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PP-Polar Express 3D

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By Mark London Williams“It’s almost as though every shot in this film is an effect.” That quote that might sum up most modern filmmaking, and it certainly sums up films that are “rendered” in digits—such as the seasonally themed Polar Express.But with the virtual version of Chris van Allsburg’s classic picture book about a train journey to the North Pole, there are effects, and then there are effects. The rendering was taken to a whole new level with an IMAX 3D version that will play in select theatres, utilizing two side-by-side strips of the world’s largest film format—15/70mm—to create images that leap off the screen, quite literally in the case of snow flurries and runaway choo-choos.IMAX’s Hugh Murray, the tech director for the 3D version, made the observance about the entire film being, in a sense, “an effect,” and also waxes about what it took to transfer the Bob Zemeckis-directed motion-capture experiment—which had Tom Hanks and other actors “performing” in Velcro suits wired up to turn their movements into usable computer information—into a film that appears ready to redefine what 3D means, much the same way CG technology has redefined the word animated.“A number of 2D cameras capture parts from many different perspectives,” Murray notes, all to create “a path in three-dimensional space” by setting side-by-side images just a wee bit apart, to replicate the work of your right and left eye, and while the theory may represent “classical” thinking about how to make 3D movies, there was much more involved here than just the slightly out-of-phase red-and-blue overlays used in ’50s classics like House of Wax.Sony, for example, created “a completely independent team,” according to Murray, “dedicated to the 3D version,” under the auspices of John Clinton, the supervising producer for the special unit.But under Clinton, they were doing more than just double-printing overlapping images in a maybe-I’ve-had-too-much-to-drink way. Clinton’s group oversaw “two virtual cameras,” which could subtly change, amplify or tweak the “spatial relationships built into the structure of the scene” to maximize the fullness of the 3D effects.And the results are startling. Though filmgoers are still wearing glasses, as in the Vincent Price days of yore (more like drugstore sunglasses than the two-hued paper versions), the effects—especially when coupled with the already surreal tableaux of computer-generated imagery—make viewers feel like they’ve stepped inside a video game.This is partly because “Zemeckis’ style lends itself extremely well to three-dimensional versions,” as Murray observes. “He likes that style,” which is to say, framing and shooting in a kinetic you-are-there way.But coordinating with the 2D version requires more than just seeing what kinds of cool shots the director has in mind. The edit room sends out daily change lists allowing them to track the whole editorial process, says Murray. This means those aforementioned “virtual cameras” can keep filling in scenes that will, in fact, make it into the finished film.It’s an involved process, involving more than clicking a global “3D effect” command after the finished film has been cached. Complicated or not, Greg Foster, the president of IMAX, calls this 3D version “the beginning of the rest of our lives.”But getting on with those lives—to the imagined 3D, immersive, near-holographic nirvana that presumably awaits us, still requires specific steps. For now, out of around 125 IMAX theatres, Foster estimates 70 to 75 will be showing this particular 3D feature. “Production costs are notable, but very manageable,” he notes.There are a couple of grails out there, as well. One is whether such an entertainment experience can be replicated at home, in a DVD, on-demand world. Imagine the whole family, at home, at night—wearing sunglasses! Murray, stresses that home viewing quality isn’t at the point where IMAX is willing to devote active R&D to it, though a widely distributed base of HD sets may change that.Which brings us to the second grail: “Live action is the next step,” Foster avers, calling the Polar experience a precursor to that event.And Foster has another 3D partnership in the works—he declines to announce it yet—regardless of what the public reception is, or whether a public hunger is established—via 3D box office receipts versus the 2D ones—for amped up road-show attractions.Even if the “road” in question is a pair of rails covered in digital ice.

Written by Mark London Williams

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