3D Cinema: An evolution or a revolution?

Interview with film director, Ben Stassen


You have been making 3D films for special venues for over 10 years. nWave Pictures, the company you co-founded has been a leading supplier of Imax 3D films and 3D/4D special venue films, why venture into feature film production?

I first became acquainted with computer animation in 1990. From the start, I was fascinated by the long term potential of this new production tool. A computer graphic workstation is a mini Hollywood studio on a desktop. You can create an entire movie with it, and now with high speed internet you can even distribute it worldwide using the same computer.


From the start, I wanted to build nWave Pictures as a mini studio using the CGI workstation as its foundation. I was not interested in work for hire assignments.  I wanted to create our own content and distribute it worldwide ourselves. In the early 1990s, we saw the first feature films being released with a lot of CG effects and digital components. At that time we decided to keep our feet on the ground and stayed away from feature film productions. Instead, we focused on a few niche markets such as ride films, Imax films and 3D/4D films for theme parks and started to finance, develop and produce such films and release them worldwide on our own. We quickly established ourselves as the leading independent supplier of specialty films worldwide. Most of the initial productions were in 2D, but in 1997 we decided that everything we produced going forward would be in 3D.


As far as making the transition to 3D feature film production is concerned, the turning point came with the release of Spy Kids III in 3D. Although the film was released in the “sub-standard” anaglyph format (red/blue), it was a huge hit worldwide. Hollywood started to take notice. But the real milestone, in my opinion, was the release of Polar Express in Imax 3D. The film grossed over $45 million in just 67 Imax 3D theaters in less than 2 months. That’s a staggering $700,000 per screen average. The feature film industry could no longer ignore the appeal of 3D.


At ShoWest in 2005, a few pioneering Hollywood filmmakers like James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Robert Rodriguez and George Lucas, who had already tried their hand at 3D filmmaking, came and forcefully predicted a very bright future for 3D cinema.


At the same time, the roll out of digital cinema started to take place; a prerequisite for the build-up of a 3D theater network. Several hardware companies got involved in the development of quality digital 3D systems. It is interesting to note that the head of RealD, the leading 3D system supplier, is none other than Michael Lewis. Having produced T-Rex, one of the most successful Imax 3D films of all time, Michael knew better than anyone the true grassroots appeal of 3D cinema. James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis have both also been involved in Imax 3D productions.

Seeing all the forces at play in the feature film business, we decided it was time to go for it and make the move from specialty films to 3D feature production. Thanks to the solid revenue stream generated by our 3D film library, and a little help from the new tax shelter legislation in Belgium, we were ready to tackle the challenge.

How did you select Fly Me to the Moon as a first 3D feature?

When we decided to make the move from the specialty film to feature film production, we searched for a story that could be drastically enhanced by the 3D. We wanted to make a film designed and created in 3D for 3D release only. Since we were financing the film ourselves, we had to stay within a certain budget range. But most importantly we wanted to create a truly unique 3D experience. The search for the right script took almost 2 years.

When I read Domonic Paris’ script “Fly Me to the Moon”, I knew it was perfect for us in terms of both content and form. It is the story of three tweenage flies hitching a ride on the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Space lends itself really well to 3D (lots of floating objects) and I wanted to create a film with stylized characters evolving in photo realistic environments. I felt we could achieve a nice balance between fantasy and reality with Domonic’s script.


Is 3D cinema here to stay or will it be another passing fad like in the early 50s and later 70s?

3D cinema has been around since the early days of moving pictures, but it is true that until now the enthusiasm for 3D film has never been more than a passing fad. We can pinpoint several issues that led to the decline of 3D cinema in the past such as the poor quality of the projection systems or the fact that the majority of the 3D films were low budget B-movies.

The advent of digital projection technologies is taking care of the technical issues of old; and to judge from the line up of 3D releases over the next couple of years, it looks like the quality of the films shown in 3D will be top notch.

