This is not a story about pros and cons for 3D. This is about when the new technology malfunctions so badly that it cannot even deliver the simple result of seeing a movie at all. At the Los Angeles all media screening of The Avengers, several batches of 3D glasses were broken so that many viewers could not even see the screen. It is a coincidence that this happened the same week that another press screening had a projectionist accidentally delete the entire digital file of The Avengers.
This is not a dig on The Avengers. The movie is awesome, but as it happens to be the major movie being screened this week, it is now the vehicle to illuminate a major problem facing movie theaters. The technologies intended to reinvigorate the cinematic experience have the power to render cinema itself nonfunctioning. That is dangerous.
The Arclight, a premium movie theater in Los Angeles, uses a 3D system called XpanD, which creates the 3D effect with an active shutter. More on that later as we asked some 3D experts to explain what went wrong. First, this is what it looked like to viewers:
When the film began, the picture remained blurry even with the glasses on. I exited to the hall to exchange the glasses for another pair. Several other people were doing the same, but hey, if we all got good glasses no harm done. The second pair I got was also defective, only this time a blurry picture was not the problem. The right eye was entirely blacked out. Five or six pair were either “still blurry” or “blacked out eye.” I couldn’t even watch the film as a 2D image through the broken glasses. This malfunction made it impossible to even watch the film.
But don’t take my word for it. Other journalists and their guests had similar issues. Movieline editor Jennifer Yamato reported her experience. Screen International and Shared Darkness film critic Brent Simon recorded his impressions on his blog in which he gave up and left the screening.
Kevin Hanna, a guest at the screening, also gave up on the movie after trying six or seven pairs of glasses, he told us. “The first pair made everything look green-ish in tint, with center foreground in focus and anything at the sides double-visioned and out of focus,” Hanna said. “I distinctly recall that at least two [pairs of glasses] were closer to normal colors but overly dark and seemed to have one lens perpetually out, but not enough to just make the 3-D appear 2-D (which I would have been thrilled with to be honest).” Phil Pirrello, a Los Angeles screenwriter and guest of a journalist at the screening, said he has seen 3D films such as Hugo at Arclight before with no problems. He did not exchange his glasses for The Avengers because an Arclight employee misinformed him that a replacement would do no good. “The slightest turn of the head - up or down, left or right - and the 3D effect would flicker off,” Pirrello said. “And I know it's cliché to say that ‘the picture (when it was consistently working) was too dark’ but things are cliché for a reason because they happen.”
Also citing blurring or darkened glasses, Simon tested different angles in the theater as well. “I didn't know whether it was the perspective/vantage point from that angle and pitch in the theater,” Simon said. “So I stood down at the front in the entranceway for a bit. Some of the same problems seemed to persist; foreground image would be sharp and clear for a good 30 seconds, but background detail very blurry and doubled, and seeming to get worse rather than better.”
What Went Wrong
Here’s where XpanD and active shutter 3D come in. There are different kinds of 3D exhibition. Passive 3D, like RealD, involves simple plastic glasses with tinted lenses. The light from the projector is polarized and the glasses filter the left and right eye images. Active shutter 3D uses battery powered glasses synced with a projector sending the lenses alternating left eye and right eye pictures approximately 120 times per second. The left eye goes clear when it’s its turn to see the picture, then goes opaque so the left eye cannot see the right eye’s picture.
Steve Schklair is the president of 3Ality Technica and a friend of CraveOnline. His company provides equipment to 3D productions like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Hobbit and The Great Gatsby. He explained the active shutter system to me, and determined it had to be broken glasses that caused blurry or blacked out images.
If the batteries in the glasses were dead, or if they were just broken by previous users, they would be frozen in either clear or opaque mode. If they were broken while transparent, you’d see the blurry double image on the screen. If they were broken while opaque, the image would be blacked out in the opaque eye. He could even explain the green tint Hanna and Simon saw.
“If the glasses are not working at all, then they’re both transparent where there’s a greenish tinge, then they’re not separating images,” Schklair said. “Both of your eyes are seeing both the left eye and the right eye images. You’ll see double images, what looks like blurry footage. It’s broken glasses that’s the cause of both.”
After the screening, an Arclight manager told me that they actually added a second emitter in the projection booth. The management did have solutions for potential 3D problems. However, Arclight respectfully declined to comment officially for this story.
Schklair explained that an infrared emitter goes in the booth to signal the electronic glasses when to switch images between right and left eye. If the glasses are broken, an extra emitter signal won’t correct them.
