30 Days of 3D: DAY 21

**Due to unforseen circumstances, I am now a day behind on 30 Days of 3D.  Here is the post intended for yesterday.  Part 2 will run tomorrow.**

Here’s my challenge: how do I link a Grammy award-winning country music star to Avatar?  It’s much easier than it seems and it’s the link that tells one of the major stories in the history of modern 3D cinema.

The country music star goes by the name of Mark Knopfler.  He’s won three Grammys in the country music category for his collaborations with country legend Chet Atkins.

You may know Knopfler better from his band The Notting Hillbillies or from his film scores.  Most likely, you know him as the frontman for the rock band Dire Straits.

In 1985, Ian Pearsons and Gavin Blair first met while working on the first computer animated music video, Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing.  While working on this project, they came up with a concept for an animated world that existed in the mainframe of a computer.  This was the genesis of Mainframe Entertainment.

A decade later, Mainframe teamed with IMAX to produce a series of shorts for the IMAX Ridefilm simulator based on Mainframe’s animated computer world concept, now a CG animated series called Reboot.

At the same time, IMAX was in the early stages of work on T-REX, a docudrama mixing computer animated dinosaurs and live action background plates and actors.  In order to better understand the animation of CG in a stereoscopic format, IMAX’s 3D expert Hugh Murray began working with Mainframe on a proof of concept.  Using a scene from one of the Ridefilm shorts, Mainframe, with the assistance of Murray, went back into the computer and, as Murray related during his keynote at the 2006 Stereoscopic Displays and Applications Conference, “we decided to go back into the animation and set up the camera(s) to emulate the stereo parameters we’d choose if we were shooting a real scene with a real IMAX 3D camera.”

IMAX took an interest in Mainframe and would eventually invest in the company.  In the meantime, as related by Murray in his keynote:

“The Reboot test stimulated enough interest at both IMAX and Mainframe to want to produce a test with a more visually sophisticated piece. Mainframe was then in development on a project called The Sign of the Seahorse based on the children’s book of the same name by Graeme Base. A few scenes had been taken through to final lighting and we set about creating IMAX 3D versions of these. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this test, especially one scene set in an underwater cave with ‘Pearl’ a pink trout who was the heroine of the story. There are only two light sources, the glow fish accompanying Pearl and light filtering through from the cave entrance in the distance, the top and sides of the frame rolling off into darkness. Pearl turns briefly to the camera and then swims away towards the entrance. When screened in a full size IMAX 3D theatre, this frameless depth of field free space enveloped the audience and evoked
a remarkable sense of presence in this completely virtual world.”

T-REX was released in 1999, but further work needed to be done in order to prepare the world for full 3D animation.  The next step was Cyberworld, which although presented theatrically was also intended as a proof of concept film.  Cyberworld featured existing CG segments reformatted in 3D from a number of studios, including PDI and SONY.  Tying the segments together in a loose storyline was new CG animation incorporating IMAX’s SANDDE stereoscopic animation system.

One of the segments in Cyberworld came from the Dreamworks/PDI animated film ANTZ.  Segment producer Don MacBain took his team to an IMAX theater in Sacramento to watch T-REX in order to better understand the stereoscopic requirements for large format presentation.  They discovered that when enlarged to an IMAX screen, additional ants needed to be added to the segment to give a more appropriate sense of depth.

PDI, which had worked on two of the Cyberworld segments, was purchased by Dreamworks Animation.  Shortly after, IMAX and Dreamworks  announced that the followup to Cyberworld would be the original Shrek, then in production and scheduled for release in 2001.  MacBain also led the team on this project.  The concept would have the film opening six months after the conventional 2D 35mm release with enhanced animation exclusive to the IMAX 3D version.

The Shrek deal fell apart, a major factor being the bankruptcy of a number of IMAX’s commercial theater clients.  However, some of the work done on the IMAX 3D version of Shrek did make it into the Shrek 4D attraction which premiered at the Universal Studios theme parks.

It would not be until three years later that a feature-length animated Hollywood film would make it to the IMAX screen in 3D.  The film was The Polar Express, a combination of original animation and motion capture.  While one team was working on a 2D version of the film, a second team at Sony Imageworks, under the supervision of Hugh Murray, was working with the same computer models on a 3D version, with the stereoscopic parameters specifically defined for the visual specifications of the IMAX screen.

With an exclusivity on 3D for the theatrical release, Polar Express did record numbers in IMAX theaters.  The film, which opened on a Wednesday, grossed $3 million in only 59 IMAX theaters during its first five days.  That’s out of a total of $30.6 million on 3,650 screens.  In other words, IMAX theaters pulled in 10% of the box office on only 1.6% of the screens Polar Express was showing on.

The success of the IMAX 3D version of Polar Express created a small bump in the leasing and sale of new IMAX 3D systems, but it was not enough to meet IMAX’s plans in pushing further into the commercial market.  That would have to wait until a British artist with an inflatable man came along.

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