“Side by Side”: eyewitness to film history

The impact of digital technology is being felt—for better and worse—across a wide variety of cultural sectors (books, music, photography). One of the most prominent disruptions has been in the rapid evolution of tools used to shoot, distribute, and project motion pictures.

The new documentary, Side by Side provides an insightful record of this moment in the film industry—the migration from traditional film capture, duplication, and delivery to digital cinema technology. It offers a thoughtful exploration of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going in this industry.

Written and directed by Christopher Kenneally, it is co-produced and narrated by actor Keanu Reeves who brings his own front-of-camera experience into the mix.

It’s easy to be giddy about the incredible new possibilities enabled by emerging technology. And it’s easy to be maudlin and nostalgic for old mediums and formats. Side by Side provides an unsentimental platform for prominent and passionate advocates—pro and con—to examine in more detail different facets of the transition.

“You can’t shoot 3D on film…so film has been dead in my heart for ten years” —James Cameron, director

“I hate 3D. I put on those glasses, I get sick to my stomach. The whole 3D phenomenon, it’s a marketing scheme, isn’t it?”
—Wally Pfister, cinematographer 

There is mainstream (George Lucas, James Cameron) and esoteric (Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Lena Dunham) support for digital filmmaking that enables advanced effects and  “democratizes” access.

There are also persuasive diatribes (from director Christopher Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and others) noting what is sacrificed, tangible and intangible, with the loss of the chemical film process and accompanying workflow.

I try not to do reviews here, but Side by Side is an excellent, entertaining film.  Balanced, beautiful to look at (in handsome 2D), it’s a must for anyone who cares about this business. Martin Scorsese, fresh off his triumphant 3D Hugo gets the last word: “How do you use it to tell a story? It’s up to the filmmaker.”

 

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Next big thing: Star Wars in 3D

The countdown has started for the re-release of the 3D-converted “Star Wars Episode 1: the Phantom Menace” on February 10, 2012. One look at the trailer and it’s clear why this a perfect candidate for 3D. In the hands of a special effects perfectionist like director George Lucas the quality of the 3D conversion should be excellent.

 

But beyond the fanboy demographic and Hollywood’s canny mining for content to convert there’s an interesting context to this particular project.

George Lucas was an early and passionate advocate of digital cinema. “Phantom Menace” back in 1999 was one of the first high-profile films shot in digital format.  I remember the special screening at the annual NAB show (1999?) that galvanized the industry. We all realized this was the turning point in the acceptance of digital cinema and the rumor was that Lucas planned to use film only in digital going from then on. (Lucas’ recent labor of love, the action film “Red Tails”, is 3D only.)

Fast forward to CinemaCon 2011; Lucas—on a panel with well-known 3D cheerleaders James Cameron and Jeffery Katzenberg—predicted,  “So now, when you’re watching a movie and it’s not in 3-D, it’s like watching in black and white. It’s a better way of looking at a film… I totally believe now that 3-D will completely take over just like color did.”

Last week in an interview published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lucas elaborated:

What made you want to convert this film into 3D?

Originally, I was not a big fan of 3D. I really thought it was a gimmick. But later, I was trying to get digital projectors into the theaters, doing a presentation in Las Vegas, when Bob Zemeckis and Jim Cameron came up to me and said, “We want to get 3D into the theaters. Would you join us in showing the theater owners that you can do 3D?” I said, “That’d be good because to do 3D you have to have digital theaters. So it would promote my idea of digital theaters.” When I saw the test that we did of “Star Wars” in 3D, I saw how great it looked.

How does seeing the film in 3D enrich the experience?

It’s like the difference between watching a film in black and white and watching it in color. It works in black and white but it works better in color. You don’t have to watch in 3D, but it actually works better in 3D. The depth brings a lot of reality to the digital characters like Jar Jar Binks and Watto. You feel that they’re more realistic.

The requirement for projecting 3D films has been an important catalyst in the wider deployment of digital cinema technology. This release is part of a wave of conversion of beloved classics to 3D that can help satisfy the demand for better content.

