3-D Takes a Giant Leap Into the Future

Photo: Movie still: Monsters vs. AliensCourtesy Paramount Pictures
Ginormica (REESE WITHERSPOON) is introduced to The Missing Link (WILL ARNETT) in DreamWorks Animation's "Monsters vs. Aliens."

Hollywood is looking at the future through tinted plastic glasses.

"My Bloody Valentine," "Coraline" and the Jonas Brothers concert film were just warm-up acts. The attack of the 3-D movie revival begins in earnest next Friday when "Monsters vs. Aliens," the latest computer-animated funhouse from DreamWorks, is launched into theaters.

At least 12 other titles will follow this year, including such milestones as Up, Pixar's first foray in the format; "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," a rare chance to see that disaster-prone Scrat get flattened in 3-D; and "Avatar," James Cameron's return to feature filmmaking after a 12-year hiatus that will attempt to do for live-action futuristic thrillers what his Titanic did for sinking ships.

If ever a digital-age update on what was once an Ike-era novelty were going to take hold — and persuade more theater operators to invest upward of $100,000 to convert to the technology — it is now, with such already anticipated titles ready to give it a real workout.

"What's going to happen in the next few months is that theater owners will ask themselves, 'Do I want to be the guy watching cars drive by to a screen down the road?' " predicts Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which is behind both the "Ice Age" sequel and the Cameron release. "With 'Monsters vs. Aliens' and 'Ice Age' ramping up to 'Avatar,' there will come a tipping point."

Studios seem to have at least solved most quality issues. While DreamWorks (aka the House that "Shrek" Built), has taken longer to join the 3-D revolution than Disney, Warner Bros. and Sony, the wait apparently was worth it, if early reactions to "Monsters" are any indication.

Families who packed a recent screening chuckled their way through the sci-fi shenanigans as a gang of misfit creatures led by Susan, a 49-foot-11 1/2-inch woman with the vocal spunk of Reese Witherspoon, battles a teeny four-eyed squid man from another planet. But it was the visual effects, such as the galactic blast that caused smoky spirals and fiery rocks to shoot into the audience, that earned the biggest reactions.

They ooohed. They aaahed. And at least one youthful voice was heard paying the ultimate compliment: "Cooooool!"

Not just an afterthought

Until recently, most 3-D fare produced for non-IMAX movie screens was an afterthought, converted from 2-D. Monsters, however, was designed and filmed with added dimension in mind. "What better movie to do in 3-D," says director Conrad Vernon, referring to his sci-fi spoof's allusions to B-movies from the '50s. "It felt like perfect timing."

But even though he and fellow director Rob Letterman borrowed from such old-school 3-D scare fare as "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "House of Wax," they tried to avoid the trap of overdoing the depth-defying tricks. "We didn't want it to be a gimmick," Letterman says. "We wanted to use it as a tool and made decisions based on the medium. A gimmick will run out of steam quickly."

The difference, at least to those at the preview, was discernable.

"The effects were coming out at you," enthused Alex Lundgren, 9, of Great Falls, Va. "It felt like you were exactly right there. In other movies, it was like they were just popping out. This one was more real to life."

David West III, 11, of Sterling, Va., agreed: "This is probably the best 3-D movie I have seen. There was more detail."

Bill Pagnella, 63, of Fort Washington, Md., says he and son Joey, 8, would go to the movies more if there were more 3-D offerings. They plan to see "Up," whose trailer is attached to "Monsters." "It's exciting that it's coming back into vogue. I like the quality of the 3-D and the sound."

Even hard-to-impress teens gave "Monsters" a thumbs-up. "I see a lot of 3-D movies because my friend works in a theater," say Karl Dobias, 18, of Chantilly, Va. "This one is a lot better. Usually when you go to a 3-D movie, you have to sit in the back or the effects don't work well. We sat right in the front row, and it looked fine."

"Monsters" star Seth Rogen, who lends his boomy voice to blue-hued monster B.O.B., initially was taken aback when told that the movie would be in 3-D. "I'll be honest," says the actor, 26, "I'm one of those people who hear 'new' and '3-D' and think it doesn't make sense. Hasn't it been around since the '60s?"

But after boning up on the latest technological advances, he became a believer, especially once he actually saw Monsters. "I thought it was awesome."

