever. More than a thousand people have worked on it, at a cost in excess of $200 million, and it represents digital filmmaking's bleeding edge. Cameron wrote the treatment for it in 1995 as a way to push his digital-production company to its limits. ("We can't do this," he recalled his crew saying. "We'll die.") He worked for years to build the tools he needed to realize his vision. The movie pioneers two unrelated technologies--e-motion capture, which uses images from tiny cameras rigged to actors' heads to replicate their expressions, and digital 3-D.

Avatar is filmed in the old "Spruce Goose" hangar, the 16,000-sq.-ft. space where Howard Hughes built his wooden airplane. The film is set in the future, and most of the action takes place on a mythical planet, Pandora. The actors work in an empty studio; Pandora's lush jungle-aquatic environment is computer-generated in New Zealand by Jackson's special-effects company, Weta Digital, and added later.

I couldn't tell what was real and what was animated--even knowing that the 9-ft.-tall blue, dappled dude couldn't possibly be real. The scenes were so startling and absorbing that the following morning, I had the peculiar sensation of wanting to return there, as if Pandora were real.

Cameron wasn't surprised. One theory, he says, is that 3-D viewing "is so close to a real experience that it actually triggers memory creation in a way that 2-D viewing doesn't." His own theory is that stereoscopic viewing uses more neurons. That's possible. After watching all that 3-D, I was a bit wiped out. I was also totally entertained.

The original version of this story misstated the cost of the film Avatar as being in excess of $300 million. The correct figure is in excess of $200 million.

See TIME's 1953 cover about 3-D Movies.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.


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