For both hardcore geeks revisiting an important chapter in a beloved saga, and a new generation of science fiction fans this is going to be an epic event!

 

Trailer: Titanic 3D

Yep.  Box office record-breaking Titanic is back for more.  This time in 3D. Painstakingly converted (I heard James Cameron say it cost $18 million to do) it will be released in April 2012, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sailing of the doomed ocean liner.

Here’s a trailer, in 2D, to get you in the mood!

Titanic and Pterosaurs in 3D at IBC 2011

Amsterdam, September 12, 2011: IBC Theatre.  James Cameron and Vincent Pace showed off 18 minutes of Titanic converted to 3D as well as clips from their upcoming Cirque du Soleil film, while noted documentary film maker Sir David Attenborough screened his Flying Monsters 3D.

Aimed at broadcasters, the evening started with Don Shaw from Christie Digital (the projector people) talking about the importance of higher frame rates for making 3D smoother—minimizing or eliminating “strobing” and other annoying effects. (More about frame rates another time). He showcased technology innovations—an end-to-end solution for broadcasting live alternative content in 3D to theatrical venues with greater ease (I’m very proud to say that the company where I work, International Datacasting, is part of the solution presented, as well as our partners at Sensio Technologies. My colleagues helped pull the demonstration off without a hitch, bravo!)

But the highlight of the event naturally was watching movies and looking to see if the technical and artistic bar has moved forward. James Cameron took the stage (amid a bunch of awards hoopla you can follow elsewhere) and preached the gospel of 3D: “Last year 21% all movie revenue came from 3D,” “I will shoot every movie going forward in 3D”, and my favorite: “Let me tell you about my new movie coming April 5, 2012, Titanic.”

Yes, Titanic is being converted to 3D with a release scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sailing (or as Cameron called it a “trifecta of good marketing.”)  Cameron emphasized that it is always preferable to shoot in 3D rather than convert a film but where it’s not possible “there’s conversion and there’s conversion” saying he wouldn’t have spent $18 million adding 3D if he didn’t think the results would be worth it.

James Cameron at IBC Big Screen, September 12, 2011 (photo: Diana Cantu's iPhone)

Hollywood is rushing to convert 2D films to 3D with varying degrees of success.  The Titanic footage looked smooth and watchable.  The Cirque du Soleil footage which was captured in 3D is gorgeous. The 3D is subtle and restrained, it adds aesthetically to the content. I’ve seen the Cirque shows the clips were taken from and the 3D actually improved on them.

Flying Monsters 3D is a documentary by Sir David Attenborough, examining fossils of early flying dinosaurs or pterosaurs, and their evolution up to extinction.  With clever mingling of CGI, live action and 3D the film makes a serious subject a bit more whimsical and accessible.  The 3D looked good and lends itself well to scenes with flying.

The event was designed to help win over broadcasters to the merits of 3D and reassure them that the technology is catching up with promises.  Cameron’s emphasis on new dual work flow capabilities (shooting 2D and 3D simultaneously) helps. Live alternative programming and 3D television are both getting better, fast.  That’s a message broadcasters are starting to consider.

Dispatch from IBC 2011

IBC 2011 conference and trade show, Amsterdam: James Cameron and Vincent Pace are working the show: evangelizing about 3D, previewing a new Cirque du Soleil 3D film, and calling themselves “myth-busters” on the technical, aesthetic, and business aspects of the industry.  Here’s a video of them  talking about next gen 3D technology, 3D in broadcast, and indulging in some forecasting (glasses-free 3D in three to five years!)

It’s a press conference followed by a brief interview.  Cameron makes the important point:

3D isn’t going to save a bad movie, it’s still going to be storytelling…3D is not a guarantee that you are going to have a great time. You might be watching a very high quality version of a very poor film.

We feel that it’s incumbent on us as 3D practitioners to maintain the highest possible standard. We don’t want the 3D to be the thing that was wrong with the movie. Let the movie be a dog but don’t let the 3D be the reason you didn’t like it.