I have been to mountaintop and I have seen the future: it's called 3-D. Not the 3-D those of with graying hair will remember--the blurred images, the funny colors, the occasional "wow" moment. Not even the 3-D of a year or two ago. Digital 3-D motion picture.
I'm here in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year with my family (we're living in Shanghai, China this year; I'm teaching at Fudan University) and even though we'd seen the Disney animated film, Bolt, on a regular screen, it was showing here in digital 3-D and we decided to go, just to see what enhancements might come from the 3-D version. The only other digital 3-D I'd seen (and my being a father of young girls is showing here) was Hannah Montana's Tour film. The 3-D was good in that--Hannah walked out the runway and it came right out into the theater. But I think because we'd seen the performance live, maybe because it was a performance film, I wasn't wowed by the 3-D. It was interesting, but not a wow.
And then came Bolt. Wow! For most of the film a "shelf" stuck out into audience (3-D) giving the picture a "stage" feeling. EVERYTHING had depth--the animated characters, the action, even the background--and here was where I noticed the difference. When the background of these 3-D films is kept in 3-D the whole experience changes. The depth of the image makes it feel as if you are looking through a GIANT window and watching stuff happen. It is revolutionary. It is like nothing I'd expected. (and I'm a regular movie goer--I love film!) What I saw won me over in a heartbeat. I understand the push to digital in all the theaters. Here's the thing: you'll never get this at home. Not on this scale (assuming you could see 3-D at home, which I don't know?) I imagine feature films will all adopt 3-D soon because you will have to go to the theater to get the full experience of the film. The DVD won't do it. Nothing will do it. It's as if a whole new industry has opened up. The experience is that fresh, that full, and that REAL.
To the producer's credit Bolt did not exploit the 3-D tricks. Hannah Montana avoided this as well. The temptation has to be great to throw things into the faces of the audience, and it is a shocker when it happens (Hannah Montana's guitar pick comes to mind), but both films kept this to one or two instances--they didn't over use it. Bravo.
The movie experience is, however, completely different and radical. Within minutes you are addicted. In Bolt there is an instance where the characters watch a flat screen image, and so the audience does too. For those few seconds the 3-D is rightfully gone--and you moan it's loss. It's an instant reminder of how powerful a technology this is. Powerful enough to get the masses off their couches and out to the theaters. My guess is film is about to make that leap that it did with Gone With The Wind (color) and from silent to talky. A sea change is ahead. And it's coming to theaters near you soon.
Postscript: since writing this over the weekend, the Super Bowl came along, and with some promotion about decent 3-D coming to television. It's a new technology that uses a special amber light to create the depth, so the regular transmission doesn't look different (typically, 3-D has a double image that without the glasses looks awful). While I'm interested to see the technology, it concerned me how quickly TV has jumped onto the bandwagon (bandwidth). If TV gets decent 3-D, then Blu-Ray will have it not long after, and there goes most of the leg-up I thought might keep theaters (and film) in business. Maybe size does matter. We shall see--and in 3-D, no less.