The Future Of Film: Lasers Will Save 3D (If Your Cinema Is Big Enough)

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What was the last film you went to see specifically because it was in 3D? Us neither. With one or two exceptions – Gravity, most recently – audiences are increasingly shunning Hollywood’s stereoscopic offerings. Given the choice between 2D and 3D screenings, the signs are that most people are plumping for the old-fashioned two-dimensional choice.

THE PROPORTION OF TAKINGS REPRESENTED BY 3D HAS BEEN IN SLOW BUT STEADY DECLINE.Haunted by shonky retrofits (2010’s Clash Of The Titans was an early nadir that the medium is arguably still recovering from) and fed up with paying extra for the privilege of a murky screen and a sore conk, viewers have been voting with their wallets. Christopher Nolan, a 3D agnostic at the best of times, puts it bluntly. “Until we get rid of the glasses or until we really massively improve the process,” he complains, “I’m a little weary of it.”

The stats suggest he’s very far from alone. According to a report by movie industry body the MPAA, the proportion of takings represented by 3D has been in slow but steady decline at the US and Canadian box office for three years. Since peaking at 21 per cent of all takings in 2010 – the year of 3D monsters Avatar, Toy Story 3 and Alice In Wonderland – it’s dropped to a mere 16 per cent.

That figure is causing alarm in Hollywood’s plushest boardrooms. 3D evangelists like Jeffrey Katzenberg, who once likened the stereo revolution to the arrival of Technicolor, have been forced to concede that its lustre has been lost. “The audience has spoken,” the DreamWorks Animation honcho told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011, “and they have spoken really loudly.”.

But an answer may be at hand for audiences, filmmakers and execs alike. That old cliché about blockbusters getting darker? Well, they’re about to get lighter again.

Christie Laser Projector
Christie Digital Systems' laser dual-projector: promising to do away with gloom-shrouded 3D experiences once and for all.

Previously the preserve of Tronworld and Doctor Evil’s mutated sea bass, the laser promises a solution. Laser projectors being marketed by Christie Digital Systems, Barco and NEC Display Solutions, and actively developed by IMAX, promise to do away with gloom-shrouded 3D experiences once and for all, offering a crisper image, a much-increased spectrum of colours and, blessedly, light. Much more light.

“People are chosing more and more to go to 2D versions of films, and we think that’s happening because there’s not enough light on the screen typically in a 3D presentation,” explains Don Shaw, Senior Director at Christie. “Lasers can put much more light on the screen.”

Unlike traditional xenon-based devices, which can lose up to 80 per cent of image brightness between the projector and your eyeballs, laser projectors flood the screen with light as and when required. The holy grail is the industry’s 2D standard of 14 foot lamberts (a unit of brightness equating to 3.426 candela per square meter), but 3D movies are currently being shown at as little as three or four foot lamberts. And because xenon arc lamps lose brightness over time, the quality of 3D presentation from your local multiplex’s digital projector will only decline further.

THE APPEAL OF ALL THIS CLARITY FOR THE LIKES OF NOLAN, MICHAEL MANN AND DAVID FINCHER, FILMMAKERS WHO OFTEN DELVE INTO THE SHADIER END OF THE PANTONE SPECTRUM, IS OBVIOUS.Lasers will replace that dimness with a dynamic range that might sway even Christopher Nolan. “You get a much broader range between the darkest of blacks and the whitest of whites,” says IMAX’s Chief Technology Officer Brian Bonnick. A 14fl 4K laser screening of Life Of Pi using a Christie projector made waves at last month’s International Broadcasting Convention with a 6P set-up involving six ‘primary’ lasers and Dolby Atmos sound.

The appeal of all this clarity for the likes of Nolan, Michael Mann and David Fincher, filmmakers who often delve into the shadier end of the pantone spectrum, is obvious. Even in 2D, lasers mean more clarity, more movie for your buck; in 3D, they change the game entirely, arming providers like Dolby with a clarity of image to channel through their 3D systems. “These projectors use six primary lasers,” explains Dolby product developer Nick Watson, “three for one eye and three for the other. It’s the same principle of operation as we’ve always had, but rather than putting a filter in the projector and losing basically 50 per cent of your light, the laser is attuned to the exact frequency of your glasses. You get all that efficiency back.”

But the laser revolution won’t happen overnight. The chances are your local cinema has recently splashed out for one of those expensive digital projectors (between $30-50,000 each in the US) than have been giving Mark Kermode a conniption in recent years, and with new tech and virtual print fees to pay for, the appetite for the kind of expenditure required for laser projects just isn’t there. For smaller-screen cinemas, argues IMAX’s Bonnick, it’d be akin to replacing a new car before the last one has even been run in. “It does a pretty good job so why spend the money on a car that might go a bit faster?”

Take into account the fact that laser projectors cost ten times as much as their digital equivalents and the maths gets ugly for many exhibitors. “Lasers aren’t going [to be installed] in smaller venues until they come down in cost,” cautions Bonnick, “I think it’s a little premature right now.” Christie’s Shaw believes it will be “20 or 30 years” before there are lasers projectors in every cinema.

But on very big screens it’s a different story. When it’s released next summer, IMAX’s laser offering will cater for 80 feet-plus (24 metres) screens of the kind the company itself runs, while Christie predominantly markets its laser projectors at exhibitors with screens in excess of 65 feet (20 metres). If you live in Shanghai, or Seattle or Galveston, Texas, you can already see them in action. “We’re shipping now,” says Shaw. “I expect three or four more deals to close this year.”

Life Of Pi
Ang Lee's Life Of Pi: a 4K laser screening took place last month.

A certain bullishness is understandable. China’s unquenchable appetite for big popcorn fodder – Titanic 3D’s record-breaking $58m opening was just the tip of the 3D you-know-what – will drive demand for anything that enhances the 3D experience, while the country’s proliferation of new cinemas (16,000 of them by 2015) reveals the kind of appetite for investment needed to kickstart the laser revolution.

Widespread laser installations would certainly help fulfil at least part of Christopher Nolan’s recent prophecy of a future cinema that employs “expensive presentation formats” to stave off the allures of home entertainment, especially married to advances in audio like Dolby Atmos and with pioneering 3D filmmakers like James Cameron and Alfonso Cuarón to the fore. “The laser is absolutely the future of cinema,” stresses Christie’s Shaw. “It’s going to take some time, but I think audiences are going to come back and love 3D again.” Dolby’s Watson shares that optimism, albeit with an important caveat. “I personally think it will provide a resurgence in people enjoying 3D movies,” he says. “As long as the 3D is done well.”