FLASHBACK: The REAL D Interview

The following three-part interview, originally titled “Not the 3D We Grew Up With” originally appeared on the World Enteractive website on July 3, 2005.  On the day we visited, REAL D was busy installing their first system in a commercial cinema, at the Mann’s Chinese complex on Hollywood Boulevard.  Part 2 of this interview will run tomorrow.

On the morning of May 18, 2005, I took a cab straight from the Burbank Airport to historic Cantor’s Restaurant on Fairfax Avenue.  It was at this Hollywood mainstay, where numerous Hollywood’s filmmakers and writers have met for decades to talk and dine, that I would meet Ray “3D” Zone, an internationally recognized expert in stereography and large format cinema.  Ray has been published in the “Los Angeles Times”, “American Cinematographer,” and “The Hollywood Reporter.”  I felt that with what I was about to about to experience, it would be to my benefit to have along a man whose latest work is the book “3-D Filmmaking: Conversations with Creators of Stereoscopic Motion Pictures.”

Ray and I drove from Hollywood to downtown Beverly Hills.  There, in the aptly named Clarity Building, we met with Michael Lewis and Joshua Greer, the co-founders of REAL D.  Lewis, REAL D’s chairman, through his prior company, L Squared, worked on two IMAX 3D hits: as co-producer of “T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous,” which has earned almost $90 million in the six years it has played, and producer of “Siegfried and Roy: The Magic Box.”  Greer, REAL D’s CEO, acted as the brains behind Digital Planet, one of the early revolutionary companies in web and DVD design, and went on to work with James Cameron in designing 3D projection systems for “Ghosts of the Abyss,” including a digital 3D screening facility. 

More than three years ago, the two joined forces to create REAL D, with the goal of transforming 3D cinema using digital projection technology.  In February, REAL D acquired StereoGraphics Corporation, founded by 3D pioneer Lenny Lipton in 1980 to develop alternating-field 3D video and computer technology that makes use of liquid crystal shuttering 3D glasses. On May 12 of this year, REAL D announced the appointment of Joseph Peixoto, former CEO of UK cinema chain UCI and former president of Canadian circuit Famous Players, to the position of President of Worldwide Cinema.  REAL D plans to have over 1000 of their systems installed by next year, the first 100 of which will go online this fall to showcase a digital 3D version of Disney’s upcoming CG feature “Chicken Little.” 

I had seen the digital 3D demonstration at ShoWest and both Ray and I had seen Crest National’s digital 3D presentation at April’s Large Format Cinema Association conference, but neither of us was prepared for REAL D.  As we took our seats in the intimate Clarity Screening Room, Michael Lewis began.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Why don’t we start at the beginning and give a little context and then we can get down into the details.  Let’s start at the genesis of this company. I’ve been a big fan of 3D for a long time. I kind of fell in love with the medium back when we had “T-REX,” and at preview screenings, audience members would come up and ask “Why can’t I see regular films this way?”  That was the real beginning of REAL D.  The problem obviously with large format is that there are a lot of cost issues – on the front end, you don’t have much of a footprint.  You have 60 screens that can show the format in the U.S.

JOSEPH KLEIMAN: I was talking with Andy Gellis recently and he mentioned that “T-Rex” had a cost of about $16 million, which is extremely high for a large format film.

JOSHUA GREER:  Yeah, that’s about the ceiling you can do on a 3D film in the IMAX format. 

ML: I think the film has made close to $90 million dollars, and it’s still playing in a number of theaters.  The game-plan for REAL D was really to figure out…3D is such a wonderful medium, it’s the most lifelike experience you can have in the cinema…how do we solve the issues inherent with 3D so we can get it out to not tens of screens, but thousands of screens worldwide.

JK: So the genesis of this was an issue with the number of screens?

ML: Number of screens, not only from the point of footprint, but also the tremendous difficulty in shooting 3D on a mainstream basis.  In other words, if you’re a crazy person and you want to get into the 3D medium, and you want to spend years of your life learning how to do it, then using analog and film and IMAX systems is a way to go, but if you really want to make it a mainstream media, we felt it had to be digital based.

JK: So you’re talking about original content.  Now, I know that at the Digital Cinema Summit at NAB, you [Joshua] mentioned that you’re expecting a lot of converted CG features. 

JG: Yeah, we believe that digital was the final catalyst that would allow us to transform 3D into its final evolution, which is an ubiquitous medium that everybody goes to see.  So now we have these great digital projectors coming out.  We have these great digital cameras that people like Cameron are using.  We’ve got this great potential for content.  But obviously on top of shooting live, which is what everyone’s preferred, at least for the purists, we do have all these other alternatives, like taking existing CG content and creating stereoscopic pairs.  It’s this phenomenal process.  We always knew it would look good, but when we finally got to see it on the screen for the first time, all the bits, it makes all the difference in the world.  So, yes, we see virtually everything that comes out from Pixar, Dreamworks, Fox.  All of these films are candidates for conversion into 3D.  Again, what’s the problem with the studios?  Not enough of a footprint.  Although, that’s now changing too.  So we think that anything we can do to increase the footprint will help to drive new kinds of content to the screen. 

