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And then came 3D

There was a time, back in the 1980s and the early 90s, when the wonder gadget of the day – The VCR almost completely obliterated the weekend drill of sitting in a dark hall, gazing at a big bright screen and munching on salted half-baked popcorn. But then the clouds parted and people saw light and gradually but steadily, the magic of the movies came back to where it belonged – your nearest movie hall. Almost two decades later, munna and munni are no longer your cute little cousins. It’s a brand new world.

The movie going experience has seen myriad changes over the years however the thrill, excitement and that big broad smile when one walks into a movie hall has persisted over the years. And that is motivation enough for filmmakers and the film making industry to consistently evolve and deliver enchantment, excitement and joy at the movies.

And when everything was going fine and dandy, in came 3D and we’re rediscovering cinema as never seen before. So what’s so exciting about 3D ? To begin with, the correct way to describe it, is to say that the movie is ‘Stereoscopic’. Nature has given us two cameras, our eyes. Why two, why not 3 ? Well, let’s not get greedy now, shall we. Two eyes, give us a nice wide view of the world where the colors are rich and the stars are bright. But in addition to vivid colors, two eyes also allow our brain to perceive depth – the ability to distinguish far objects from the ones that are near.

Our eyes achieve this effect by viewing the same object from slightly different angles and sending this data to our brain, which is wise and smart enough to stitch in the data and give you the stereo effect. And this is paramount to the stereoscopic experience at the movies. It’s important to note that not all living creatures have stereoscopic vision. Birds for instance, such as the pigeon have two eyes which are located on far sides of their head and hence both eyes cannot see the same object at the same time. Pigeons thus have to rotate their head to enable both eyes to see the same object and thus are able to compute depth.

Coming back to the movies, over the years you’ve seen your favorite actors as flat images on a screen and with no third dimension involved. “How dare you ?”, you ask. “I view the film with two eyes, don’t I ? Then why don’t I see stereo as you said so ?”. Well, you do see the movie with your two eyes, but both your eyes are looking at exactly the same flat image, with your eyes unable to distinguish any changes in the object’s visual appearance/angle. This, therefore, results in insufficient information for your brain to perceive depth.

So, clever film technicians came up with a rather simple to understand solution. If our eyes see the world from slightly different angles, why not shoot a film with two cameras from slightly different angles and let each eye see what it should see, as if in the real world. So, in an ideal world, filmmakers use a pair of cameras which are mounted together on what is called as a ‘stereo rig’ and this mimics our eyes beautifully. Then when this movie comes to our favorite hall (which is usually the one which features the comfiest of seats and the best caramel popcorn), it’s projected using a special mechanism employing digital projectors (unlike traditional film projectors which used endless spools of film). One of the most popular system is the RealD ™ system which uses a technique called circular polarization to display images from both cameras using a single projector. To view this image, you’re provided with spectacles (no not the red and blue paper ones) which are specially designed to let each eye view slightly different versions of the image, as captured by our pair of cameras. This creates the 3D or stereo effect.

Now, stereoscopy is not something new. Over the last century or so, filmmakers and photographers and experimented with various ways of capturing, producing and viewing stereoscopic images. The earliest experiments with stereoscopy date back to the early 1900s. The first commercial stereoscopic film, ‘The Power of Love’ was released in 1922 and employed the Anaglyph technique (spectacles featuring red-green). The early 20s saw a number of experiments with stereoscopic films such as ‘The Man from M.A.R.S’, stereo short films ‘Zowie’, ‘Luna-cy!’, ‘Ouch’ etc. This euphoric love with stereoscopy was short-lived due to the depression of the 1930s in the United States.

Another reason for the stereoscopy's early demise was the fact that technology itself was not mature enough to deliver an accurate experience. Back in those days, cameras used film unlike modern day digital stereo camera systems which shoot straight to a storage card or a hard drive. Film, right from its earliest days has been expensive and when shooting stereo, you require twice as much. Moreover primitive technology meant that two separate projectors had to be used and synchronized together. Most often all this would end up in a nasty headache amongst the audience.

With the coming of technologies like RealD™ , stereoscopic films are not only back in fashion, they’re here to stay. After initial hiccups with technology and ‘Oh My God!’ moments, we seem to be on a steady march towards the 3D era. From the mid-1980s till now, several movies have been made in stereoscopic 3D including Ghosts of the Abyss, Spy Kids 3D:Game Over, The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3D, The Polar Express, Journey to the center of the Earth etc. 2009 saw the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, about which much has been said and written already. Thereafter, came a steady stream of stereoscopic movies and the trend continues.

The film making fraternity is currently divided amongst those who believe in stereoscopy and those who shy away from it. The other fact is that to get the best effect, movies have to be shot in a way which accentuates the stereo effect. However if you’ve not been able to shoot films using stereo cameras and special equipment, technology comes back to help once again in the form of stereoscopic conversion technology which allows filmmakers to shoot films in a traditional way (without using special equipment) and then convert it to stereoscopic 3D. India’s very own Prime Focus, has pioneered this technique and has delivered conversion services on a number of major blockbuster films like Avatar, Clash of the Titans, Chronicles of Narnia:The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Shrek, Green Lantern and the recent hot hits Transformers : Dark of the Moon.

The most interesting aspect of stereoscopic conversion technology is the fact that old movies can now be seen in glorious 3D. So, very soon you’ll get to see the entire Star Wars saga, Titanic and several other major motion pictures in full 3D. As this article is being written, The Lion King has just been re-released in 3D.

The Indian Visual Effects industry is taking major strides in all things Stereo 3D. Prime Focus is just one of the several companies in India handling stereoscopic conversion work for Hollywood. There are several other companies who’re actively involved in this work, thereby creating job opportunities for thousands of artists. More recently Mumbai based Crest Animation delivered their first ever international animated movie ‘Alpha and Omega’ which was a stereoscopic film. And ofcourse the recent hindi film Haunted 3D did a pretty good job of enchanting the Indian audience and opening doors to a lot of upcoming stereoscopic projects including Shah Rukh Khan’s RaOne and Rajnikanth’s Rana.

So put on your glasses, sit back and enjoy stereoscopic 3D, as it rides in to your nearest movie hall. And don’t spill the popcorn when that missile heads straight towards you! Oh and just one more thing. Stereoscopic 3D has now invaded your homes as well with almost all television manufacturers offering LCD TVs featuring stereoscopic viewing and compatible Blu-Ray 3D players. It's showtime folks !

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