“I hate to point fingers but it sounds like the theater wasn’t doing a good enough job on quality control of the glasses,” Schklair said. “After a screening, they are supposed to legally wash them and sterilize them, and they should also do a quality check on them and make sure the batteries are good and they’re working. It’s actually not normal to hear of a theater distributing broken glasses. They’re pretty good with their quality control.”
Viewers like Yamato, Simon, Hanna, Pirrello and myself knew enough to exchange our glasses, and some of us ultimately found a working pair. Some poor folks in the theater continued to sit with broken glasses, thinking the movie was just dark. One gentleman screamed, “Fix the projector” midway through the movie.
What’s At Stake
This is a true case of “hoisted by one’s own petard.” Hollywood insists on pushing 3D, and their systems have arguably created more problems than solutions. Any new technology has growing pains but the potential disaster here could completely cancel out the benefit. If 3D glasses doesn’t work, you can’t see the film at all. If the digital file is corrupt or deleted, the entire movie disappears.
Arclight is supposed to be a premium theater so it would seem a good call by the studio to screen one of their premium movies there. It’s not Disney’s fault the screening went badly, but the situation indicates that even the studio that owns the film cannot enforce optimum conditions. (Disney declined to comment for this story.)
“Especially before a press screening they should check every pair of glasses,” Schklair said. “At some point the quality of the theaters has to be checked, either through a quality assurance system like the THX or Dolby systems where they have quality assurance programs, or the manufacturers of the glasses should be following up with the theaters. It should be from the articles the theaters owners read to seminars they go to in places like CinemaCon, the manufacturers sending newsletters and updates and hints. I think every theater owner, and certainly every theater chain is very aware that the major problem with 3D movies right now is the industry. It’s even more than broken glasses. It’s lack of brightness on screens.”
This week I also had the chance to interview Barry Sonnenfeld for Men in Black 3, which screened in an AMC theater using RealD passive glasses. The screening went swimmingly, but Sonnenfeld revealed there was a last minute switch in theaters. They were going to show the film at an XpanD theater and opted for RealD instead.
“The market is too big for a director to say you can’t show this movie in XpanD but I was able to convince Sony, and they’ve been great at creating a double inventory for both XpanD and RealD in different territories,” Sonnenfeld said.
It sounds like XpanD or any active shutter system could be too much trouble for a movie theater to maintain. Schklair said one reason theaters go with active shutter is that passive glasses require a silver screen. Silver screens affect the way a 2D movie looks. Active glasses allow theaters to use the theater for 2D or 3D movies. Even he prefers passive though.
“I’m kind of in favor of the passive systems,” Schklair said. “Not because the viewing experience is bad either way, but there’s so much more maintenance required on the active systems. I understand it’s difficult for theaters to do that kind of maintenance when they’re trying to turn over a crowd. They’re going to need enough active glasses so they have a whole fresh set for the next screening while they’re checking and cleaning the ones from the previous screening.”
The issue need not be technical though. Sonnenfeld suggested a pragmatic approach to 3D screenings. “I would have shown a trailer or shown something in 3D and had someone in the front of the room say, ‘If you cannot see this, please raise your hand,’” Sonnenfeld said. “Have eight PAs in the aisle with 80 more pairs of glasses. But I’m obsessive. I dictated the temperature you saw the movie at last night.”
That’s still a lot of effort just to make sure a movie can be seen as it’s supposed to. A blurry or blacked out picture shouldn’t even be a possibility when you go to a movie. There’s good 3D and bad 3D, but we’re talking about not being able to see the film at all. You know what almost never goes blurry or blacked out? Your actual eyes.
All the 3D protesters out there can certainly look at these problems and say, “Hey, just stop using 3D. Go back to the old 2D movies. They worked!” As his livelihood depends on good exhibition, Schklair wishes theaters would not make it so easy for people to discredit 3D.
“If I could find anything to do, I would be out there doing it,” Schklair said. “I don’t have input into the theaters. I wish I did because it’s more than glasses. It’s on a technical level, the screen brightness in most theaters is so poor that 3D movies look terrible because they’re dim.”
Can We Fix This?
Hollywood, more specifically the theatrical industry, is at a tipping point. It’s not just about increasing box office. What is at stake is going to the movie theater at all. They want to increase attendance by offering experiences like 3D or technology like digital files and all the future enhancements that entails. But these gimmicks potentially risk losing the entire audience. If going to a movie theater does not result in getting to watch a movie, people will just stay home. Twice in one week, at studio-monitored media events, technical glitches prevented a film from being viewed by many people. And Barry Sonnenfeld can’t be at every showing of Men in Black 3 to make sure your glasses work.
