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The Lens: Is 3-D the wave of the future or blast from the past?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2010 - I'm sure you've heard that the movie business is in the middle of a revolution. Roughly one dozen stereoscopic films were released in 2009, a number that will certainly grow this year. Theatre owners are scrambling to upgrade their projection booths and investing in glasses (which can cost more that $20 a pair), hoping that the increased ticket prices and "Avatar"-sized grosses will pay for the costs of conversion. (Hey, it's not the silliest thing movie houses have invested in. Not by a long shot.)

The gimmicky optical illusion that's never completely disappeared since the days of "Bwana Devil" is back, and the biggest difference between the current run and most of the previous 3-D revivals is that the studios are using it on the films at the very top of their production schedules, not just throwaway items like "The Mask" and "Spacehunter" (though I'm sure those will find 21st-century counterparts as well).

Until now, 3-D films had never really escaped their reputation as a gimmick just a few steps removed from Smell-o-Vison or the Fear Flasher and the Horror Horn. The old movie ads showing a terrified audience watching as wild animals or high-kicking chorus girls leap off of a movie screen and into the space above them were not just an exaggeration; they were a complete distortion of how 3-D works.

3-D images don't emerge from the screen; they actually create the illusion of a space behind the screen's surface, more like a diorama than a pop-up book. (One of the best 3-D movies of the 1950s, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," exploits this very well, since much of the film takes place underwater; it's kind of like watching a giant fish tank.) In fact, the jumping-off-the-screen image is actually 3-D at its worst: When an on-screen figure pokes something directly toward the camera lens, it creates a painful eye-crossing effect that some even blame for the early decline of 3-D films in the '50s. (It was also responsible for what is regarded by many as the worst 3-D scene ever.)

Watching Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," the most recent 3-D release, I noticed that one of the things I enjoyed most about its 3-D process was that it was unobtrusive: You could almost ignore it. When I saw "Avatar" a few months ago, I thought that the 3-D effects were mostly superfluous and that the film wouldn't lose all that much being seen in a "flat" version. (You can judge for yourself when it hits stores; the DVD and Blu-Ray release will not include a 3-D version.)

"Alice" probably works just as well in either form, but because it was shot as a conventional "flat" film but converted to 3-D in post-production, the 3-D effects simply add a subtle layer of depth to the images without dominating them. As film studios look back into their catalogs and contemplate releasing earlier "flat" hits in new 3-D versions (James Cameron has criticized this process as "2.8-D," but plans on doing the same thing with "Titanic" anyway), the ability to add the illusion of space to familiar movies (assuming that it will be done with the original directors' consent, of course) may prove to be both the most interesting theoretical twist to the so-called technical revolution, not unlike the conversion of audio from vinyl to digital 20 years ago. If "Star Wars" or "Gone With the Wind" or "My Dinner With Andre" can be converted to 3-D, will they be the same movies? But if they are, is 3-D really necessary?

The article is part of a series provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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