Such reactions don't exactly surprise Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks 'toon titan who spent a good part of last year traveling the world to preach about the wonders of digital 3-D. He likens its potential cinematic impact to the advent of sound or arrival of color in film.

"There hasn't been any real innovation in the moviegoing experience in many decades," says the Hollywood honcho whose company's output will be all 3-D from now on. "People want to be excited by something special and unique that happens in movies, something that can't happen anywhere else."

All the better to compete with pimped-out home media rooms. Other benefits include cleaner prints and a deterrent to piracy.

However, the financial crunch has put a major crimp in the 3-D crusade. Theater conversions to install special projectors and other upgrades have slowed. With fewer outlets than expected, "Coraline" and "Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience" had to scramble for space when they came out within a few weeks of each other.

Of North America's nearly 40,000 screens, about 2,000 will be 3-D capable in time for "Monsters"— thousands less than Katzenberg predicted last year.

That means fewer chances to charge an extra $3 or more a ticket to see the atomic-age-inspired romp in all its extra-dimensional cheesiness — a premium that audiences have been glad to pay in the past for such movies as "The Polar Express" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth." "Monsters" also will be available in standard 2-D on multiple screens at about 1,400 locations.

Katzenberg thinks that is enough to cover the $15 million or so the process adds to a film's budget as well as make a profit, especially given the recent surge in theater attendance. But he seems less concerned about whether Monsters, budgeted at an estimated $165 million, conquers the box office than he is about 3-D taking over the planet.

"Almost every movie would benefit from being 3-D, the way nearly every movie benefits from being in color," he says, though the format has been best served by animation so far. "When James Cameron comes forward with Avatar, it will mark a whole new era of live-action films. When other filmmakers see what he has done, they will want to use it."

Katzenberg won't discount serious "Revolutionary Road"-style dramas from getting the 3-D treatment someday. "It would be fascinating to see what a director like Sam Mendes would do with the technology," he says.

Disney is in deep

Disney, one of the earliest adopters of next-gen 3-D ever since 2005's computer-animated "Chicken Little," has 16 releases coming out in the next 2½ years. Yet despite the volume of product, the studio is being selective, with the focus still on animation. "We look at each movie individually," say Mark Zoradi, head of marketing and distribution. "That filmmaker will decide whether it will enhance the experience."

That means not even every Pixar production is guaranteed to be in 3-D. In fact, Disney is literally going back to the drawing board this November with "The Princess and the Frog," a throwback to such old-fashioned cartoon musicals as 1991's "Beauty and the Beast"— which is being transformed into 3-D next year.

This summer brings "G-Force," the studio's first attempt at live-action 3-D with computer-animated guinea pigs as elite crime-fighters. "It came down to us saying, 'Let's try a Jerry Bruckheimer movie,' " Zoradi says. "It's classic, high-octane adventure with so much CG that it felt like it would benefit."

As for the superstar producer behind the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, Bruckheimer is taking a wait-and-see attitude before committing to any more 3-D. That includes redoing older titles for rerelease. "There are not enough screens right now to justify costs yet." But he feels the change is inevitable, especially for action thrillers. "We will see quite a bit of it in the coming years, a big explosion."

Overly 'fixated' on technology

Not everyone applauds the rush to 3-D. "Animation studios fixate way more on technology than they should," says Ellen Besen, author of the how-to book "Animation Unleashed." "There was a big transition in the mid-'90s to computer animation. Everyone thinks that the audience stopped liking 2-D." What really happened? "They forgot to worry about the story."

Animation historian Leonard Maltin also is not totally convinced that 3-D is necessarily the answer any more than it was when TV threatened the film industry in the '50s.

"If you read the press releases and interviews being given today, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the press releases and interviews from 1953," he says. "Back then, Jack Warner announced every film would be shot in 3-D. Not to be pessimistic, but there have been big claims and expectations before."

He does concede that the process now is a far cry from the less-reliable gadgetry of the past. "The technology today is fantastic."

Are actors ready for their close-ups if live-action 3-D catches on? Rogen, for one, prefers to hide behind the façade of a character like B.O.B. for now.

"Me in 3-D? No audience should be subjected to seeing that. I'm much better in two dimensions."

Contributing: Mike Snider