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The first realistic 3D movie

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

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The first realistic 3D movie

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1987, The Syracuse Newspapers

The development of stereophonic sound changed audio forever. It brought an illusion of reality to music playback through the creation of sounds that had specific locations in the room.

With stereo sound, audio had width and depth. The term fit the application perfectly: the Greek word means "solid," and solid illusions, just like solid objects, are immeasurably more enjoyable than flat, single-perspective ones. The comparison term suggests this flatness neatly: It is "monophonic"— single-sided sound.

Unfortunately, nothing comparable happened in the visual arts. Although we sense visual width and depth with the same sort of binary-sensor process used in stereophonic hearing—two eyes, spaced a calculated distance apart, each spanning a slightly different field—our video and film entertainment is almost entirely mono-perceptual.

Although so-called "three-dimensional" movies have been made for decades, they have been nothing more than curiosities. Because they required viewers to wear eyeglasses with different colored lenses in front of each eye, so that each eye would see only half of the "double" image, these 3-D films were tiring to watch, and the weirdly colored visual effect was unrealistic.

All this is about to change. In twin breakthroughs, researchers and engineers have introduced three-dimensional film and video pictures that eliminate the most serious drawback of the previous method.

The two new techniques are entirely different, yet still require the use of special glasses. However, the glasses are not colored, and the scenes are fully realistic, with natural coloring and shading.

The first technique uses a large movie screen and eyeglasses with polarized lenses. The projected image is made up of a pair of pictures, each one created by specially oriented light waves. The left eyeglass lens rejects light waves that are part of the right image, and the right lens rejects the left image's light waves.

The polarized lenses are cheap plastic, but the technology that went into theimage-making is quite expensive. Currently, the best—and perhaps the only—way for consumers to see this new 3-D movie technique for themselves is to visit Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., where a 17-minute film plays to a packed movie house all day long.

The film is "Captain EO." In the Disney tradition, it combines flash, dazzle, cuteness and just the right amount of scariness for family audiences.

It stars Michael Jackson as a song-and-dance man who rescues his part of a Futureworld from a vampire-like Spider Woman.

Jackson is helped by a collection of "Star Wars"-type creatures, ncluding one who sometimes sits on his shoulder and sometimes flies off into the audience. For me, this birdlike creation was the most unsettling of all the characters, since it occasionally hovered a foot or two in front of me, and I instinctively reached out to swat it away.

The illusion of a room filled with moving objects—instead of a theater screen filled with flat images of objects—was so powerful that no one in the Epcot theater could keep still. Spears of laser beams shot out at us from the front of the theater, and we ducked. Marching aliens trooped out toward the left and the right, and we cowered in our seats.

The most impressive aspect of the Disney presentation is the way in which the entire image is three-dimensional. Unlike many old-fashioned 3-D films, in which the only sign of dimensionality was an occasional lunge out of the screen, every scene in "Captain EO" has width and depth.

I suspect that if the movie had been longer and less filled with special effects, I could have slipped into what is likely to be the 21st-century moviegoer's mode—enjoying a film for its content first, and appreciating its dimensional realism second. When that day comes, we will at last have entered a new dimension in entertainment.

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