The changing Avatar of 3D cinema

Apr 09, 2013, 23:57 IST | Kanika Sharma

It's exactly 70 years since House of Wax became the first colour 3D motion picture to hit screens. Since then, we've witnessed a sea of change in 3D technology, even as movie makers worldwide have toyed with the idea of this visually superior medium. The Guide explores this ever-evolving experience, and what the cine buff can expect in the future

The first time the public saw a film — Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, was back in 1895. It was a silent film where a steam engine seemingly charged straight at the audience, making the poor guys duck for cover. A year earlier, William Friese Greene filed a patent to view images in the Three Dimensional format or as we know it 3D. Just like any other technology, this surreal format seems to be finally gaining ground after 119 years since its invention.

How it all began
70 years ago on this day, House of Wax became the first 3D colour film to be screened across cinemas. In India, the same impact was created on a multitude of cinemagoers including Remo D’Souza, choreographer and director of ABCD (Any Body Can Dance) with Chhota Chetan, Jijo Punnose’s breakthrough 3D film that hit Indian cinemas in 1984. Punnose is the son of Malayalam cinema legend — Navodaya Appachan, who is responsible for India’s first cinemascope and first 70 mm film.

Chinese movie-goers wear 3-D glasses as they watch the science-fiction blockbuster Avatar, at a cinema in Hefei, east China’s Anhui province on January 17, 2010. PIC/ AFP

He carried the legacy forward by directing My Dear Kuttichathan (the Malayalam original to Chhota Chetan) in 1982. Chennai-based Punnose tells us, “3D (stereoscopic) Imaging originated before photography. Two gurus of its development are optical scientist, Chris Condon under whom Navodaya’s personnel including myself had our training and academician Lenny Lipton, author of the foundations of stereoscopic cinema.”

Digital Grading Equipment at Prasad Labs, Mumbai

Illusion of depth
“Everyone is born with a 3D vision,” says Yogesh Anand, Head of Operations, Camera division, Prasad Labs, Mumbai. The tricky part is that closer the object is; the sight perceives it in its entire depth. But as distance creeps in, depending on the individual, the object becomes flat. So, what does 3D exactly do, we ask? “It’s like sound; like how we have mono and stereo sound. Vision fits both categories. In mono, sound comes from a singular source while in stereo, it comes from many sources. The same logic goes for vision,” elaborates Anand. Any kind of motion picture needs to be shot well in 2D or 3D for it to display the subtleties of the medium.

Chhota Chetan
A still from Chhota Chetan

Many Indian classics along with Hollywood cult films are getting converted into this format. Ketan Mehta, filmmaker and founder of Maya Digital Studios shares his excitement about a cult, a classic and lately, a controversy that his studios have converted into 3D — Sholay. Looking onwards, in Hollywood, the year is braced up for a blitzkrieg: Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness, Man of Steel, The Smurfs 2, to name a few. But is it all about the spectacle? Or about the cool factor with superheroes, animation and fantasy?

Ketan Mehta

Does real-life fall short of technology or is it vice versa? Punnose thinks otherwise, “3D is considered a gimmick that would lose novelty once you’ve loosened the bolts. But Hugo and Life of Pi have shown how its creative limits can be pushed. Maybe, one shouldn’t limit it to specific genres.” To quote Martin Scorsese from his interview to the blog Deadline, “Certain subject matters aren’t meant for 3D but you have to go back to Technicolor. For 10-15 years, Technicolor was relegated to musicals, comedies and Westerns. It wasn’t intended for serious genres, but now everything is in colour. So it’s just a different mindset.”

The rise and rise of 3D
Mehta feels that the Indian market is evolving: “The new frontier is 3D. It is growing because major investments are happening. He feels that one needs to take note of the success of films like Don and Ra.One.” He asserts that Indians are absorbing technology faster than ever before.  Anand with his technical insight contributes, “There is a lot of R&D happening on this front with films, broadcast, live telecast, TV, mobiles — all going 3D.” Steven Spielberg summed it best, in, where he hoped that 3D reaches a point where people do not notice it, “...because once they stop noticing it, it just becomes another tool and helps tell a story.”  

Did you know?
>> It’s not the first time cinema has flirted with 3D — Alfred Hitchcock even experimented with the technology when he filmed Dial M for Murder, in the 1950s.
>> Martin Scorsese, wishes that his previous films such as The Aviator and The Taxi Driver should have been made in 3D.

Will it be a 3D future?
The question about dual images, headaches, nausea persists. James Cameron’s Avatar used next-generation stereoscopic cameras that imitated how our eyes perceive the world from different angles. The viewer sees a distinct foreground and background; making the entire frame resonate with depth. In the coming decade, this “ultimate immersive media” in Cameron’s words, might not need 3D glasses, as reported by A new device — a 0.1mm thick plastic film, will act as a filter for mobile device users, and projects 3D images to the naked eye. In contrast, White Paper, a BBC R&D publication tells one to forget the glasses and the headphones. It will usher in 3D VIVANT project premised on holography (think Minority Report). The single aperture camera will provide real-time capture of 3D scenes. Another project — HELIUM3D will use lasers to solve current problems of colour and brightness, making it available to multiple viewers. 

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