James Cameron loves 3-D. He’s believed in it from the beginning—in fact, he’s personally responsible for the entire industry’s move toward 3-D, I was reminded at a Popular Mechanics high-rise lunch in Hearst Tower before Cameron accepted one of the magazine’s 2011 Breakthrough Awards (video of his Q & A, which digs into the Avatar sequels, and acceptance speech is below). Even though everyone told him and inventor Vince Pace that 3-D filmmaking was impossible, they rigged two HD cameras together “and figured it out,” he said, proving that it could be done. Thus they changed the entertainment industry, for better or worse. (Here’s my interview with Cameron about his love of science and exploration for the magazine.) Now he and Pace are testing new sophisticated servo-controlled light 3-D shoulder cameras for shooting sports and concerts, “serving broadcasters on a global basis,” Cameron said.
Thing is, Cameron knows how to handle 3-D technology and is willing to spend the money (in this case, $18 million) and time (60 weeks) to do it right. That isn’t always true of everyone else, and to his regret Cameron can’t control the way other less scrupulous people have used the technology, at both the production and exhibition end, where saving money by turning down projector lights darkens 3-D movies in theaters. (He cited Paramount and Michael Bay’s proactive approach to working with exhibs on the release of the most recent Transformers movie.)
Although I usually hate the way retrofitted 3-D looks on screen, on Friday Cameron and his longtime producer Jon Landau screened 18 minutes of footage of the painstakingly produced 3-D version of their Oscar-winning box office juggernaut Titanic for press at the Paramount Theatre. The movie will be released April 12, 2012, in 3-D and 2-D. “It’s a window into a world instead of a world outside a window,” said Landau, who like Cameron believes that 3-D is about immersion. Cameron was delighted that his 15-year-old movie still inspired a round of applause from the press corps.
Clearly this lovingly created new version of the global 1997 blockbuster—the biggest of all time—will bring new boatloads of audiences to pay premium prices for the blown-up IMAX 3-D and 35 mm 3-D (what we saw), or enhanced 2-D. Cameron explained that the 4K digital master off the original super 35 anamorphic movie is less grainy and more spectacular than the original negative, so everyone is in for a treat. He talked about how he always shoots for depth in 2-D, so it wasn’t so hard to make this work in 3-D. At first I had my usual reaction to 3-D—to recoil—but swiftly the movie pulls you in, and you get used to it. The scenes he selected—Kate and Leo embracing on the prow of the ship, Kate frantic as she sloshes through flooded hallways to save Leo when he’s trapped in handcuffs as the freezing water rises, the climactic rush to the lifeboats as the ship goes down—looked stunning, and made me want to see the whole movie this way.
Cameron has a rationale behind his love of 3-D. It has to do with the way the human eye works, he said at Popular Mechanics: “3-D is a better way to watch stuff, it’s the way we see the world. Everybody’s got two eyes. Our brains have been hardwired for 200 million years to think in stereoscopic vision. There’s a greater alignment with the way the human sensory system works. We see in color, hear spatially.”
And the movies have moved from black and white mono to wide screen color, surround sound and 4-D seats. “Where we are now is equivalent to 1903 in the automotive industry,” he told me in our interview. “Mistakes have been made, the market needs to be fully defined. 3-D is with us to stay. The lesson learned is that the studios can’t abuse the audience and expect to charge premiums—when almost half the movies are in 3-D. You might have to charge a discount. My point is that when 3-D becomes the norm, you can’t charge a premium for the norm.” The next step will be going to higher frame rates in movie theaters, from 24 frames per second to 48 and 60 as well, he said. It will improve camera pans so they won’t strobe, which is more noticeable in 3-D. “It’s easily achievable to change the rate of display. It’s just a firmware update for projectors.”
On the Avatar sequel front, of course there will be enhancements, as the design process is under way even as Cameron works on the script. He is talking about developing a new tool set, including a render engine, he told me, a new animation tool for virtual production. “We need to do it right. We’re in heavy design for the first year and will start virtual production next year.”
While some of us remain skeptical about 3-D (unless Pixar, Cameron or Bay does it right)—I love 2-D, and see no need to improve on it—Cameron insists that 3-D is here to stay: “It’s how we see.”