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With ‘Avatar’ in Oscar Contention, What’s the Future for 3-D Films?

March 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Movies like this year's 3-D blockbuster "Avatar" feature high-tech effects. Are these new techniques the next phase in film production or just gimmicks? Jeffrey Brown reports on the future of film.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: part two of our pre-Oscars look at the movies.

Last night, Jeffrey Brown examined the war film “The Hurt Locker” — tonight, the technology behind “Avatar.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Nominated for nine Oscars, “Avatar” is one of the most honored films of the year, and far and away its biggest box office hit, grossing more than $2.5 billion worldwide. But the impact of James Cameron’s blockbuster may well spread far beyond that to usher in a new age of 3-D filmmaking and viewing.

SAM WORTHINGTON, actor: The strong prey on the weak, and nobody does a thing.

GIOVANNI RIBISI, actor: You’ve got one hour.

ZOE SALDANA, actress: You knew this would happen?

SAM WORTHINGTON: Everything changed.

DILEEP RAO, actor: Jake, it’s crazy here. Quaritch is rolling, and there’s no stopping him.

MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ, actress: We’re going up against gunships with bows and arrows.

SAM WORTHINGTON: Then I guess we’d better stop him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, we can’t show 3-D technology on your TV screen at home, at least not yet. But it’s integral to the look and even the storyline of “Avatar.”

The film uses the revolutionary performance-capture technique that combines human actors with computer-generated animation to create the blue, 10-foot-tall Na’vi people and the world they inhabit on the planet Pandora. Audiences, 3-D glasses on, become part of the world as well.

And, suddenly, 3-D is everywhere, with some 20 films set to be released this year, including Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” opening today.

Here, the technology plays to the director’s dark and quirky style. Other 3-D films to come, “Shrek: Forever After,” “Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” and “Clash of the Titans,” which is being converted from its original format.

All this is leading to something of a pile-up, as theater chains race to meet demand, installing up to 150 new 3-D screens a month. Currently, fewer than 9 percent of the country’s 40,000 screens can accommodate the new films.

The question now, will filmgoers flocking to “Avatar” keep the 3-D wave going, or will 3-D, which, after all, has been trumpeted before, once again prove to be a passing fad?

And for more on Hollywood’s renewed interest in 3-D, we turn to Kim Masters. She’s the host of the radio program “The Business” on KCRW in California, which covers the entertainment industry.

So, Kim, it’s “Avatar” and the new technology that has tipped the scales towards 3-D?

KIM MASTERS, KCRW: Yes, I think there was a certain amount — I, mean there were people in Hollywood that were pushing for 3-D and there were people who were resistant.

But with “Avatar” grossing about $2.6 billion at this point, you know, not everybody is James Cameron, not everybody can do that, but I think the studios would like to try.

JEFFREY BROWN: Set the context for us a bit here, because we — we focus on the glamour of the industry, and especially its Oscar season. But this is an industry kind of looking for its next economic model, how to entice people back into the theaters. How does 3-D fit into what’s going on?

KIM MASTERS: Yes. The industry is very much at a crossroads because of the digital revolution, like a lot of other businesses. It’s been heavily impacted. DVD sales have dropped off. Meanwhile, there’s all sorts of, you know, exploration, how to go — how to sell movies online, different ways to make money.

And the industry is really concerned. And there’s a certain ambivalence, because, on the one hand, 3-D has been a big — a big windfall. There’s been a huge amount of money generated by films on 3-D. “Avatar” has made more than 70 percent of its money on 3-D screens.

And on the — so, while the industry is pushing theater owners to get ready for 3-D, to upgrade, so they can show 3-D films, they’re also looking to a different model, which is video on demand, so that would you sit in your living room and watch movies whenever you want to.

And what we see now is, they are trying to sort of go both ways at the same time, which is something that has theater owners really concerned., because, as they are being pressed to upgrade, they’re also being squeezed when they say, you can see — for example, “Alice in Wonderland,” that will be available on DVD sooner than it ever would have been before. In the past, it would have been four months. Now it is about three for “Alice.”

And, you know, they’re basically saying to consumers, you can kind of stay home and see this relatively soon. So, there is a lot of — of turmoil.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I mentioned — I mentioned there are 20 other movies this year in 3-D. We tend to think of 3-D for a certain kind of movie, right, the fantasy or maybe…

KIM MASTERS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … children’s, or maybe horror movies.

KIM MASTERS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are we moving towards the general drama, comedy, what have you, in 3-D?

KIM MASTERS: Well, that’s sort of the — one of the debates that has gone on and is going on. There have been people, notably Jeffrey Katzenberg, who does these animated films, like “Shrek,” who is saying 3-D is the future for all film. Film will be 3-D, and it will look back, and it will be like the transition from silent movies to talkies. It will be that big of a revolution.

And there have been other people who say, no, it will not become the standard, because it is silly. Who wants to see “My Dinner with Andre” in 3-D? It’s not necessary, and it’s foolish.

So, it is — it’s — I don’t know that the decision is made, but I think that, with “Avatar,” we see the scales tipped certainly for the big action pictures. The studios feel compelled to do those movies in 3-D, because they are afraid, if they don’t, they will seem dated, and — and people won’t go to see them. So, there is a pressure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among the less-than-enthralled, I saw a quote from Jeff Bridges, who is up for an Academy Award at the Oscars Sunday, and he said: “Actors will kind of be a thing of the past. We will be turned into combinations. A director will be able to say, I want 60 part — 60 percent Clooney, 10 percent Bridges, and throw in some Charles Bronson. They will come up with a new guy who will look like nobody whoever has lived.”

KIM MASTERS: You know, that is a concern that actors have. And, as they have campaigned for Oscar, the makers of “Avatar” have tried to stress that those are performance-driven, that they are really the actors’ performances.

And if “Avatar” doesn’t win on Sunday, it could be because the biggest bloc in the academy is actors, and they look at those blue creatures and think, yes, I’m not quite comfortable with that.

So, that is a concern. The filmmakers are trying to put that to rest. And I would say, based on the experience that I have so far, you can’t really fake a performance. You can’t fake stardom. To give you an example, when Heath Ledger died in the middle of the “Batman” film, you know, they could computer generate Heath Ledger if they had had to.

But I talked to the people who do that work, and they said, “We can make it look and sound like Heath Ledger, but we can’t make it Heath Ledger.”

So, I think that concern may be, you know, a bit exaggerated, although there are filmmakers who are sort of control freaks and probably would be very happy to generate all sorts of creatures.

The argument from the Cameron side of things, the “Avatar” side of things is, it’s like prosthetics. It is like a mask. It enables to you do a richer performance. It doesn’t take the actor out of the equation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, just briefly, in our last 30 seconds here, I mean, as I said in our setup, we have seen this before. I mean, it has been trumpeted before. So, there is still a question mark about whether this is a passing fad.

But, in the meantime, we’re going get more of them, whether we like them or not.

KIM MASTERS: We will.

And I have to say, I don’t think this is like that. I think we’re moving to a place where there will be a pretty much of a major standard of 3-D, especially when it comes into your home, which is in the foreseeable future, and you can really have a pretty rich 3-D experience in your living room. I think it — I think it’s the future. Not everyone agrees.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will — we will watch.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kim Masters, thanks so…

KIM MASTERS: Watch and learn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Watch and learn.

Kim Masters, thanks a lot.

KIM MASTERS: Thank you.