“The theater owners have to do that,” Sonnenfeld said. “The theater owners have to realize that if they don’t want to kill the goose that lay the golden egg they have to stay on top of it. They can’t project these movies at two foot-lamberts and save their bulbs. They can’t not stay on top of it because once a person sees a bad 3D movie they say, ‘I don’t want to see it that way ever again.’ You have to be vigilant. I’m vigilant as far as I can be and I’ll make sure the press sees it properly.”
Fortunately some new technology will ease the transition, once the kinks are worked out.
“I think that the new laser projectors that the manufacturers are coming out with is the right answer,” Schklair said. “The colors are better, they’re bright enough to handle 3D and most conventional projectors are not.”
It could still be five years, in Schklair’s estimate, before the implementation of laser projectors. Before then, Hollywood has to convince audiences that 3D is worth it.
“If 3D is going to be accepted or not accepted also on the basis of quality content,” Schklair said. “Are there good 3D movies to watch? Movies are still not being made better by the 3D. Until enough movies come out where the movie is better because it’s in 3D none of this is going to work. There are a few that have come out that are better in 3D and there are certainly some coming out. The Great Gatsby, which is a 3D movie that’s not a big science fiction extravaganza, not a big action extravaganza but is a drama with dialogue, the director Baz Luhrmann deliberately tried to use the depth to help tell a better story. Until films like that come out, which will change the audience experience, it will be difficult.”
I know Hollywood wants to sell 3D and it would be naïve to suggest they just stop. They’re not going to. But they are going to have to answer for problems that only exist with the format they’re selling. So in the spirit of constructive mediating, I offer a few suggestions. This is the editorial part of the article:
1. 2D Options - I’m talking more than just one theater in town showing the 2D version. Every theater might have to have 3D and 2D shows at the same time. Every viewer should get the choice. If one wants to take the risk of 3D, they’ll know the caveat that there could be additional technical worries. But the person who wants to see an old fashioned movie should have just as much choice, and shouldn’t be relegated to one show a day or some far away theater.
2. Backup 35mm Prints – Whether active shutter, passive, laser or digital projection, there simply has to be a hard copy of the film somewhere on the premises. No computer system is perfect. If you’re running a business, you have to have a backup. In the world of film, the backup is a celluloid print that runs through a projector. It can be threaded up and ready to go in case of an emergency, but the story of the audience waiting 2 hours to download the file is unacceptable. That’s the entire duration of the movie loading in real time.
3. Filmmakers, Don’t Leave It Up to Theater Staff – Every technical layer you add to a movie gives inexperienced exhibitors a chance to ruin the presentation of your film. Shoot it on digital, they may have the digital projector calibrated wrong. Shoot it in 3D, they may not have working glasses. You already see projectionists misframing the film, or showing an anamorphic print with a flat lens (stretchy face syndrome.) Make it the highest possibly qualite for the lowest quality circumstances, because you won’t be there to make sure the projectionist knows what he’s doing.
4. Stop Making Theaters a Worse Place to Watch Movies – Everything Hollywood and the cinema industry is doing to boost attendance is actually making theaters the worst place ever to see movies. Many people prefer to watch 2D so they’ll just wait for DVD. You go to a theater and it might not even screen correctly, so wait for DVD, which you know will be standardized for your lovely plasma set at home. I’ve been at two screenings in the last month where the sound dropped out for several minutes. Why risk it? Wait for the DVD. And now they want to encourage texting! Listen to your audience. If we go to a 7:30 show, we have to be sure the movie will show at 7:30. If we have to wait for files to download or to make sure the 3D lenses are calibrated, it’s not worth the risk. It’s funny how all the home exhibition formats offer more than cinemas. Cinemas are where the entire endeavor of film is based.
5. Leave a Few of the Old Systems in Place – When a new technology comes along, you don’t have to replace all the old stuff and only use the new. Try some of the new digital and 3D systems but don’t get rid of the 35mm film and 2D presentations. Nothing ever works right at first anyway. You cannot police every movie theater in the country. When you invent these new systems you’ve got to expect many locations will mess it up. Don’t act like it’s an idiot-proof system, and certainly don’t fool yourself into thinking it will solve all your problems. Content will still be king.
I think the lesson of the Avengers screening malfunction is to slow down before the industry makes all or nothing changes. If you put everything into one new system it has the power to ruin you (remember Skynet?). Any new benefit has to be balanced with caution and safeguards. We could lose the very ability to watch movies at all if these foundations are forgotten.