JK: Are you considering setting up your systems for exhibition in large format or would it be exclusively the equivalent of 35mm?

JG: 3D and large format have had a kind of shotgun marriage.  But 3D is a unique experience in and of itself.  Large format is a unique experience itself.  You don’t really need that kind of realistic 3D.  You’ve got your depth.  Again, while we love large format experiences, the systems we’re building are really designed to go into the majority of the cineplexes in the United States.  It’s really designed to transform any theater without having to go through any major infrastructure rebuild. 

JK: Zemeckis mentioned during the press session at ShoWest that he preferred the digital image for his latest film.  Are you getting that same kind of response from filmmakers who you’re talking to? 

ML: I think the short answer is that this is the new palate, the new paintbrush.  And you’re finding now that digital has gotten really, really good.  You’ll see the image.  You can decide for yourself.

JK: It’s a 2K image?

ML: That’s right.  Our technology was designed to be built upon a minimum of a 2K image.  So if it goes to 4K, 8K, or  whatever the heck K it goes to, we’re gonna be there.  Really, we have solved all the issues from the screen back to the eyewear that have kind of plagued 3D.  The simple answer is that digital solves a lot, if not all, of the problems that have plagued 3D for the past fifty years – synch issues, quality of image – it’s perfect every time.  We’ve been in this screening room now for almost a year and a half.  It’s always perfect.  And that’s something you can’t necessarily get all the time with film. 

JG: I mean, duel projector 3D, which has been the norm for fifty-plus years – you know, it took me six months to really feel like I was an expert, being able to go in and do a decent alignment.  You can’t expect that in theaters around the United States.  The idea behind this is that there is nothing for the theater operator to do.  A piece of 3D content comes to the server.  The projector wakes up, turns to 3D mode, with the necessary gear already in place, and projects it.  When it’s done, it goes back to a standard 2D digital presentation.  No alignment, no balance, no synch.  Nothing, but handing out disposable glasses. 

JK: I know your deal with Mann is where you supply the whole system.

ML: Well, we supply the REAL D system.  They’re responsible for the underlying digital system. 

JK: So any exhibitor you deal with would be required to supply the 2K projectors?

JG: We’re assuming they have a DCI-compliant system.  We go in and do a number of upgrades and enhancements to that in order to allow the REAL D to work.  In the end, it all fits within what DCI is mandating is necessary for the system to work.

JK: Why the silver screen?  The two presentations I’ve seen, at LFCA and ShoWest, both used white matte with shutter glasses. Why silver?

JG: First of all, we love all 3D.  We looked at all the different possible ways to do 3D.  We bought a company [StereoGraphics Corporation] that invented many of the ways to do 3D.  When we talk to the exhibitors, our customers, we try to look at the pros and cons of the different systems.  Shutterglass, up until about six months ago, was the best way you could do single projector.  Frankly, what we’ve now done with this system is exceeding what we could do with shutterglasses.  That’s number one.  For a premium 3D experience, we can quantitatively beat anybody else.  Also, from an infrastructure standpoint, IMAX tried this for years.  If you have a shutterglass system, what are you doing?  You have to hand them out, you have security, you have to collect them , you have to recharge them, you have to wash them, they break.  They’ll only guarantee 90% uptime, which means two out of every hundred people in the audience are going to have a pair that doesn’t work every single show.  We really felt that for making this experience a really effective one, not just the most gorgeous image you’ve ever seen, but making our exhibitors enthusiastic about wanting to support 3D, we really had to make it bulletproof and cost effective. 

JK: So you’re talking polarized?

JG: Well, it’s a new kind of circular polarized that we’re doing.  The advantages to that are that we can do head tilt, which means you can have a much more enjoyable experience if you’re sitting for two hours.  Again, when Michael and I sat down, all we thought about was how do we get thousands of screens out there and how do we make this the best image in the world.  We really went from our eyeballs back and thought of every piece of the chain.

JK: I really want to see how ghosting’s affected, especially since this is polarized.

ML: Well, you’re going to see some stuff in software that allows us to deal with a lot of those issues.  That is the purpose of shutterglasses – that’s the problem with polarization.  We’ve resolved that issue – or at least, you’ll decide if we’ve solved it. 

JG: It’s designed to be unbelievably comfortable, very easy to use, disposable glasses, so there’s no infrastructure issues.  The screen has been designed to be dual purpose.  We show 35mm presentations here every night – this is one of the busiest Academy screening rooms.  We’ve never had a complaint.  In fact, we’ve only had compliments about the quality of the images on the screen.  So we’ve spent a lot of time contemplating this.  A lot of people don’t even know that’s a silver screen when they come in and take a look at it.  I’ve fooled the top studio executives with this.  We felt this was a really good solution.  And again, it’s a fraction of the cost from any other way you can deploy 3D right now. 

JK: So, how long has this company been together?