Having said that, I strongly believe that the long term viability of 3D cinema will greatly depend on the feature film industry’s willingness to treat the 3rd dimension as a revolution, rather than a mere evolution. There have been several important evolutions in the history of cinema such as the transition from black and white to color. This type of change impacted the way movies were experienced by the public, but did not radically alter the way the movies were made. There has been only one major revolution in the past, namely the move from silent films to movies with sound. This not only affected the movie experience itself, it revolutionized the way films were made, from the writing to the casting, the directing and the editing.

The long-term appeal of 3D cinema requires that we drastically change the way films are made. The 3rd dimension brings about a new language of cinema. The writing, pacing, framing and lighting must be radically altered to achieve 3D immersion. Without the full immersion, I believe the audience will tire very quickly of the 3D.

Right now we are in a transitional phase. For obvious financial reasons, today very few films can be released in 3D only. Since the films currently released in 3D are not designed solely as 3D experiences, the 3D brings a nice added layer to the experience but it is not essential to the enjoyment of the film.

From our experience in producing and exhibiting 3D films in special venues, it seems very clear that the real appeal of 3D cinema over the long run does not come from the gimmicky use of in your face effects, which are fun, but rather from the sensation of total immersion, whereby the audience no longer watches a film through a window (the screen) but is transported into the filmic space itself. We don’t bring the story to the viewer; we take the viewer into the story. You want the audience to forget there is even a frame around the picture. You want them to be part of the scene.


How difficult is it to achieve 3D immersion?

It requires a totally different approach to filmmaking; it’s a new grammar of cinema. There is a lot of trial and error involved as we all need to learn how to speak this new language. We have not even scratched the surface of what is possible. But that’s the fun part. When it works though, it’s magic! Making 3D films for special venues has been a great learning process. When you make a 3D film for a theme park for instance, it’s all about the immersion: more often then not you don’t even try to tell a story and if there is one, it is very simple.

With “Fly Me to the Moon” on the other hand, it is all about the story and telling this story in a new and original way. You use the 3D immersion as way to position the viewers and take them along on a space adventure of the third kind…

Having flies as the main characters help a lot as it enables me to explore this approach of “windowless” filmmaking in ways I was never able to before. The characters have very little direct interaction with their environment. They fly around a lot, so does the camera. By doing so, I want the viewers to become the flies on the wall.


So this time around, 3D cinema should have a future?

I certainly hope so, we have bet the house on it! But there are still challenges ahead. Three conditions have to be met for 3D to have long-term appeal.

The projection quality has to be top notch. The advent of digital projection hardware is clearly the answer. The one remaining issue is the image brightness. Less than 50% of the light leaving the projector lamp reaches our eyes due to the filtering process. We need more powerful digital projection systems to be able to show our 3D films on the biggest screens possible. The technology is improving constantly;
I don’t see this as a real problem.

Content is key. We need to see a steady supply of films designed and created in 3D for 3D only release. Every major studio seems to have 3D projects in the pipeline, so I don’t think this will be an issue.

The biggest challenge though comes from the exhibition side of the business. Exhibitors are fueling the 3D revolution. A lot of the major players worldwide have committed substantial capital expenditure to be able to play 3D films in their multiplexes. They are doing this right now, even though the supply of 3D films is still relatively limited. A lot of exhibitors really believe in 3D, which is great. However, the long term viability of the 3D out-of-home film exhibition will depend on our ability as filmmakers and exhibitors to deliver truly immersive 3D experiences. The design of the theater is the single most important factor in achieving full immersion. You need a wall to wall and floor to ceiling screen. The theater must have stadium seating with a steep rake; you want the viewer as close to the screen as possible, where everyone is seated in front of the screen. You don’t want anybody on the side or looking up at the screen.

A lot of the newer stadium seating theaters are already adequate for a good 3D experience, but in the long run I hope exhibitors will build specialty 3D venues with taller screens as the wide aspect ratio is not optimal for 3D. We don’t necessarily need giant screens to enjoy good 3D, but the right all around proportions and theater design are key.