ML: We started this exercise about three and a half years ago.  In February of this year, we acquired StereoGraphics and we’ve been working with them on a variety of technologies.  You probably already know, but they are the premiere provider of 3D visualization technologies, hardware and software, in the scientific and engineering communities.  If you’re riding in a car, chances are that our technology has been used to help GM, Ford, BMW create the automobile.  NASA uses our products for the Mars landings, so the rover doesn’t go off a cliff.  Pfizer uses it for modeling drugs in 3D space.  So, wherever you need to visualize in 3D and replicate a lifelike experience, that’s where our technology has been used.  Now we’re saying, let’s apply that technology to the consumer in the theatrical environment.

JK: So there’s no more L Squared?

ML: No.  That was my previous company.

JK: I was talking with Andy Gellis last week, with whom L Squared produced a couple of high profile IMAX 3D films, and we discussed a number of other projects that were cancelled for IMAX simply because of cost issues.

ML: Yeah, you get hit on both sides.  It’s very costly to shoot and very problematic.  You know, I went through it on two films.  I love the medium, but it’s still very difficult.  So you’re getting hit there.  And, on the other side, once you get it produced, you don’t have a lot of screens to show it on.  We’re trying to solve the screen issue.

JG: Just figure, as digital cinema begins its rollout probably towards the fourth quarter of this year, every one of those 2K projectors inherently has the capability to be made 3D enabled.  We basically tried to figure out the turn-key package to quickly go in, do the upgrade, and immediately, you now have one device that can do preshow, regular films, live events, all in 2D and 3D.

JK: Is there a preferred projector?  At the Chinese, you’re using a CP2000. Do you prefer that, or a Barco, or does it really matter?

JG: We would like to remain agnostic on that as well.  The first one we’ve released is on a Christie CP2000, but we expect all the vendors to be able to use our system.

RAY ZONE: Anything you can talk about what’s going to be opening there?

JK: You know, I tried this question with Joshua a few weeks ago in Vegas and couldn’t get anywhere.

ML: Yeah, they’ve threatened to take our families away and lock them up if we say anything [laughter].  What we can say is that there will be a lot of screens up by next Summer for Real D.  I think that there are films that will be playing on those screens.

RZ: Are you planning press screenings in advance to the first opening to the public?

ML: No, we’re strictly doing select screenings for different people – not only in the film industry, but on the exhibition side, and a few others.  And I think at some point in the near future, we’ll probably be announcing some films to play on that screen. 

JG: We’ve had virtually every studio and exhibitor here in this theater and they love it, they think it’s incredible.  But they want to see it on the 40-foot screen at the Chinese complex and I think that’s really the final test for us.  I’ve got no complaints about that.  I’ve been dying to see it on a screen that big. 

ML: We announced last week that we hired Joe Peixoto.  We’re very happy to have him onboard.  He’s a translator for us with the exhibition and film community because he really knows that area quite well.  He’s been a very big help to us.

JK: Your last press release said you have a goal of 1000 screens by next year.  Is that by next summer?

ML: That’s correct.

JK: Any idea on domestic versus international?

ML: I think it may be slightly weighted more on the international side.

JK: Which digital seems to be anyway.

ML: Yeah, but it’s hard to say at this point.

JG: We’re really now, with next week, kind of showing the final block system.  We expect to see a lot more orders for this system to really start coming in.  We really wanted to have this thing perfected and have people think like there’s really nothing else to do.  Check off your box and you’ll get the REAL D system. 

JK: So even with the 3D system, you can still play 2D presentations on the core projector and sever?

JG: It’s given that anytime we’re done, it reverts back to a DCI-compliant package. This has been one of the challenges of my development process, really trying to make sure that I fit comfortably within the existing restrictions that are applied, regarding security and file formats.  Now, we have to make this a ubiquitous standard.  We don’t want another sort of stepchild to cinema again.  We want this to be THE cinema experience.

ML: What we tell the exhibitors is that all you have to do for REAL D is hand out glasses.  You hand in your ticket and the glasses come in a little baggy.  They’re disposable.  That’s all you have to worry about.  The install is all our issue.  You don’t have to reconfigure the projector. 

JK: Do you handle the cost of the screen as well?

ML: Yeah, we do the entire upgrade process.  Going back to the screen, this is where people get confused.  You can use this screen for a 2D screening and studios have been in here with their golden eyes, shaking it down, making sure that’s the case. 

JG: I think what we’re really excited about is how enthusiastic the studios have really been.  Once we were able to get the key decision makers in, who actually saw it, I don’t think anybody was really expecting it would be at this level yet.  Frankly, for even what you saw at ShoWest, we feel that we’ve exceeded even that. The first thing I’m going to put on is a bit of a major Hollywood production.  This was taken directly from the digital master done for the film.  It was carved by file for the DCI.  These are 10-bit files all done in what should be close to an approximation of how studios will release digitally in the future.  We put it through our mastering process, and we brought in the filmmakers and the studio chiefs.  They were ecstatic when they saw it.

 IN PART 2: Reaction to the demonstration and more on the glasses.

 © 2005 Joseph L. Kleiman

THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED IN WHOLE OR IN PART WITHOUT THE EXPRESSED WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE OWNERS.

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